Ngola Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba pt. 2: Gender, Performance, and Power in the Atlantic World

Though she now knew the Portuguese to be her enemies, Njinga was shrewd enough to understand that Europeans and their perception of her were as important to her hold on the throne as Mbundu perceptions.

She was always aware of the fact–in the eyes of both the Europeans and the Mbundu–that her power was undermined by her gender. To offset these attitudes, Njinga refused to be addressed as queen, answering only to the title of king. She required her male consorts to present themselves as women, and she trained her ladies-in-waiting as warriors.

This subversion of gender norms did not extend to her wardrobe. Though she understood that some presentation of maleness would help to secure her rule, she also realized that she had to present herself to the Europeans in a manner with which they were comfortable in order to gain their respect. Thus, she often dressed in the high style of Baroque Europe, employing a team of seamstresses to keep her wardrobe in-line with European fashions. She was fluent in spoken and written Portuguese, and wore a crown similar to those worn by European monarchs.

As she constructed a self which would appear worthy of respect to both the Europeans and the Mbundu, she also constructed an army. This army was composed of fugitive slaves, marginalized members of court, and the Imbangala mercenary groups who had once spread terror throughout Ndongo. With her army, Njinga began her campaign against the Portuguese, making particular use of guerrilla tactics. Her training of her ladies-in-waiting was not simply for show: Njinga often personally led battles and raids against the Portuguese.

Statue of Njinga standing in Kinaxixi Square in Luanda, the Angolan capital; photo courtesy of Erik Cleves Kristensen on flickr

After claiming the city of Kavanga as her new capital, Njinga quickly established a base for slave trade in order to strengthen her economy and used the city as a center from which to conduct her operations against the Portuguese. In 1631, she integrated Matamba into her lands. There, she resettled thousands of people who had fled from the Portuguese. With the Matamba territory under her rule, and with thousands of subjects behind her, Njinga began to expand into Portuguese held Ndongo.

Her victories against the Portuguese continued as the years went on, and it seemed as though she had a permanent victory when the Dutch occupied the former Portuguese island of Luanda. The Dutch supported Njinga’s campaign because they needed access to the slave market in order to support their own colonies.

However, her luck ran out in 1648 when the Portuguese expelled the Dutch and re-asserted their authority over the land they now called “Angola.” Njinga returned to Christianity in an attempt to placate the Portuguese, and in 1656 she signed a treaty allowing Portuguese missionaries, traders, and government officials to reside in her capital. She had hoped that, with these people in her power, she would be able to control Portuguese military operations against her.

Njinga shielded the interior of Southern Africa from the full brunt of the Portuguese for almost 40 years. She remained active and vigorous—even remarrying in 1658—until her death in 1663 at the age of 81. She single-handedly altered Mbundu attitudes towards female rulers, leading to the rule of several queens after her death, albeit queens who were the puppets of Portuguese governors and missionaries.

She was a brilliant ruler who defied and continues to defy the simplistic labels of “hero,” “liberator,” and “traitor,” like so many of the powerful women navigating the fraught waters of the Atlantic World.

Ngola Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba pt. 1: Confronting the Portuguese Empire

Some terminology before I begin: The Ngola ruled over Ndongo where the Mbundu people resided. Later, as a result of war with Portuguese invaders, the ruler of Ndongo came to rule over Matamba as well; however, the culture remained that of the Mbundu people. To the Portuguese, these lands were called Angola.

Queen Njinga (also known/spelled as: Nzinga, Dona Ana de Souza, Ana de Souza, Zhinga, N’Zhinga, Jinga, and Ngola Ana Nzinga Mbande) of Ndongo and Matamba was born in 1582 and died in 1663. In Portuguese historiography, she is alternatively remembered as a hero, a collaborator, a heretic, and an enemy; in Southern African historiography (particularly within the Angolan Liberation Movement), she is remembered as a hero and a liberator who shielded the interior of the West Coast of Southern Africa from Portuguese penetration for decades.

Portrait of Queen Njinga (clearly side-eyeing the Portuguese); source unknown.

Njinga was born to the Ngola Kiluanji and his consort Kangela in 1583, 168 years after the Portuguese first arrived in the region. The West Coast and interior of Southern Africa would become the base from which Portugal would launch their overseas empire, to be supported by the labor of the human capital wrested from the continent’s interior.

By the late sixteenth century—around the time of Njinga’s birth—the Portuguese had occupied the island of Luanda, establishing it as a slave post and using it as staging grounds for their religious and political incursions into Ndongo land. This threatened Ndongo sovereignty, and disrupted the economy as their movements threatened the Ndongo monopoly on trade and slave routes. In the course of these invasions, the Portuguese heard the word “Ngola” and mistook it as the name of the land, rather than the title of the ruler. They thus called the land by the name “Angola.”

