Book Reviews

January 2018: Review by Jared Ross Hardesty in the Journal of Jesuit Studies 5

“Biographies of early modern queens abound. Women like Elizabeth i, Cath- erine the Great, and Isabella of Spain have been the subject of countless books. Yet, this biographical tradition, focusing on powerful women as politicians, diplomats, and cultural arbiters does not extend beyond Europe, despite the existence of female leaders and warriors across the globe between 1500 and 1800. Linda M. Heywood, Professor of African American Studies and History at Boston University, aims to expand and transcend this tradition by writing the first full-length biography of Njinga (1583–1663), the queen of the central Afri- can kingdom of Ndongo-Matamba. Njinga, like other early modern monarchs, played an important role in the process of state formation. Unlike European queens, however, Njinga was not a promoter of colonization, but rather resist- ed it, waging a forty-year guerilla war against Portuguese attempts to conquer Angola.

Heywood’s biography of Njinga is a gripping account of a queen and the world she shaped. Although organized as a chronological narrative, the author does pay attention to “themes of power, leadership, gender, and spirituality” (3). It is also part of a burgeoning literature on West Central Africa and its con- nections to the Atlantic world between 1480 and 1850. Much of this scholarship focuses on the diasporic dimensions of this area and the millions of captives sent to the Americas. By focusing on Njinga, Heywood helps us better under- stand how and why the Portuguese trafficked so many Angolans into slavery. Njinga’s life also demonstrates that Africans were not just hapless victims of European colonization, but actively resisted incursion, enslavement, and displacement.

The book opens with background on the formation of the kingdom of Ndongo, its relationships with its neighbors, and the Portuguese attempts to colonize Angola. Born into this context, Njinga grew up in a kingdom under constant assault by the Portuguese. Around the age of forty, Njinga emerged as Ndongo’s chief diplomat, serving under her brother, the erstwhile king. During a huge summit held in Luanda, the Portuguese colonial capital, in 1622, Njinga proved herself an adept politician. She also received baptism as a token of her willingness to negotiate, beginning a fraught relationship with the Catholic Church.

When her brother died in 1626, Njinga took charge. For the next thirty years, rarely a year would go by without conflict. Eventually, the Portuguese drove Njinga away from her kingdom, where in exile, she became a member of the Imbangala. A violent, warrior belief system that worshipped death, mayhem, and war, being Imbangala allowed Njinga to attract large numbers of followers and conquered entire kingdoms, such as Matamba. To thwart the Portuguese, Njinga also allied with the Dutch when they captured Luanda in the 1640s. By the middle of 1650s, however, the war had begun to take its toll, as much of the population had been displaced or sold away. Looking for a way to bring both peace and to protect her kingdom’s sovereignty, Njinga embraced Catholicism, inviting Capuchin missionaries into her lands. She hoped that Rome would recognize Ndongo-Matamba as a Christian kingdom and thus prevent further Portuguese attacks.

To reconstruct this fascinating life, Heywood draws from a wide variety of sources. Most important is Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi de Montecuccolo’s Mis- sione evangelica nel Regno di Congo. Cavazzi, an Italian Capuchin priest, lived with Njinga during the final years of her life, served as her confessor, and record- ed her biography and the history of Angola. In addition to Cavazzi, Heywood uses Portuguese colonial documents from both Lisbon and Angola and records of the Dutch West India Company. These provide insight into how Europeans regarded Njinga, often believing she was a powerful, respected ruler and fierce warrior. Finally, the author examines the accounts of the Jesuit priests, such as those of Fathers Baltasar Barreira, Diogo da Costa, and Pero Rodrigues who travelled with the Portuguese. These documents provide keen insight into the cultural and political worlds of the Mbundu, Njinga’s ethnic group.

As these Jesuit accounts suggest, readers of this journal will be particularly interested in this biography. Heywood reminds us that the “Jesuits […] played a central role as the religious arm of the Portuguese conquest of Angola” (168). They were one of the main beneficiaries of this colonial endeavor, yielding not only souls, but also tracts of land and slaves. Heywood also offers a different perspective of the Jesuits. Given their extensive writings about the Americas, Asia, and Africa, they usually control the narrative. By reading these docu- ments across the grain, however, Heywood shows the Jesuits in a less glorious light. Their relationship to the colonial state and the assistance they provided in defeating Ndongo was why Njinga demanded Capuchin missionaries when she decided to create a Christian kingdom.

Overall this is a compelling biography, but there are two issues. First, the author does not always interrogate the sources. The book is, in many ways, a catalog of atrocities including massacres, infanticide, and cannibalism. Many of these acts could be attributed to Njinga herself. While she was a member of the Imbangala for decades, it is still important to remember that accounts of these horrors come from European sources. It behooved priests, soldiers, and colonial administrators to present Njinga as evil. To leave these biases unad- dressed, as the author does in many places, could leave readers to believe that Njinga was as tyrannical as Europeans portrayed her. Second, following the introduction and first chapter that sets the context, the biography is hyper- focused on Njinga. While that makes sense in some ways, it excludes important background, such as the unification of Spain and Portugal (1580–1640), which affected the course of Njinga’s reign. Likewise, readers never learn the fate of Ndongo-Matamba following Njinga’s death.

These are minor criticisms, however. Njinga’s life is fascinating and Heywood narrates it in a well-paced and enthralling manner. For that reason and given its moderate length, this book would be perfect for assigning to undergraduates or for non-specialist readers. Perhaps, most importantly, Heywood decisively demonstrates that Njinga belongs in the pantheon of powerful early-modern queens.”

