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Afonso I of Kongo

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Afonso I of Kongo

The coat of arms issued to King Afonso
Mvemba a Nzinga or Nzinga Mbemba (c. 1456–1542 or 1543),[1] also known as King Afonso I, was a ruler of the Kingdom of Kongo in the first half of the 16th century. He reigned over the Kongo Empire from 1509 to late 1542 or 1543.


Pre-reign career

Born Mvemba a Nzinga, son of Manikongo (Mwene Kongo) (king) Nzinga a Nkuwu, the fifth king of the Kongo dynasty. At the time of the first arrival of the Portuguese to the Kingdom of the Kongo's capital of Mbanza Kongo in 1491, Mvemba a Nzinga was in his thirties, and was the ruler of the Nsundi province (on the northeast), and likely heir to the throne.[2] He added the name Afonso when he was baptized after his father decided to convert to Christianity.[3] and studied with Portuguese priests and advisers for ten years in the kingdom's capital. Letters written by priests to the king of Portugal paint Afonso as an enthusiastic and scholarly convert to Christianity.[2] In around 1495, the Manikongo denounced Christianity, and Afonso welcomed the priests into the capital of his Nsundi province. To the displeasure of many in the realm, he had traditional art objects that might offend Portuguese sensibilities destroyed.[4] Afonso's alliance with the Portuguese was rewarded when he fought conservatives for succession to the throne. The victory over his brother in the Battle of Mbanza-Kongo "was won because of aid from Portuguese weapons."[4]

Rise to power

In 1506 King João I (the name Nzinga a Nkuwu took upon his conversion) died, and potential rivals lined up to take over the kingdom. Kongo was an elective rather than a hereditary monarchy, thus Afonso was not guaranteed the throne. Afonso was assisted in his attempt to become king by his mother, who kept news of João's death a secret, and arranged for Afonso to return to the capital city of Mbanza Kongo and gather followers. Thus when the death of the king was finally announced, Afonso was already in the city.

Battle of Mbanza Kongo

The strongest opposition to Afonso's claim came from his half brother Mpanzu a Kitima (or Mpanzu a Nzinga). Mpanzu raised an army in the provinces and made plans to march on Mbanza Kongo. According to Afonso's testimony, Mpanzu renounced Christianity and opposed the conversion of the country. In the battle that followed as Mpanzu's followers tried to storm the city, he was defeated, according to Afonso, when his men saw an apparition of Saint James the Great and five heavenly horsemen in the sky. Mpanzu's army fled in panic. This miracle, which Afonso described in a letter of 1509 (now lost) became the basis for a coat of arms that Kongo used for the next three centuries (until 1860).


Virtually all that is known about Kongo in the time of Afonso's reign is known from his long series of letters, written in Portuguese primarily to the kings Manuel I and João III of Portugal. The letters are often very long and give many details about the administration of the country. Many of the letters complain about the behavior of several Portuguese officials, and these letters have given rise to an interpretation of Afonso's reign as one in which Portuguese interests submerged Afonso's ambitions.

In Adam Hochschild's 1998 book King Leopold's Ghost, Hochschild characterizes Afonso as a "selective modernizer" because he welcomed European scientific innovation and the church but refused to adopt Portugal's legal code and sell land to prospectors.[2] In fact, Afonso ridiculed the Ordenações Manuelinas (new Portuguese law code) when he read them in 1516, asking the Portuguese emissary de Castro, "What is the punishment, Castro, for putting one's feet on the ground?" No contemporary record mentions anything about land sales, indeed land in Kongo was never sold to anyone.

Conversion of Kongo

Afonso is best known for his vigorous attempt to convert Kongo to a Catholic country, by establishing the Roman Catholic Church in Kongo, providing for its financing from tax revenues, and creating schools. By 1516 there were over 1000 students in the royal school, and other schools were located in the provinces, eventually resulting in the development of a fully literate noble class (schools were not built for ordinary people). Afonso also sought to develop an appropriate theology to merge the religious traditions of his own country with that of Christianity. He studied theological textbooks, falling asleep over them, according to Rui de Aguiar (the Portuguese royal chaplain who was sent to assist him). To aid in this task, Afonso sent various of his children and nobles to Europe to study, including his son Henrique Kinu a Mvemba, who was elevated to the status of bishop in 1518. He was given the bishopric of Utica (in North Africa) by the Vatican, but actually served in Kongo from his return there in the early 1520s until his death in 1531.

