By Louise Gay
Nzinga a Nlaza was the principal wife (ne mbanda) of Nzinga a Nkuwu, ntotila ntinu nékongo and Ngangula a Kongo (which can be translated as “the King, supreme leader of Kongo” and “blacksmith of Kongo”) in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century.
In March 1491, a Portuguese missionary expedition reached the port of Mpinda, then went to the capital Mbanza Kongo. There, her husband – and most likely first cousin – Nzinga a Nkuwu converted to Christianity on the 3rd of May.
He adopted the name of Joao I, as a tribute to the Portuguese monarch. Nzinga a Nlaza had to wait for the arrival of her son Nzinga Mbemba, “governor” of the Nsundi province and future heir of the realm, before converting in her turn.
The ceremony seems to have taken place on the 4th of June 1491. Nzinga a Nlaza renamed herself Leonor after the Portuguese queen, while her son adopted Afonso. It is said in a Portuguese contemporary account that she used her material goods to patronize the Church.
But Christianity involved monogamy, which greatly disturbed the political alliances resulting from marriages and lowered the prestige of the sovereign. Thus, it was abandoned in practice for the remainder of Joao I/Nzinga a Nkuwu’s reign, who died in 1506.
In the succession war that followed, Leonor/Nzinga a Nlaza plotted to ensure the throne passed to her son Afonso/Nzinga Mbemba.
According to information probably supplied by the latter, she successfully advised him on how to enter the city to defeat his rival half-brother Mpanzu a Nzinga (presumably the son of another woman).
As the new king’s mother, she seems to have held at least considerable symbolic authority by local tradition until her death at an unknown date.
Her son Afonso/Nzinga Mbemba built a new model of royalty, instrumentalising technical and cultural contributions of Europeans in the service of consolidation of the Kongolese State.
Georges Balandier, Le royaume de Kongo du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Hachette Pluriel Reference, 1965)
John K. Thornton, “Elite Women in the Kingdom of Kongo: Historical Perspectives on Women’s Political Power,” The Journal of African History 47.3 (2006): 437-460.