Tradition holds that Njinga was born against this backdrop of Portuguese incursion with the umbilical cord still wrapped around her neck. This was taken as a sign that this daughter would grow into a proud and haughty woman. In deference to this omen, she was named Njinga after the Kimbundu verb “kujinga” meaning “to twist or turn.” These traits—viewed as negative ones in a woman—would serve Njinga well later in her life.

Though she recalls that she was her father’s favorite child, this favoritism altered neither the succession nor the cultural attitudes which kept women from the throne. In 1617, Njinga’s half-brother Mbande ascended the throne and immediately had all of his rivals (including Njinga’s son) assassinated. However, he overlooked the most dangerous of these rivals: Njinga herself.

Njinga viewed herself as far more of a capable ruler than her brother, and as far more worthy of the throne. She recognized that she would need Portuguese support if she were to claim the throne for herself. Thus, she planned an ambassadorial visit to Luanda.

The official reason for this trip was to form a treaty with the Portuguese governor aimed at having a Portuguese fortress removed from Ndongo land, to have the Portuguese return certain individuals they had seized from Ndongo territory, and to force the Imbangala mercenary group to cease their constant raids into Ndongo land. She also showed the Portuguese goodwill by agreeing to allow Portuguese slavers and missionaries into Ndongo territory. Njinga’s efforts were successful, the only remaining point of disagreement being over whether or not Ndongo would accept the status of vassal.

However, her primary motivation for this meeting was to show the Portuguese governor, João Correia de Souza, that she would be a strong, dependable queen. To further push this agenda, she allowed herself to baptized. She took the Christian name Ana, and assumed the governor’s surname: de Souza. It was clear that at least, in the time of her meeting with de Souza, Njinga held the high ground.

Of this, a famous story emerged: de Souza neglected to offer Njinga a chair when she arrived to their meeting. This deliberate action was intended to show Njinga that she was subordinate to the power represented by the governor. Understanding this and refusing to partake in de Souza’s charade, Njinga ordered one of her servants to get down on all fours. She conducted the meeting seated on the back of her servant, cementing her refusal to be perceived as anything but the governor’s equal.

“Queen Njinga of Ndongo Presented to the Portuguese Governor” engraving by Fortunato da Alemandini after a 1687 water color by Giovanni Cavazzi

However, once Njinga had returned to Ndongo, it became clear that the Portuguese did not intend to honor the treaty. They did not remove the fortress, return the individuals, or restrain the Imbangala. In 1624, Njinga’s brother, the Ngola Mbande, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. Some believe that it was murder, and others that it was suicide caused by his continued loss of power to the Portuguese. Regardless of the truth of the matter, many believed that Njinga was responsible.

After his death, Nijnga assumed power as regent over Mbande’s son. Though she was technically a regent, both the Portuguese and the Mbundu understood that she had declared herself queen in all but name.

As previously noted, the idea of a female ruler violated Mbundu cultural norms. But it went deeper than that. In Mbundu political theory, legitimate rulers could only be descended from the previous ruler. The claim of a ruler’s sibling—assuming that that sibling had been born to the same parent as the ruler—was shaky at best. Njinga’s claim to the throne, as Ngola Mbande’s half sister by a consort of his father, was illegitimate in the minds of the Mbundu people. Her chief support was among those involved in matters of state—the general Mbundu people most likely did not accept her as queen.

And neither did Portugal. In fact, the Portuguese intentionally spread rumors claiming that Njinga had murdered her brother in order to further de-legitimize her rule. The Portuguese then went even further and selected a rival claimant to the throne. This person had lineage which met Portuguese approval, and had demonstrated that they would prove amenable to Portuguese colonial interests.

In response to this betrayal, Njinga renounced her Christianity, ceased to pretend that she was simply acting in the stead of her nephew, and formally asserted herself as queen.

White Nonsense Historiography

I think it’s time for us to talk about the effects of white guilt on historical revisionism, especially within the USA. The following sentiments need to gtfo of ~National Dialogue~

The blacks sold each other into slavery before the whites came along, so the white people were just as bad as the Africans.

-Black people in America had slaves too, so I don’t get why we’re demonizing white people.

-The Indians screwed each other over and worked with the Europeans, so the white people weren’t that bad.

These sentiments are horribly offensive, deeply ignorant, erase the identities of millions of people, and post-humously deprive people of their agency.

First of all, “Africa” is not and never has been a nationality. It is a continent filled with a multitude of ethnicities and nationalities. Before the Europeans came along, the power structure in Africa was driven by wealth and ethnicity. When these African nations went to war with each other, they did take prisoners of war, and those prisoners of war were sold into slavery. However, to identify this as “blacks oppressing other blacks” or “Africans oppressing other Africans,” is to view pre-European Africa through a colonialist lens. Those people were the Bantu, the Yoruba, the Igbo; they weren’t just people in a continent you don’t understand.