Afonso's efforts to introduce Portuguese culture to the Congo was reflected in several ways. The Kongolese aristocracy adopted Portuguese names, titles, coats of arms and styles of dress. Youths were sent from elite families to Europe for education. Christian festivals observed, churches erected, and craftsman made Christian artifacts that were found by Missionaries in the 19th century.[5]

Significantly, religious brotherhoods (organizations) were founded in imitation of Portuguese practices. The ranks of brotherhoods would be called by different European titles, with the elected leader of each brotherhood having the title “king.” To celebrate [5] These celebrations lived on in slave communities in Albany, NY as Pinkster.

The precise motivation behind Afonso's campaign of conversion is unclear. "Scholars continue to dispute the authenticity of Kongolese Christian faith and the degree to which the adoption of a new faith was motivated by political and economic realities."[6] Although the degree to which Afonso was purely spiritually motivated is uncertain, it is clear that the Kongo's conversion resulted in the far-reaching European engagement with both political and religious leaders who supported and legitimized the Christian kingdom throughout the rest of its history.

The Slave Trade

In 1526 Afonso wrote a series of letters condemning the violent behavior of the Portuguese in his country and their establishment of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. At one point he accused them of assisting brigands in his own country and illegally purchasing free people as slaves. He also threatened to close the trade altogether. However, in the end, Afonso established an examination committee to determine the legality of all enslaved persons presented for sale.

Afonso was a determined soldier and extended Kongo's effective control to the south, especially. His letter of 5 October 1514 reveals the connections between Afonso's men, Portuguese mercenaries in Kongo's service and the capture and sale of slaves by his forces, many of which he retained in his own service.

In 1526 Afonso wrote two letters concerning the slave trade to the king of Portugal, decrying the rapid destabilization of his kingdom as the Portuguese slave traders intensified their efforts.

In one of his letters he writes

"Each day the traders are kidnapping our people - children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family. This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. It is our wish that this Kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves."
Many of our subjects eagerly lust after Portuguese merchandise that your subjects have brought into our domains. To satisfy this inordinate appetite, they seize many of our black free subjects.... They sell them. After having taken these prisoners [to the coast] secretly or at night..... As soon as the captives are in the hands of white men they are branded with a red-hot iron.[2]

Afonso believed that the slave trade should be subject to Kongo law. When he suspected the Portuguese of receiving illegally enslaved persons to sell, he wrote in to King João III in 1526 imploring him to put a stop to the practice.[7]


Toward the end of his life, Afonso's children and grandchildren began maneuvering for the succession, and in 1540 plotters that included Portuguese residents in the country made an unsuccessful attempt on his life. He died toward the end of 1542 or perhaps at the very beginning of 1543, leaving his son Pedro to succeed him. Although his son was soon overthrown by his grandson Diogo (in 1545) and had to take refuge in a church, the grandchildren and later descendants of three of his daughters provided many later kings.

See also

Preceded by
João I
Succeeded by
Pedro I


  • Afonso's letters are all published, along with most of the documents relating to his reign in:

António Brásio, Monumenta Missionaria Africana (1st series, 15 volumes, Lisbon: Agência Geral do Ultramar, 1952–88), vols. 1, 2 and 4.

  • A separate publication of just his letters and allied documents in French translation is in Louis Jadin and Mirelle Dicorati, La correspondence du roi Afonso I de Congo (Brussels, 1978).


  1. ^ The Encyclopedia of African-American Heritage by Susan Altman , Chapter M, page 181
  2. ^ a b c d King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin Books. 1998.  
  3. ^ Hilton, Anne (1983). "Family and Kinship among the Kongo South of the Zaire River from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries".  
  4. ^ a b Dictionary of African Christian Biography
  5. ^ a b Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Formation of the Americas 1585-1660 by Lida M. Haywood and John Thorton
  6. ^ African Christianity in the Kongo. | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  7. ^ African Political Ethics and the Slave Trade
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