Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Women Leaders in African History, 17th–19th Century

As leaders, priestesses, traders, cultivators, oracles, wives, and mothers, women have occupied key roles in the developments that have shaped the course of African history. The turbulent years following West and Central Africa’s initial contact with Europe were marked by the emergence of women revered for their formidable political skills and social vision. We know of these women—women such as Ana Nzinga, queen of Ndongo; Dona Beatriz, Kongo prophet; and Idia, queen mother of Benin—largely today largely through oral histories, artworks, and, significantly, contemporaneous European documents. There can be no doubt that important and celebrated women existed in other periods of African history, but prior to the era of contact with Europe, written records of their names and achievements simply do not exist. Indigenous narratives about them have not survived to the present day, or have yet to be recognized and recorded. As the study of African history continues, however, the identities of other notable African women will surely be revealed.