The block/white construct of race was not even developed until Europeans arrived in Africa in the late 1400s, and even then, the white=superior, black=inferior dichotomy took over 100 years to develop. Which leads me to the second point.

The development of the construct of race in the New World isn’t as simple as it is made out to be. When Europeans first landed in Africa, an entirely new culture developed from the interaction between the European and African populations. This culture was that of the Creoles: a society whose culture combined elements of both African cultural attributes and European cultural attributes to create a third, entirely new culture. This culture saw itself as neither African nor European, and in fact, to have identified a Creole person as an African or a European would have been deeply offensive to them.

Members of the Creole culture settled in parts of the New World, and owned slaves from Africa. The New World Creole population was highly affluent, and affluent people held slaves regardless of skin color; wealth ruled the hierarchy of the Atlantic World.

However, as time went on and the racial construct solidified, the Creole population, though they had never been slaves, were slowly deprived of their agency, and often found themselves being forced into slavery by virtue of their darker skin. To identify the Creole slaveholders as “blacks owning slaves” is to demonstrate a total lack of comprehension of the realities and identities of the early Atlantic World, and the history of the construction of race.

As to the final point, the peoples inhabiting North America before the Europeans showed up were hardly a cohesive group of people with one language and culture and mode of dress. North America was populated by a huge variety of nations with their own cultures, languages, ethnic identifications, gender roles, and worship practices. You know, just like Europe. And Africa. And the Near East. And literally any large piece of land with multiple functioning polities.

Between those North American nations there were alliances and rivalries and enmities. When the Europeans arrived, some nations saw them as a key to thwarting their enemies; some didn’t.

To imply that the foreign policy decisions of a few nations, while, of course, labeling the decision-makers as simply “The Indians” is to blame Native populations for their own destruction, and let European Americans off the hook for ethnic cleansing. I don’t think you need me to tell you why that is disgusting and offensive.

The United States of America was built on the backs of African slaves and the native populations of North America; not to mention the young, poor, and mostly Irish indentured servants the colonists went through like tissues before slavery became normalized.

The perpetuation of these harmful narratives further marginalizes and erases non-dominant populations. It’s lazy, harmful, ignorant, offensive and like, generally, not a good look.

The Bust of Nefertiti, Germany, and Egypt

Nefertiti was the wife of the controversial 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaton, also known as Amenhotep IV. Akhenaten and Nefertiti lived during the thirteenth century BCE, and were responsible for the move of the Egyptian capital from Thebes to Amarna. The site of Amarna was excavated by Ludwig Borchardt of the German Oriental Institute from 1912 to 1914.

The Bust of Nefertiti

On December 6, 1912, the artifact known as the Bust of Nefertiti was excavated. It is 3300 years old, and it is a highly prized, if not unique piece because, unlike the majority of Egyptian sculpture, the Bust contains facial detailing.* After finding the Bust in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose, Borchardt wrote in his diary that “Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it.”

In 1913 Borchardt met with Egyptian officials to discuss the division of the artifacts unearthed in the Amarna dig. What took place in this meeting was not recorded until 1924. The secretary of the German Oriental Institute who had taken it upon himself to record it wrote that Borchardt had concealed the value of the Bust from Egyptian officials in order to “save the bust for us.”

He reported that Borchardt had shown the officials misleading photographs of the piece, and had given them inaccurate information about the material used to create the piece.

Following the meeting, the Bust was shipped to Germany, and entered into the custody of James Simon, the sponsor of the excavation. Simon donated it to the Berlin Museum in 1920, and it was put on display to the public in 1924. Upon its 1924 unveiling, Egyptian officials immediately demanded that the artifact be returned. In 1925, Egypt threatened to ban German excavations unless it was returned.

In 1933, Hermann Goring considered returning the Bust to King Farouk Fouad of Egypt, but Hitler opposed the idea, saying he would “never relinquish the head of the Queen.” The Bust remained on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin until the museum closed in 1939 at the onset of the World War II. At that point, all Berlin museums were emptied, and artifacts were moved to secure areas for safekeeping. The Bust was moved around to multiple safe locations over the course of that war, and it was taken into custody by American troops in March of 1945.

The United States—which had had the Bust in display at the U.S. Central Collecting Point in Wiesbaden beginning in 1946—returned the Bust to West Berlin in 1956, at which point it was put on display at the Dahlem Museum. East Germany was unhappy with the move; they’d wanted the Bust returned to the Neues Museum, which had been badly damaged by an Allied bombing in 1943.

During the 1950’s, Egypt had attempted to re-open negotiations, but Germany was unresponsive and the United States simply told them to take it up with the German authorities.

The Bust was moved around several times after this. In 1967 it was moved to the Egyptian Museum in Charlottenburg, in 2005 it was moved to the Altes Museum, and it was moved back to the Neues Museum upon its 2009 reopening.

