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In 1660, three years before her death, Queen Njinga Mabande of Angola, who by then was referring to herself in official correspondence as “Queen Dona Ana”, held a public discourse defending her decision to destroy a reliquary that held the remains of her brother, who had ruled before her. The misete was an important symbol of her Mbundu ancestral beliefs, but in Rome’s opinion it was preventing her from demonstrating her full conversion to Christianity. After a fiery debate among local leaders, Njinga took the misete to the newly constructed church, knelt in front of the crucifix, and surrendered it to the presiding priest. It was melted down and made into a lamp for the church. This physical transmutation of a power object precipitated a kingdom-wide campaign on the part of Njinga and her Capuchin advisers to purge the kingdom of all traces of non-Christian practices.

Linda M. Heywood has written a complete and focused account of Queen Njinga, placing her conversion to Christianity in context with an earlier and similarly strategic adoption of the customs of the Imbangala. In Njinga of Angola: Africa’s warrior queen, Professor Heywood presents both conversions as complex personally and politically, but ultimately concludes that both were designed to defend against Portuguese attacks on the autonomy of her joint kingdom of Matamba and Ndongo.

Njinga of Angola seamlessly knits ...

In 1660, three years before her death, Queen Njinga Mabande of Angola, who by then was referring to herself in official correspondence as “Queen Dona Ana”, held a public discourse defending her decision to destroy a reliquary that held the remains of her brother, who had ruled before her. The misete was an important symbol of her Mbundu ancestral beliefs, but in Rome’s opinion it was preventing her from demonstrating her full conversion to Christianity. After a fiery debate among local leaders, Njinga took the misete to the newly constructed church, knelt in front of the crucifix, and surrendered it to the presiding priest. It was melted down and made into a lamp for the church. This physical transmutation of a power object precipitated a kingdom-wide campaign on the part of Njinga and her Capuchin advisers to purge the kingdom of all traces of non-Christian practices.

Linda M. Heywood has written a complete and focused account of Queen Njinga, placing her conversion to Christianity in context with an earlier and similarly strategic adoption of the customs of the Imbangala. In Njinga of Angola: Africa’s warrior queen, Professor Heywood presents both conversions as complex personally and politically, but ultimately concludes that both were designed to defend against Portuguese attacks on the autonomy of her joint kingdom of Matamba and Ndongo.

Njinga of Angola seamlessly knits together the complete set of sources on the Queen, which include missionary accounts, letters, colonial records, previous histories of Angola and Dutch West India Company records. Njinga has appealed to writers of all stripes since her death, including missionaries sent to Angola, the Marquis de Sade, G. W. F. Hegel and, more recently, Angola’s ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola. Heywood has cleared away the noise of these mostly fantastical accounts and assembled as straight a biography as is possible. Indeed, Njinga of Angola, which took nine years of research, sets out to replace interpretation and sensationalism with facts.

Factuality is not clearly established in the main sources, however. The Angolan historian Beatrix Heintze wrote about relying on second-hand accounts and the “shifting semantic field of certain terms” between oral and written history for the interior kingdoms. To answer such historiographical challenges, Heywood emphasizes Njinga’s words through the many letters she wrote, as well as government and company records. Nevertheless, most of what we know about Njinga comes from two missionary accounts: Antonio da Gaeta’s La maravigliosa converione alla santa fede di Cristo della Regina Singa (1669) and Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi’s Istorica descrizione de’ tre’ regni Congo, Matamba et Angola (1687). From Cavazzi, for example, we learn about an Imbangala war ritual in which an infant is killed and pulverized with a mortar, and the liquid spread over the body in preparation for battle. Heywood provides a footnote that reads, “Cavazzi, who provides the full story of [the Imbangala practice], may have embellished the story for his seventeenth-century readers”. Several paragraphs later, when Heywood tells us that Njinga performed the same act in order to take on the persona of a warrior, she only provides the footnote to the Cavazzi source. Given the history of this particular story’s use in pro-imperialist propaganda, some comment on its veracity within the main text might have been useful, even at the risk of interrupting the narrative. On the other hand, the account is in a chapter that argues Njinga modelled herself on a female Imbangala figurehead, using actions meant to strike fear into the enemy: “It was immaterial to Njinga whether the reputation of the formidable ancestress Tembo a Ndumbo was based on actual historical facts or had been embellished to provide a foundational story for the Imbangalas”.

Angola celebrated the 350th anniversary of Njinga’s death in 2013, and there are calls for a more robust “usable past” by members of the Black Lives Matter and Fees Must Fall movements. One of the most intriguing aspects of Njinga is her cunning manipulation of gender norms and roles: marrying a man but making him dress in female clothing, supposedly keeping both male and female concubines, and choosing carefully what ceremonial clothing and jewellery to wear at each phase of her career. Heywood preserves all of the complexity of Njinga and her politics in a book that provides the most complete and foundational history of Queen Njinga.

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