Women’s History: Two Amazing African Queens You Should Know

For as long as there has been human history, women have been making it. This March, HAI wishes to share with you a few stories of exemplary women who changed their worlds. 

Stereotypically, politics and power has been a traditionally male domain. But regardless, many magnificent women have earned their way into the greatest bastions of power. Some of those women are well known: Hatshepsut, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great. But today I would like to briefly present two women you may not be as familiar with, but whose stories are well worth remembering. 

Idia, Queen Mother of Benin 

In January 1977, Nigeria hosted the second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. The event, which quickly became “the stuff of legend”, being attended by “thousands from across Africa and the Diaspora.” Many of the African countries represented had only achieved independence from European powers within a single human lifetime, and the United States delegates had seen the signing of the Civil Rights Act less than ten years previously. But the Festival, abbreviated FESTAC, was a chance to “affirm and elevate” black art, people, and culture. And the official emblem of the event was a miniature ivory mask showing the face of one of Nigeria’s most remarkable queens.

We do not have exact dates for Idia’s life, but her son Esigie became Oba (king) in 1504, and by that time was a full-grown adult, meaning she was likely alive between 1440 and 1470. Traditionally, the mother of a reigning king was put to death, but Esigie instead elevated her to “a unique position in society”, giving her a palace and vassal chiefs and villages, and creating for her the title of iyoba (Queen Mother, literally “mother of the oba”). During her son’s reign, Idia served as a priestess and senior chief, doing all she could to ensure the success of her son’s reign. In oral tradition, she is remembered as “the only woman who went to war”, fighting in her son’s campaigns against the Benin’s enemies to the north, as well as a patron of the arts and culture.

Such was Idia’s influence that she permanently changed the role of the Queen Mother in Benin custom. Before Idia, Queen Mothers were seen as a “threat to the future Oba and throne.” After Idia, Queen Mothers were “viewed as instrumental to the protection of and well-being of the oba and, by extension, the kingdom.” Idia’s ivory mask was likely carved by order of her son, and, if he established the tradition followed by his successors, wore it at official ceremonies for spiritual protection.

Unfortunately, Idia’s ivory mask is not in Nigeria. Of the two known copies, one is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, and the other is in the British Museum in London. As repatriation of cultural patrimony gains traction, perhaps someday the Benin’s first Queen Mother will be allowed her triumphal return home. 

Njinga Mbandi 

Njinga did not have the easiest entrance to this world. Not only was she a breech birth, but her umbilical cord was twisted around her neck. But as a child of the future king of Ndongo (in modern Angola), her childhood should have been gentler than her birth. And in some ways it was — Njinga was clearly her father Mbande’s favorite, and excelled as a student of politics and war — but her life would be forever complicated by Portuguese ambitions in West Central Africa. Their attempts at conquest began around the same time Njinga was born, and the constant pressure was causing cracks in the Ndongo people. Despite her father’s best efforts, powerful Ngondo leaders defected to the Portuguese, taking their wealth and armies with them. These cracks would shatter in 1617, when Mbande was assassinated.

At first, it was merely Njinga’s brothers warring for the throne, not unheard of in any society where a king is permitted multiple wives and concubines. But once her elder brother – also named Mbande – triumphed, he turned his paranoid eye on his sisters. Not only did he kill Njinga’s infant son (“her first and only child”), but he ordered Njinga and their two other sisters be sterilized. Despite this horrific betrayal, Mbande sent her as an ambassador to the Portuguese governor in 1621, apparently confident she would look after his interests and those of Ndongo. 

It was at Luanda, the Portuguese colonial capital, that the legend of Njinga begun. Indeed, the most famous moment in Njinga’s life, one commemorated in art and mentioned in every article I could find about her, occurred during these negotiations. The governor, seeking to put this “savage” woman in her place, neglected to provide a seat for her, so that she would have to sit on the floor or stand as they conversed. Unfazed, Njinga called over a servant. On their hands and knees, the servant functioned as a makeshift seat for the ambassador, and the talks continued. To some success – the Portuguese officials “came to greatly respect Njinga”, and she left Luanda with the promise of peace. 

It was not to last, however, and the Imbangala soon drove the Ngondo from their capital, Kabasa. Mbande died two years later, of poison. Some say Njinga did it, for revenge or for ambition. Whether or not this is true, Njinga succeeded her brother as ruler over the Ngondo. 

After this, it is very hard to separate fact from fiction. Njinga would prove to be a major thorn in the side of the Portuguese, and they had a vested interest in depicting her as horribly as possible. Racist and sexist legends still surface from time to time, such as the Marquis de Sade’s assertion that she kept a large male harem but killed “each man she slept with.”

For the next 40 years, Njinga fought – on the battlefield and off – to keep Ngondo free from Portuguese control. There were dark moments: retreats and betrayals, humiliations and grueling hard work. But in the end, she found a way to triumph; in 1660, her diplomatic efforts with the Vatican resulted in the Pope recognizing her nation and her queenship. That papal support obstructed any further actions by the (Catholic) Portuguese. Now in her late 70’s, Njinga was able to spend the last three years of her life content that she had achieved her lifelong goal: “a stable, independent nation” for her people.

Njinga died on 17 December 1663. Even after death, she remained a ”symbol of power and pride” amongst her own people and, as her story spread, all of Africa and the Diaspora. An immediate legacy was the acceptable of women rulers amongst her people: women ruled for 80 out of the 104 years following her death. And as Angola fought for independence in the 1970’s, the story of Njinga again inspired. The MPLA leader Manuel Pacavira (the future ambassador to Italy, following Angolan independence) even wrote a biographical novel about the historic queen, ”drawing many parallels between her fight and the ongoing civil war.” Today, Angola is free, and it commemorates its famous warrior queen, among other ways, with the 20 Kwanza coin. Her legacy has spread beyond Angola; she has featured in children’s books, video games, and even a Netflix docudrama series. Like Idia, she has become a national symbol for her country, and an inspiration for her gender. She faced down on of the world powers of her day, and though she came close to defeat time and again, nevertheless she persisted, and she died at peace, queen of her own country.  

Works Consulted:

Adebowale, Oludamola. “The Untold Story Between Oba Esigie and Iyoba Idia of Benin.” The Guardian (Nigeria). 04 June 2019. https://guardian.ng/life/the-untold-tale-between-oba-esigie-and-iyoba-idia-of-benin/ 

Afropop Worldwide. “The History of the World Festival of Black Arts & Culture / FESTAC”. 20 January 2011. 

Banerji, Urvija. ”Portuguese Slave Traders Were No Match for Angolan Queen Nzinga Mbandi”. 09 June 2016. Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/angolan-queen-nzinga-mbandi-warrior 

Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “Women Leaders in African History: Idia, First Queen Mother of Benin.” October 2003. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pwmn_3/hd_pwmn_3.htm 

Irvine, Amy. “Queen Nzinga: A Trailblazing African Female Leader”. HistoryHit. 14 May 2023. https://www.historyhit.com/queen-nzinga-a-trailblazing-african-female-leader/ 

Kaplan, Flora Edouwaye S. “Idia, Queen Mother.” Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, ed. Bonnie G. Smith. 2008., pg. 527

Skidmore-Hess, Cathy. ”Njinga, Queen.” Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, ed. Bonnie G. Smith. 2008., pg. 347

Theriault, Anne. ”Queens of Infamy: Njinga”. 03 October 2019. https://longreads.com/2019/10/03/queens-of-infamy-njinga/ 

For more blogs about incredible women, see our other two blogs here: The Incredible Mirabal Sisters and A Laudable Literary Lady

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