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slave ship background image with title overlay: Middle Passages: Gendered Diasporas
Queen Njinga: Queering History, Queering Africa
Then Now

This map, circa 1598, depicts Central Africa after Queen Njinga's birth before her rise to the throne during Portuguese resistance.
Map through Columbia University

Queen Njinga: A Case Study of Colonialism and Queer Africa

Queen Njinga (1582-1663), ruler of the Ndongo kingdom, led a military resistance effort against Portuguese colonizing and enslaving interests in what is now Angola. English and French dominance of the slave trade in Northern Africa pushed the Portuguese south, where Njinga held off their dominion for nearly four decades.

Understandings of her sexual identity are dubious, as different accounts and interpretations of her life point to a heterosexual marriage, to female wives, and to a harem of males that Njinga had dress as women. Whether or not Njinga was a “female-husband,” she doubtless transgressed gender binaries in ruling her people, answering only to “King,” leading her troops into battle, and dressing in both men’s and women’s clothing.

Today, the practice of female husbands persists across Africa, including the specific areas marked on the cotemporary map to the right. Homosexuality is largely regarded as a deviant Western import, however, and resisted strongest in Christian areas, as exemplified by the links below. Njinga herself converted to Christianity as a political maneuver to establish rapport with the Portuguese, but later embraced the religion. Her religious conversion is emblematic of how Christianity spread with colonial rule and rewrote African understandings of gender and sexuality, heavily contributing to the tensions surrounding ‘queerness’ in contemporary Africa.


Statue of Queen Njinga

Statue of Queen Njinga in Luanda, Angola on the Kinaxixi Square. Some sources indicate that Angolan women marry near her statue.

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Project Authors: Shantala Thompson and Megan Rolfe