Nzinga Mbemba or Nzinga Mvemba (c. 1456-1542 or 1543), also known as Afonso I, was a ruling monarch of the Kingdom of the Congo during the first half of the 16th century. He ruled the country between 1509 and 1542 or 1543. He was famous for his efforts to introduce Christianity in the Congo, and for having written a series of letters to the Portuguese kings denouncing the slave trade. He asked Portugal to send missionaries and artisans to carry out the modernization of the country. He was the first African king to be recognized as such in Europe.
The first to apply the necessary method and means to the reconnaissance of the African coasts was the Prince of Portugal, Prince Henry, born in 1393, who will go down in posterity as “Henry the Navigator”. Installed in his palace in Sagres, he collected all the documents he could find on the technique of navigation, summoned the Majorcan cartographer Jaume Ribes and had shipyards built. In order to extend the momentum of the “Reconquest”, and to snatch from the Arabs the monopoly of the route to India, he conceives the plan to avoid the Mediterranean positions of the Arab world, passing through the Atlantic Ocean. In a first stage they try to secure ports of call on the islands along the African coast. In 1420 they occupied the island of Madeira; in 1425 the Canary Islands, which were already in Spanish possession; in 1431 they discovered and took possession of the Azores. In 1445 they built a fortress in Arguin and regular trade with the Moors was established. Around 1444-1447 they explored Cape Verde, the coast of Senegal, the mouth of the Gambia River and the future Portuguese Guinea. In 1460 Henry died, but the momentum was already there. In 1469 they entrusted the exploration of the coast to the landowner Fernao Gomes, who undertook to advance the exploration a hundred leagues a year; thus, in 1471 they reached the Gold Coast, and by 1472 Fernando Po discovered the island to which he gave his name, the Camarones River, or Cameroon, and for the first time the Europeans crossed the equator, reaching the island of Sao Tome.
In 1482, Diogo Cão, a friend of Henry, discovered the mouth of a very abundant river, the Congo River, and placed stone markers on the banks of its mouth, the padrãos, engraved with inscriptions proclaiming the taking of possession. The following year he went up the river and learned of the existence, in the interior of the territory, of a vast black kingdom. Diogo returned several times as ambassador of Portugal, especially between 1485 and 1487. The most important Portuguese return took place in 1490, as the king of Portugal immediately granted the king of the Congo cultural and technical aid and assistance by sending masons, missionaries and carpenters.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, a series of small “kingdoms” existed in the littoral zone of the Congo River. In the part of the littoral located between the Congo estuary and the Benguela, to the south, and in the interior of the territory, there is a whole proliferation of small hegemonies: to the north of the estuary, the Loango, the Kakongo, the Ngoyo; to the south, the Mbata, the Mbamba, the Mpemba, the Nsundi, the Mpango and the Sonyo; to the south of the Cuanza river, the Ndongo, whose sovereign was the Ngolo (origin of the Portuguese name of Angola). The center of all this, the link between these various kingdoms was the kingdom of the Congo: the Bantu people of the Bakongo had a sovereign, the Manicongo (or “Lord of the Congo”), in a state whose capital was, at the arrival of the Portuguese, at Mbanzacongo. This kingdom had undoubtedly been founded around the beginning of the 15th century, perhaps by emissaries of the Luba-Lunda hegemonies, certainly by “blacksmith” chiefs, good hunters and good warriors. Numerous remains of very old smithies are found on the banks of the Kwango.
The oldest known manicongo was called Nimi or Lukani. His grandson was called Nzinga Nkuwu, and it is him whom the Portuguese of Diogo Cão will visit in 1483. Nzinga Nkuwu sends in 1489 an embassy to Lisbon. As a result of this mission, a concrete cooperation between the two sovereigns begins. The king of Portugal immediately granted the king of the Congo technical and cultural assistance, sending him masons, carpenters and missionaries. The Manicongo immediately converted to Christianity and, in 1490, built the first church in the capital, Mbanza. Nkuwu gave his full support to the missionaries to build churches and open schools. He himself adopted a Christian name, João I, and henceforth all Manicongos will go down in history with his Christian name.
Born with the name of Nzinga Mbemba, son of the manicongo João I, and baptized with the Christian name of Afonso. According to Afonso”s own account, his father abjured Christianity towards the end of his reign, after having to face the rebellion of his cousin, Nzinga Mpangu, who had revolted a certain number of notables, dissatisfied with certain provisions of the Christian morality imposed by the Portuguese missionaries, especially monogamy.
Afonso, on the other hand, became a devout Christian, and began his political life by being appointed by his father to govern the northern province of Nsundi, whose location was on the banks of the Congo River, midway between the present-day cities of Kinshasa and Matadi. His rule there was successful, extending Nsundi”s borders north of the Congo River. Intrigues at court caused the king to doubt his son, who was displaced from the government of Nsundi, although Afonso later regained his father”s confidence and was returned to the province.
In the capital of his province, the city of Mbanza-Nsundi (or simply Nsundi or Sundi), Afonso welcomed the Portuguese clergymen and agents who had been forced to leave the capital of the Kingdom when the Manichean João I renounced Christianity around 1495. Then, to the chagrin of many within his domains, he had many objects of traditional art, considered “diabolical” by the Portuguese, burned.
Rise to power
In 1507 his father died, and potential rivals emerged to take over the kingdom. It was an elective monarchy, not hereditary, so Afonso was not sure that the throne would go to him. It was his mother who helped Afonso in his attempt to become king by keeping the news of King João I”s death a secret. This gave Afonso time to return to the capital city, Mbanza Kongo, and gather followers. Thus, when the king”s death was finally announced, Afonso was already in the city.
