Nzinga Mbandi was born in the 1580s to the Ngola (king) of Ndongo kingdom. She had one brother and two sisters. As she was growing up, she saw the rising power of the Portuguese and the Atlantic slave trade.
In the 1620s, she went to the Portuguese to negotiate on behalf of her brother, the king, for the freedom of the Ndongo kingdom. However, after the negotiations, she was certain the Portuguese meant harm to her people, so she raised an army of warrior women to attack their outposts. Mbandi’s weapons were no match against the Portuguese and she lost.
Then, her brother and nephew both died - rumors spread that she had them both killed. Whether true or not, she inherited the throne, prompting the Portuguese to move against her. She allied with the Dutch - the nemesis of the Portuguese in Africa - and sent her men and women’s armies to fight. They lost, and she was driven out of her kingdom. The enemy placed a puppet king on the throne in her place.
Nzinga and her forces marched east and took over the kingdom of Matamba. Even though the Dutch placed Captain Fuller and sixty other men under her command, women still held more clout in her court. She would often dress as a man during ceremonial rituals with a sword in its sheath draped around her neck.
According to Captain Fuller’s observations, she was “a cunning and prudent Virago, so much addicted to arms that she hardly used other exercises; and withal so generously valiant that she never hurt a Portuguese after quarter given, and commanded all her slaves and soldiers alike.”
Over time, Nzinga’s actions disrupted the Portuguese slave trade, so they gathered troops to move against her again. They left Luanda open, which the Dutch took in 1641. Nzinga moved her base to the Dande River so she may ship her prisoners of war to Dutch Luanda easier. Also at the Dande River, she could launch campaigns against the puppet king who took her throne.
She and her women army won battles against the Portuguese in 1643, 1647, and 1648. However, in a later battle Nzinga’s sister was captured. Nzinga negotiated with the Portuguese and made peace with them in 1656.
She died at the age of 81. Her body was on public display, dressed in Ngola robes, with her bow in one hand and arrows in the other. Then, as per her request, she was buried dressed as a Catholic nun with a rosary and a crucifix.