Sunday, March 19, 2023

Guest Post: 17 December 1663 - death of Great Nzinga

This article first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

The incomparable Southwest African ruler Great Nzinga died peacefully in her sleep. She was eighty years old and had been bedridden with a throat infection that spread to her lungs.

She was born into the royal family of Ndongo, a Mbundu kingdom in central West Africa, around 1583. Her mother was one of her father's slave wives. During her thirty-seven-year reign, she fought for the independence and stature of her kingdoms against the encroachment of the Portuguese and the rapid growth in the African slave trade. Not only would she transform the region, but she would redefine the place of women in politics in Africa and the world.

The first Europeans had arrived in Central Africa almost a century before her birth. Nicolas V issued a series of papal bulls granting Portugal the right to enslave sub-Saharan Africans in the 1450s. It granted the right to invade, plunder and "reduce their persons to perpetual slavery." This brutal treatment of "black Gentiles" was considered a natural deterrent and Christianizing influence to "barbarous" behavior among pagans. Portugal extracted slaves at a rate of 10,000 per year in 1612. Then in 1619, the first enslaved Africans to arrive in the British colony of Virginia were Ndongans onboard the White Lion. They had been kidnapped by Portuguese colonial forces, who sent captured members on a forced march to the port of Luanda. Ordered onto the ship São João Bautista, which set sail for Veracruz in the colony of New Spain, about 150 of the 350 captives aboard the ship died during the crossing. Then, as it approached its destination, the ship was attacked by two privateer ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer. Crews from the two ships kidnapped up to 60 of the Bautista's enslaved people.

At that time, the dominant central African kingdom was Kongo, and Nzingha was from the southwestern provinces of that rich civilization. She was taught to read and write Portuguese by visiting missionaries as the empire extracted slaves to work vast plantations in Brazil. Local black merchants and warriors, predominantly from the Imbangala and Mbundu tribes, supplied slaves to the Luanda and Benguela markets. They were rewarded with large profits and firearms. The extraction devastated the local population, and slaves' average life expectancy in the New World was only seven years.

Nzinga became Queen Regent after the death of her brother Mbandi. Forced out of the capital city of Kabasa, he had killed himself with poison out of despair, nominating Nzinga as his successor. The fortunes of the Ndongans only began to improve after the Dutch West India Company seized Luanda during the chaos of the Portuguese Restoration War. Through allyship with the Dutch and also the Imbangala, she was able to make military gains and establish a stronger new base in Matamba. The conquest of the neighbouring state of Kingdom of Matamba was her first step towards independence.

The unity of the Ndongans triumphed over the division of the Europeans. The Portuguese eventually returned to Luanda after the formal end of the Iberian Union. However, by then the Pope had recognized the independence of Ndongo and Matamba also Nzinga's forces were fortified with Dutch-supplied muskets and gunpowder. These forces policed the local merchants and warriors to intercept slave supply. Nzinga would then begin her real work, teaming up with the Jesuit priest and missionary Antonio Ruiz de Montoya from Paraguay in order to convince the Catholic Church to issue a Papal bull ending the African Slave Trade. Montoya had laid a complaint before Philip IV of Spain as to the Portuguese policy of sending kidnapping expeditions into the neighbouring regions of South America. He subsequently obtained from the king important exemptions, privileges, and protective measures for the reductions of Paraguay. After this success, he headed to Southwest Africa rather than return to the Americas. This new proclamation rescinded the papal bulls issued by Nicolas V and while it did not stop the Slave Trade overnight, it was certainly the beginning of the end of the African Holocaust.

Author's Note:

In reality, Portuguese authorities abolished slave trafficking in 1836. Montoya died in 1652 soon after his return to America.

It is estimated that almost 5.7 million slaves left Angola between 1501 and 1866. Angola was one of the great supplying sources from the 15th century to the mid-19th century. In the centuries since her death, Nzinga has been increasingly recognized as a major historical figure in Angola and in the wider Atlantic Creole culture. She is remembered for her intelligence, her political and diplomatic wisdom, and her military tactics.

Provine's Addendum:

The new papal bulls defended the rights of Christianized Africans and Native Americans, meaning that people could only be enslaved if not converted and must be freed upon conversion. Missionaries like Montoya worked feverishly to spread the word, and though much suspicion grew up whether conversions were genuine, the slave market collapsed as the prices for slaves skyrocketed. Nzinga, having seen slavery all her life, worked to revolutionize her own culture by ending the practice in her kingdom and uplifting the social status of women. While the Dutch were Protestants and thus as immune from papal bulls as they were Nzinga's edicts, market forces drove them out of the slavery business.

Instead, they and other European settlement strategies focused on colonization through corporations and indentured servitude for those willing to make the trans-Atlantic journey but without much capital beyond their own bodies. High-profit plantations were the gateway to colonizing the Caribbean and American South, but they proved to be their own end as servants whose contracts ended left to start their own competing farms. By the 1700s, middle-class farming outpaced the few huge plantations, which usually declined after a generation due to management. For example, George Washington left farming to focus on settlement schemes in Ohio, while the philosopher Thomas Jefferson retired to France and then London, unable to pay his debts and forfeiting his home at Monticello.

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