In dealing with the Kingdom of Ngola, the Portuguese encountered fierce resistance from a powerful woman by the name of Ana Nzinga. Nzinga was the sister of the king of Ngola and worked with the Portuguese to negotiate a peace. In 1624, Nzinga’s brother died and she became the ruler of Ngola. Nzinga appointed women to all of most important positions. During ceremonies, and possibly other times as well, Queen Nzinga would dress as a man. As befit a queen, especially one who co-opted masculine privilege, she had multiple consorts. Queen Nzinga had her male consorts dress as women!
Queen Nzinga’s Court
Olfert Dapper was a Dutch geographer who never actually visited Africa himself. But he based a book on Africa based on the trade accounts of the Dutch West India Company. As such it remains a valuable account. Dapper wrote this in his 1668 account of Nzinga’s royal court: “”(She) also maintains fifty to sixty concubines, whom she dresses like women, even though they are young men … Even though they know it, she dresses these fifty to sixty strong and beautiful young men in female garment, according to her habit, and dresses herself as a man. She calls these men women and herself a man. The cross-dressed young men are said to be her concubines.” (Bleys, 33)
Queen Nzinga’s desire to dress as a man was likely motivated to come in line with her culture’s expectations as to who it was that could wield authority. A woman could be in charge only if she symbolically became a man. Still, as an example of indigenous Africa’s fluid sense of gender, her case is telling.
The Portuguese soon broke their treaties with Nzinga and sent armed forces to subdue Ngola. The queen sent her forces into battle, in turn, troops that included many women warriors. Nzinga renounced Christianity and adopted a fierce resistance until 1635, conquering neighboring kingdoms in the meantime. She lived to be eighty-one.
Queen Nzinga’s Contemporary
Another African woman who defied the cultural limitations of her gender was Kimpa Vita, also of the 17th century who believed she was possessed by St. Anthony, a male Christian saint. More on her in a future article.
Queen Nzinga in context: Fluid Gender in Africa
From their earliest contacts, European explorers would note the frequent presence of cross-dressing men in non-literate cultures in Africa, North and South America, Southeast Asia and Polynesia. Less often, but still in evidence, were women who dressed and behaved as men. Cross-dressing was typically, though not always, associated with “homosexuality”; though it may be asked if a man having sex with a man who is deemed a woman truly represents “same-sex” passion.
The distinction of being the first European on record to discuss gender-variant African men goes to the Jesuit priest, Joao dos Santos. In his travel account of the region, first published in Latin in 1558, he described “certain chibudi, which are men attired like women and behave themselves womanly, ashamed to be called men; are also married to men, and esteem that unnatural damnation an honor.” The priest was probably writing about the Kimbundu of (A)Ngola.
Captain Antonio de Olievera Cardonega restated all of the above and more in his 1681 discussion of “sodomy” along the Angolan coast. He provided details of cross-dressing men called quimbandas, a term that persisted in the region until the 20th century.
Cardonega wrote: “Among the people of Angola, there is much sodomy among men, who pursue their dirty practices dressed like women … Some among them are wizards, who control everything, and are esteemed by most of the people… These cross-dressing men who have sex with other men happen to live together in bands, meeting most often to give burial services. (Bleys, 33)
There are also reports of women who, possessed by a male ancestor, marry a conventionally gendered woman.
In future articles I hope to describe more patterns of fluid gender and how it intersected with female empowerment. Indigenous African cultures, before Christian missionaries influenced them in the direction gender conformity and homophobia, found creative ways to honor conventional gender expression at the same time allowing ways for those with unconventional gender expression and desire to find a place in the community as well. And, of course, it always helped if you were the king/queen!
Queen Nzinga, or King Nzinga if your prefer is an empowering image for women, transgender folk, and Africans seeking to underscore their liberation from centuries of colonial oppression. Pretty amazing to embody all three in one person!
Bleys, Rudi C. (1995). The Geography of Perversion: Male-to-Male Sexual Behaviour outside the West and the Ethnographic Imagination, 1750-1918. New York: New York University Press.