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 advance on Mbanzacongo. 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 Santiago el Mayor and the Holy Spirit in the sky. Mpanzu”s army fled in panic. This miracle, which Afonso describes in a 1509 letter (now lost) became the basis of what would become the Congo”s coat of arms for the next three centuries (until 1860). Afonso”s alliance with the Portuguese would bear fruit during this battle for the succession to the throne: one version attributes the victory over his brother to the help of Portuguese arms.
Reign as a manicurist
Practically everything that is known about the Congo at the time of Afonso”s reign is known thanks to his long series of letters, written in Portuguese. Especially those addressed to Kings Manuel I and John III of Portugal. These letters are usually very long and give many details about the administration of the country. In many of them he complains about the behavior of some Portuguese officials.
Afonso is famous for his determined attempt to turn the Congo into a Christian country, establishing the Catholic Church there, financing it with tax revenues, and creating schools. He demanded the burning of all idols and non-Christian objects related to sorcery and magic, erasing very significant aspects of the Congolese cultural heritage. He renamed the capital, Mbanza, with the name of San Salvador, and a dozen churches were built, becoming a home for the missionaries. There would come a time when several thousand Europeans would reside in San Salvador. By 1516 there were more than a thousand students in the Royal School, which, together with the creation of more schools in the provinces, would contribute to the development of a new literate political elite (since the schools were not intended for the common people). During his reign, the construction of the first Catholic Cathedral in the region was completed. Later, conflicts among the missionaries would lead him to cancel these ambitious projects.
He also tried to develop a theology that combined the religious traditions of his country with those of Christianity. He studied theological books, sometimes falling asleep over them, in agreement with Rui de Aguiar (the Portuguese royal chaplain sent to help him). To assist with this task, and after the failure of his initial project of schools, Afonso sent several of his sons and nobles to study in Europe, including his son Henry, who rose to the rank of bishop in 1518; the Holy See assigned him the bishopric of Utica (in North Africa), although in practice he practiced in the Congo from his return in the 1520s until his death in 1531.
In 1512, Manoel I of Portugal sent a mission of five ships to take artisans, nursery plants and domestic animals to the Congo. Simon da Silva, head of the expedition, was commissioned to build for Alfonso I a stone palace with several floors, to teach him how to behave at table, to organize a court, and, in short, to make him lead an existence “worthy of a very Christian king”. He created titles of nobility, attributing titles such as Marquis of Pembe, Count of Sonyo, Duke of Bata, or Grand Duke of Bemba to the black lords.
The Portuguese do not provide totally disinterested technical assistance, they also want to do business. The written order for Simon da Silva”s mission had a counterpart: the king of the Congo was asked to provide ivory and slaves; he was expected to favor the activity of the slave traders who came to supply his territory. From the island of São Tomé, which held the monopoly of trade with equatorial Africa, the Portuguese scorned any attempt by the manicongo to stop or even regulate the slave trade in his kingdom.
Throughout his reign Afonso wrote a series of letters to the sovereigns of Portugal, complaining about the behavior of the Portuguese in the country, and their role in the development of the slave trade. He accused them of assisting bandits in their own country and of illegally acquiring free people to sell as slaves, and threatened to completely interrupt trade between the two nations. A committee was even established to determine the legality of the enslaved persons presented for sale. Despite this, his letter of October 5, 1514 reveals certain connections between his men, Portuguese mercenaries in the service of the Congo, and the capture and sale of slaves, many of whom he retained in his service.
The captains of the European ships were engaged in trade along the Congo River, disregarding the commercial laws of the country. Afonso asked the king of Portugal, Manuel I (whose rule lasted from 1495 to 1521), to send an emissary who had special jurisdiction over Portuguese citizens in the Congo. Accordingly, in 1512, Manuel designed a program of Christianization and culturization, and sent an ambassador with a regiment (a rule or systematic instruction). However, this failed in its objective, mainly by omission, since in practice he tried to limit the sovereignty of the Congo on several levels. Commercially, it refused to restrict the activity of those Portuguese traders who violated the laws of the Congo. Judicially, he tolerated illegal activities of the Portuguese, such as the slave trade. And in the religious sphere, he sought to erase the country”s traditional customs.
In 1526 Afonso wrote two letters about the slave trade to the king of Portugal, complaining about Portugal”s complicity in the purchase of illegally enslaved people.
In one of them he writes:
Slavery was undoubtedly practiced in the Congo kingdom; when the Christian missions were established, they were given not only land, but also slaves to work it. But what gives the problem a new aspect is that the demand of the Portuguese slave traders makes slavery pass from the limited family scale to the commercial scale, which knows no limits. The Portuguese slave traders were unbridled by the prospect of making a fortune very quickly by selling even a few hundred blacks in the West Indies, so pressing were the needs of the Spanish plantations in Cuba, Hispaniola and New Granada.
Towards the end of his reign, Afonso”s sons and grandsons began maneuvers for succession.
Even on Easter Sunday 1539, while he was celebrating mass, conspirators, including Portuguese residents in the country connected with the slave trade, made an unsuccessful attempt on his life.
He died in late 1542 or perhaps early 1543, leaving his son Pedro as successor. Although his son was later overthrown by his grandson Diogo (in 1545), and had to take refuge in a church, his grandchildren and the descendants of three of his daughters gave rise to many subsequent kings. The Christian Bantu dynasty in the Congo Kingdom would last until the 17th century.