David Gelber

The Woman Who Would Be King

Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen

By

Harvard University Press 310pp £23.95 order from our bookshop

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.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'Circumspect, slyly reticent, and oleaginously smooth' From the Archive: John Banville reviews Andrew Motion's mys… ,
    • With our February issue about to go to press, enjoy a slice of LR history - Hilary Mantel on Joan Haslip's biograph… ,
    • What did London look like in the 6th Century? Rory Naismith's 'Citadel of the Saxons' tries to answer that questi… ,
    • Start your week with a dose of Russian Revolutionary zeal. Donald Rayfield reviews Tobie Mathew's 'Greetings From t… ,
    • A treat from the LR Archive: exactly 20 years ago, Malcolm Bradbury reviewed John Updike's 'Bech at Bay' ,
    • ‘When bullets come close, the noise they make as they go past changes from a zing to a crack’ John Lanchester's dy… ,
    • Man with a Bloody Paintbrush: Robin Simon on Lucian Freud ,