Nzinga Mbande began her political life as her nation of Ndongo (present-day Angola) was fighting off a Portuguese invasion. Her brother, a by-all-accounts wimp, seemingly could not bend over backwards far enough for the Portuguese, and once he ascended to the throne, the Portuguese just tossed him in jail and took over. Nzinga approached the Portuguese and demanded her brother’s return and that they leave Ndongo. At their meeting, in a sign of disrespect, the Portuguese offered her no chair to sit in, instead providing merely a floor mat fit for servants.
In response, Nzinga ordered one of her servants to get on all fours, sitting on her as she would a chair. After the negotiations concluded, according to some accounts (more on that later), she slit her throat in full view of everyone, and informed them that the Queen of Ndongo does not use the same chair twice. Shortly thereafter, the Portuguese agreed to let her brother go.
The Queen of Ndongo does not use the same chair twice.
Now, you may have noticed that I have repeatedly used words like “supposedly” and “according to some accounts.” As with many powerful historical women (as you’ll come to see as you read more of these entries), her story is a mixture of fact and fiction, with the two difficult to separate. That she met with the Portuguese and that she sat on her servant’s back is generally agreed by historians to be accurate. Furthermore, there is no doubt that she was a thorn in the side of the Portuguese, that she founded a new nation, or that she was a great leader.
Where it begins to fall to suspicion is in the more salacious rumors. While some report that she murdered her brother, others report that her brother committed suicide. Her slitting the servant girl’s neck and proclaiming her need for one-use chairs is likely hyperbole. Other outlandish rumors, to be taken with a brick of salt, include:
- After killing her brother’s family, she ate their hearts to absorb their courage.
- As a pre-battle ritual, she decapitated slaves and drank their blood.
- She maintained a 60-man-strong harem throughout her life — this one, best I can tell, is more regarded as true than most of the others.
- The men in her harem would fight each other to the death for the right to share her bed for the night. This one is more doubtful.
- She also apparently dressed some of them like women.
- Conversely, she staffed her army with a large number of women warriors.
Fact, fiction, self-promotion, or smear tactics, it is hard to tell.
After Nzinga pushed down the Portuguese for decades (both militarily and economically, cutting off their trade routes), they eventually threw their hands up and negotiated a peace treaty. She died several years afterwards, at the ripe old age of eighty-one. There are statues of her all over Angola to this day.
- Her outfit and axe are derived directly from one of the statues around Angola.
- The servant she used as a chair was female, not male.
- She’s wiping a bit of something red from her mouth as a reference to the blood-ingesting legends.