9 June 2017: Review by Delinda J. Collier in The Times Literary Supplement

“… 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.”

19 May 2017: Review by David Gelber in The Literary Review

“Half a dozen years after the death of Queen Njinga of Ndongo in 1663, a Capuchin priest called Antonio da Gaeta published an admiring biography in which he ranked this ‘highly noble lady’ alongside Minerva, Cleopatra and St Apollonia in the pantheon of female renown. The tale da Gaeta narrated was a Pauline paradigm, involving the transformation of a pagan idolater – a practitioner of human sacrifice and cannibalism – into a devout Christian. The following century, the Marquis de Sade, more impressed by the heathen customs Njinga had renounced than the Christian piety she latterly discovered, characterised her as the ‘cruelest of women’, a queen who ‘killed her lovers as soon as they had their way with her’ and ‘to flatter her ferocious spirit … had every pregnant woman under the age of thirty ground in a mortar’. The contrasting portrayals of Njinga have persisted until modern times. In 20th-century Portugal, she was typecast as a ‘black savage’, the antithesis of the ‘civilised’ white colonists who had occupied her land. In contemporary Angola, the successor state to Ndongo, she is celebrated as an anti-imperialist freedom fighter and commemorated by a colossal statue in the centre of Luanda.”

10 May 2017: Review by Liz Bourke

“I want to write more about this biography of a 17th-century African queen who just did not quit and seems to have been immensely astute as a war-leader, as a diplomat, and as a politician overall (except possibly in arranging the inheritance of her kingdom, but one cannot blame someone for not keeping things in order after they’re dead). But in brief, it is a fascinating examination of a woman who the Portuguese colonisers saw as a “devil queen,” and of her context.”

16 Mar 2017: Review by Ana Lucia Araujo, author of Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History

“This book is the first scholarly biography of Queen Njinga (1582-1663), of one of the most controversial female figures in the history of Africa and the Atlantic world.  Anybody who had the opportunity to listen Heywood in conferences over the last years know that she has been working on this project for several years, if not more than a decade.”

12 Mar 2017: Review by Dr Barry Clayton, TOP 500 REVIEWER

A Queen Who Desired To Be King (5.0/5.0) 

“Over the centuries the reputation of Njinga has been very mixed. Sade said she was the cruelist of women. Others said she was a noble lady. In Portugal in the twentieth-century she was typecast as a savage. Today, in Angola, the successor state to Ndongo, she is celebrated as an anti-imperialist freedom fighter. Heywood’s biography is an attempt to give a balanced picture of a very fascinating woman.

Njinga died 350 years ago. During her life she challenged religious, gender and nationhood boundaries with immense courage. She never flinched from resisting Portuguese imperialism, yet in the end she betrayed her culture and subjects in order to survive.

Born into the Royal dynasty in 1582, she entered a world where the Portuguese had arrived some 20 years before. Relations between the native Mbundu and the Portuguese were deteriorating as a result of the latter seeking slaves to work in their Brazilian plantations. Heywood gives us a fascinating and detailed account of local practices such as polygamy, and politics. The latter was riddled with poisonings and murder. Njinga murdered a rival’s young son and threw his body into the river.

In 1622, she had been sent to Luanda to negotiate a peace treaty with the Portuguese governor. She agreed to be baptised and be given the Christian name Ana but she refused to send an annual tribute of slaves to Luanda. In 1624, she rose to power and reigned for 39 years. Shortly after becoming monarch she started to encourage slaves to rebel. This led to war two years later. By 1629 things were going so badly she agreed to become the wife of the leader of a band of warriors.

Over the next ten years she began to act like a man, leading her forces into battle on several occasions. She adopted the title of King. In 1631 her forces conquered Maramba a nearby Kingdom and this was used as a base for guerrilla operations. Heywood explains how this eventually took on global dimensions. In 1641, she forged an alliance with the Dutch who occupied Luanda. Her sister was murdered, and in 1648 the Dutch were expelled. This led to her seeking peace with the Portuguese.

The peace negotiations are described in detail. In 1556 she renounced Mbundu customs and readopted Christianity. In return she was recognised as Queen of Ndongo. Her marriage was sealed in a Christian ceremony and letters were exchanged with Pope Alexander V111. Human sacrifice was banned and local religious icons were destroyed.

This is a very remarkable book and story. It is one of the most stimulating biographies I have read.”

Review by Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me

“Queen Njinga of Angola has long been among the many heroes whom black diasporians have used to construct a pantheon and a usable past. Linda Heywood gives us a different Njinga–one brimming with all the qualities that made her the stuff of legend but also full of all the interests and inclinations that made her human. A thorough, serious, and long overdue study of a fascinating ruler, Njinga of Angola is an essential addition to the study of the black Atlantic world.”

Other Recent Reviews

20 March 2017: Reviewed in New Yorker magazine’s “Briefly Noted” column.

14 Mar 2017:  “the author humanises Njinga, turning her into a sympathetic figure… A great book for any history buff” – Library Journal.

9 Mar 2017: “…a detailed and engaging study with walk on parts for Vatican plotters, Dutch traders and Brazilian slavers…”- Times Higher Education Supplement

2 Mar 2017: “…Heywood’s book defies simple categorisation, mixing anthropology, gender studies and history…” David Gelber in Literary Review.