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.
In her biography of this fascinating character, Linda Heywood seeks to blow away the smoke of infamy and adulation. She reveals a figure no less protean in life than her reputation has proved to be in the three and a half centuries since her death – an individual who