Maria de Fonseca was the queen of Katanga and the favorite wife of Msiri, the warrior-king of Katanga, who met a tragic end for allegedly betraying her king, Msiri, to the Belgians.
During the late 19th century, the European powers were embroiled in a fierce competition to colonize Africa, with the aim of claiming territories and exploiting their abundant resources. Among the ambitious leaders was King Leopold II of Belgium, who had set his sights on the rich region of Katanga, renowned for its vast mineral wealth. At the heart of Katanga’s power structure was Msiri, a formidable warrior-king who ruled with an iron fist, employing strategic alliances and astute trading practices to maintain his influence in the area.
Msiri employed a unique approach to solidify alliances by forming marital ties with powerful trading partners. He took over 500 wives, but his favorite among them was Maria de Fonseca, the sister of Coimbra, a Portuguese-Angolan trader who played a crucial role in Msiri’s ascent to power.
Maria, born to Angolan parents of mixed Portuguese-African heritage, held a prominent position as Msiri’s wife. Her brother’s support, specifically his provision of gunpowder from the west coast, had been instrumental in securing Msiri’s rise to power. As a result, Maria’s presence within the court of Katanga carried immense influence and significance.
The events that would ultimately lead to Maria’s tragic fate unfolded in 1891 with the arrival of the Stairs Expedition. Led by Captain William Grant Stairs, the expedition aimed to claim resource rich Katanga for the ruthless Belgian King Leopold II, regardless of King Msiri’s consent.
Treaty negotiations between the expedition and Msiri reached a stalemate, prompting Captain Stairs to consider capturing Msiri and holding him hostage. It was during this time that an interesting revelation came to light. Every night, Msiri would leave his heavily guarded stockade and visit Maria at her nearby compound, accompanied by only a few guards.
Christian de Bonchamps, the third officer of the expedition, proposed an ambush to capture Msiri during one of these visits. However, Captain Stairs rejected the idea and instead presented Msiri with an ultimatum. Tragically, the situation escalated, resulting in Captain Omer Bodson shooting Msiri dead, leading to his own fatal injury.
Maria de Fonseca and her brother Coimbra seemingly accepted this turn of events and engaged in negotiations with Captain Stairs. They discussed the acceptance of Leopold’s sovereignty over Katanga by Msiri’s successor. Coimbra eventually returned to Angola, but Maria chose to remain in Katanga, reveling in her position within the king’s court.
According to the oral history of the Mwami Mwenda chieftainship, which succeeded Msiri, Maria’s actions were seen as a betrayal. It is said that she had “betrayed Msiri to the Belgians.” In a shocking turn of events, Mukanda-Bantu, who was Msiri’s adopted son and successor, decided to seek retribution and ordered her execution by beheading.
According to accounts, Maria faced her tragic fate with courage, standing before the crowd as Mukanda-Bantu raised his machete and declared, “I am Mukanda-Bantu, the one who walks over his foes,” before beheading her. This brutal act sealed Maria’s place in history as a symbol of loyalty questioned and a life cut short by political turmoil.