Forgotten Royalty: The true story of African kings that were exiled into obscurity

The city hall of Angra do Heroísmo. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)
The city hall of Angra do Heroísmo. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)
Gabi Zietsman

Cape Town - You possibly haven't heard of the island of Terceira.

More than a 1 500 kilometres from Portugal’s mainland, the Azores was a strategic military base and trade stopover en-route to the Americas.

It was also a place of exile for those the Portuguese wanted to hide away from the world, and in the documentary Forgotten Royalty, it was four African royals who fought colonial oppression in Mozambique.

While some may have heard of the headstrong last emperor of Gaza, Gungunhana, and his fight against the Portuguese, shockingly few people know what happened to him and his entourage.

While in Mozambique, Gungunhana is hailed as a national hero, according to the director Mosco Kamwendo there seems to be a serious gap in knowledge regarding what happened to him after he left our African shores. The film traces these networks of memory through a somewhat unconventional voice, starting at the end and working backwards to where Gungunhana, Zixaxa, Godide and Molungu made their first stance against oppression.

Fortress of São João Baptista where the were impri

(FORTRESS: Fortress of São João Baptista where the were imprisoned. Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

The journey starts with Fatima Martins – a Terceiran mother with a passion for history. Her tie to these African royals? The father of her children was a descendant of Zixaxa, and she felt obligated to find out more about her children’s ancestry by tracing their journey from Terceira, back trough Lisbon to Gaza, now part of modern-day Mozambique.

"Africa has remained the centre of my inspiration – which is why I made this film," says Kamwendo.

Hailing from Zimbabwe, he’s been living in the UK for more than a decade where he furthered his studies in film, focusing on screenwriting. He first heard the story of Gungunhana from his grandparents, and in his young mind, the king taken by white people to never be seen again was only just a fairy tale. He stumbled upon the story again while filming another documentary in Mozambique – Comrade President – and decided to pursue a character to bring the story to life.

"If you’re African, you always get to a point where you want to question the world around you - you want to understand why I am the person that I am."

His search brought him to Fatima – and Forgotten Royalty became a reality.

Mosco Kamwendo speaking at a conference about the

(CONFERENCE: Mosco Kamwendo speaking at a conference about the four royals on Terceira at the City Hall. Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

The documentary's strongest feature is its storytelling format – instead of a pompous narrator throwing facts and dates at the audience, it takes an organic approach through a real human talking to experts, creating an emotional link between the content and the audience.

It’s a fascinating story that starts backwards for the African royals – the island where they spent their last years far away from home – and in some way becomes a homecoming as their story travels back to Mozambique where they resisted the colonial invaders.

The film was also awash with beautiful imagery of lush greenery and classic Portuguese architecture of Terceira’s capital – Angra do Heroismo – juxtaposed with the sandy African bush of Mozambique, Fatima continuing her journey in the back of a tuk-tuk.

But one voice seemed missing from the story – that of Zixaxa’s actual descendants. Their mother took their story and made it hers – which works – but at certain points you find yourself wanting to know how they really feel about this heritage of theirs, and the journey their mother is on. When asked about it, Kamwendo said there were two main reasons for the absence.

The first was logistics – filming needed someone with flexible hours and with proximity to the main filming locations in Terceira – and secondly, they were actually very withdrawn and camera-shy. While they are valid reasons, it’s still one element that would have made Forgotten Royalty more dynamic.

It’s still a spectacular story – these Africans with multiple wives were a sensational curiosity in the Portuguese press while they were incarcerated in Lisbon, but it’s also another forgotten history that exemplifies how much colonialism really took from Africa. It wasn’t just resources and slaves, but also a sense of identity and cultural pride that is taking multiple generations to recuperate.

While on Terceira, these four Africans were forced to be baptised, given new Christian names while politicians and other Portuguese elite paraded them as "noble savages" taken under their wing – but what it really was was a final nail in the coffin of their link to their homeland, their African identity whitewashed under the guise of evangelical colonialism.  

At the moment, Forgotten Royalty will be starting its worldwide film festival run, with plans to enter it into the South African circuit as well.

While it’s a Mozambican story, it’s a universal journey that all Africans have faced in a post-colonial world and one that South Africans should keep a keen eye out for at our cinemas and festivals. And it raises another important question – how much more of our history have we, perhaps willfully, really forgotten?

You can watch the trailer here.

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