Zahi Hawass, the former The Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, spent a great deal of the 21st century working to have the artifact returned to Egypt. He held that the Bust had been illegally removed from the country, and in 2005 he asked UNESCO to intervene. In 2007 he threatened to ban exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts in Germany if they would not lend the Bust to Egypt. He also called for a worldwide boycott on loans to German museums.

Within Germany, cultural groups and a fair few academics believe that the Bust should be returned to Egypt. In 2007, an organization called CulturCooperation based out of Hamburg handed out postcards depicting the Bust with the words “Return to Sender” written on them. They also wrote an open letter to the German Culture Minister, Bernd Neumann, regarding the Bust. Other groups within Germany hold that the Bust has become a definitive part of German culture, while German art experts refute the claims that the Bust was illegally removed from Egypt.

In the midst of these debates, German conservation experts raised the concern that the Bust is simply too fragile to survive a move to Egypt. Dietrich Wildung, head of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, stated that “the structure of Nefertiti’s material, plaster over limestone, is very sensitive.” If the Bust were to be returned to Egypt, it is possible that it would not survive the journey.

*Facial and other such detailing may be found on the majority of the art produced during the Amarna period.

The Rosetta Stone: Contested Key to Hieroglyphic Translation

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is an Ptolemaic-era Egyptian artifact which provided the key to a modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is inscribed with a decree issued by King Ptolemy V in 196 BCE, with the decree is inscribed in three Hieroglyphs, Demotic script (a post-Late Egyptian, pre-Greek language spoken in Egypt beginning in 650 BCE), and Ancient Greek. The same text is presented in all three languages, thus scholars were able to decipher the Hieroglyph text through their knowledge of Ancient Greek.

close-up of panels inscribed in each of the three languages

As time went on, the stele, which was probably a fairly ordinary one at the time of its issue, eventually ended up in use as a building material in the construction of Fort Julien on the Nile River Delta. A French soldier found the stele in 1799, and recognized its value to Western scholarship. As it was not being used in any academic or official propensity, he took it.

Word spread quite rapidly of this find, and lithographic copies and plaster casts of the stele began to circulate around the European scholarly community.

However, as this was taking place to the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, in 1801, British troops attacked and defeated the French troops stationed in Egypt. The British took the Rosetta Stone from the French in a move sanctioned by the Treaty of Alexandria, and its subsequent removal from Egyptian soil was approved by the Ottoman government. It has been on display at the British Museum since 1802.

In July of 2003, Egypt made its first request for the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone.

Hannah Szenes: Just a Jewish Girl, Parachuting into Occupied Yugoslavia

One – two – three… eight feet long/Two strides across, the rest is dark/Life is a fleeting question mark/One – two – three… maybe another week/Or the next month may still find me here/But death, I feel is very near/I could have been 23 next July/I gambled on what mattered most, the dice were cast. I lost.

Hannah Szenes (1921-1944) was born into an assimilated, secular Hungarian Jewish family in 1921. Like many of her secular peers at the time, she responded to the ever-growing anti-Semitism surrounding her by fully embracing her Jewish identity; where Judaism had once been something she was persecuted for, it became something from which she derived strength, hope, and the conviction to fight back. After finishing high school, she spent some time in the British Mandate of Palestine where she furthered her education, and in 1943, she relocated to Egypt to train as a paratrooper for the British Special Operations Executive and put her conviction to fight back into action.

In March of 1944, she and two other parachutists entered Yugoslavia on a mission to rescue Jewish prisoners who were soon to be deported to Auschwitz, and to aid the Yugoslav Partisans, a Communist anti-Fascist resistance movement. However, upon learning that Hitler had taken Hungary, her two male colleagues decided that their mission had become too dangerous, and called it off. Hannah, however, refused to turn back and continued on to the Hungarian border. Unfortunately, she was detained and arrested by Hungarian police forces shortly after her arrival.

And this is where things rapidly took a downhill turn for Hannah. The Hungarian police found the transmitter she used to keep in contact with her colleagues and the Partisans. She refused to tell them the transmitter code, so they took her to prison and tortured her for three days. She remained firm, and refused to give them the code, even when they bought her mother into the prison and threatened to torture her as well.

Even at this bleak point, Hannah did not stop resisting. Instead of acting the part of an injured, doomed prisoner, she remained cheerful and defiant. She used mirrors to communicate with her fellow prisoners—Jewish and otherwise—in other cells, and communicated with other Jewish prisoners by placing large cut-out Hebrew letters in the window of her cell. She did her best to keep everyone’s spirits high through song, and remained full of hope until the last day of her life.

On October 28, 1944, she was put in trial for treason. On November 7, 1944 she was executed by a German firing squad. After the Cold War, she was officially exonerated in a Hungarian military court.