Primary Source: Alamandini's “Queen Njinga of Ndongo"

In this engraving, seven figures appear in a room together. Four of the figures are African and three are European. Most of the figures are at the periphery of the image, while two take up the center. In the center of the image there is a rug, the sole decoration in the room. On the rug, an African woman kneels on her knees and elbows. Another African woman, who is adorned with a long piece of cloth over one shoulder, sits on her back, making the first woman into a human stool. The woman sitting on her back faces the three Europeans who stand together in the back right corner of the room. One of the European men sits on a chair. The other stands next to him. Behind them stands a young looking European. To the left of the image, standing behind the African woman sitting atop a human stool, stand two Africans. They stand facing the center of the room with their arms crossed in front of them. One of them is carrying a scepter. Behind the group, a large window opens the room to the outside. The landscape shows three mountains in the background. In front of the largest mountain in the center there sits a small town with several visible structures.

Primary Source

Image Citation

“Queen Njinga of Ndongo (1582-1663) Presented to the Portuguese Governor,” Engraving by Fortunato da Alemandini after a watercolor by Giovani Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo in Istorica Descrittione De’ Tre Regni Congo, Matamba, et Angola, 1687. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, JYF2002.20. 

Standards and Skills
Virginia Standards of Learning: VS.3e, VUS.2b
Meets National Standards of Learning for Social Studies

Summary and Significance

This image portrays a meeting between future queen Njinga of Ndongo and the Portuguese governor of Angola. Njinga sits atop a human stool, rather than suffer the insult of standing or sitting on the rug to meet with the Portuguese governor while he sat on a chair and she was not offered one. This was one of the many ways that Njinga demonstrated her power in order to strengthen her diplomatic position in dealing with the Portuguese.

Historical Background and Image Analysis

Image/Author Background
The original version of this image was painted by Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo. Cavazzi was born in Montecuccolo, Italy, in 1621. When he was 11 years old, he entered the Capuchin order, which is a branch of Franciscan friars. Cavazzi was not a great student, but he was extremely devoted to his religion. Cavazzi travelled to West Central Africa as a missionary in 1654. When Cavazzi arrived in Africa, he was stepping into a region rife with political tensions that had been building since Europeans began to settle in Africa over 150 years prior.

Two of the major powers in West Central Africa were Kongo and its smaller southern neighbor, Ndongo. In 1483, the Portuguese landed in Kongo and developed a close relationship with the kingdom. The Portuguese had a more tenuous relationship with Ndongo’s leaders.
In 1575, the Portuguese invaded the kingdom of Ndongo. They renamed the conquered territory Angola after the word for a leader of Ndongo, “ngola.” Fierce resistance to the invasion meant that they did not conquer all of Ndongo, but did take the coast and about 200 miles into the interior.

The Portuguese used their military to invade Ndongo, but they also deployed Jesuit missionaries to spread Christianity throughout the region. Converting local African leaders to Christianity was a political strategy that would strengthen an alliance between leaders and the Portuguese, and weaken the ties between the leader and the king of Ndongo.

Over the next few decades, the Portuguese continued to grow in power even as they faced varying levels of resistance from Ndongo’s successive kings. The conflict led to a growing trade in enslaved people, as the Portuguese would enslave residents of areas they conquered. In 1619, a group of West Central Africans, probably from Ndongo, were enslaved by the Portuguese. While they were aboard a slave ship bound for Spanish America, they were captured by English privateers who brought them to Jamestown. They were the first known Africans in the English colonies in America. Although Cavazzi didn’t create his paintings for several decades after these events, he depicted the same culture of the first known Africans in America.

In later decades, the Portuguese faced renewed African resistance through both diplomacy and war during the long reign of Queen Njinga of Ndongo. In 1622, she was baptized as a Christian. It only was later in her life that she adopted Christian practices. Giovanni Cavazzi arrived in Ndongo in 1654 and became a Christian advisor to Queen Njinga by the late 1650s. While he was in Africa, he wrote extensively about history and religion in Africa, as well as about aspects of the culture he observed. He also created watercolor paintings based loosely on what he heard and saw. Engravings were made based on his writings and paintings by other Capuchins, Fortunato da Alamandini, Paolo da Lorena and an unknown engraver. Those engravings illustrated a book about Africa which was written by Cavazzi, heavily edited by Alamandini and first published in 1687.

Even though Cavazzi was an eyewitness to West Central African culture, his writings and images were filtered through his own biases. Cavazzi was, as historian John Thornton has put it, “essentially anti-African” and often called Africans “inhuman.” Cavazzi believed Africans to be inferior to Europeans, and some aspects of his writing and images reflect his worldview. He believed Africans to be inferior to Europeans. In addition, his writings and images were further filtered through Alamandini and the other engravers, who had never been to Africa. On the other hand, the Cavazzi/Alamandini text offers one of the very few sources available about politics, life and culture in West Central Africa in the early 1600s. Historians using these images have to decide which aspects portray the reality of West Central African life, and which parts are exaggerated or false renderings influenced by Cavazzi and/or Alamandini’s worldview.

Image Analysis
This image portrays a famous 1622 meeting between Queen Njinga of Ndongo and the Portuguese governor of Angola. In 1622, Njinga was not yet the ruler of Ndongo. Her brother, Ngola Mbande, was the King of Ndongo. He asked her to be the head of the delegation sent to meet with the Portuguese Governor of Angola, Joao Correia de Sousa.

Njinga chose her attire for the meeting strategically. She was in a Portuguese-controlled city in Angola, Luanda, but she chose to wear the traditional royal dress of her culture. She wore “numerous cloths,” jewels and feathers in her hair. So did the women, servants and enslaved people, who she brought with her. In the image, one is shown carrying Njinga’s scepter, a symbol of her power. Her attire made for a dramatic entrance to the meeting. Unfortunately, this reality is not reflected in the engraving here, beyond the long folded cloth that drapes over one shoulder.

When Njinga arrived at the meeting, the governor sat in the sole chair in the room, leaving Queen Njinga to stand in front of him. Rather than suffer this insult, she called one of her servants to kneel, and she sat upon the servant’s back. When the meeting ended, she stood to leave. The Portuguese governor asked about the attendant, who was still positioned as a human chair. Njinga replied that she was leaving the servant there intentionally, as it was below her status to ever sit in the same chair twice. This show of her power and wealth was key to Njinga’s diplomatic efforts, in which she wanted to convince the Portuguese not to continue their invasions and war against Njinga’s territory. The efforts sometimes worked, as with this meeting in which the governor was convinced to maintain a friendly relationship with the Matamba region directly to the east, where Njinga held power.

Classroom Inquiry

1. When you first look at this image, what do you think is going on? What about the image makes you think that?
Answers will vary. Students might mention that a meeting is happening.

2. Njinga wore an elaborate outfit of many clothes, jewels and feathers to the meeting. What are some reasons why the person who drew this image did not include those details?
The person who created this image might not have heard about what she was wearing, since it happened long before Cavazzi arrived in Angola, or might have intentionally decided to make Njinga look less royal than she actually dressed during the meeting.

Related Classroom Resources


1483: The Portuguese arrive in West Central Africa and develop a diplomatic relationship with the largest kingdom in the region, Kongo.
1575: The Portuguese invade Ndongo, the second largest kingdom in the region. They name the conquered territory “Angola.”
1619: Africans most likely taken during Portuguese raids in Ndongo are forced into slavery. While aboard a slave ship bound for Spanish America, they are captured by English privateers who bring them to Jamestown. These around 30 people are the first documented Africans in the English colonies in America.
1622: Njinga, the sister of King Ngola Mbande of Ndongo, is baptized as part of a diplomatic mission to the Portuguese in Angola.
1624: Njinga becomes Queen of Ndongo.
1654: Giovanni Cavazzi arrives in Ndongo. By the late 1650s, he becomes a central figure in Queen Njinga’s court.
1663: Queen Njinga dies.
1687: A book containing Giovanni Cavazzi’s writings and engravings by Fortunato da Alamandini of Cavazzi’s watercolors is first printed.

Additional Reading