Nzinga Mvemba (c. 1456 - 1542 or 1543), also known as King
was a ruler of the Kingdom of Kongo
in the first half of the
16th century. He reigned over the Kongo
from 1509 to late 1542 or 1543.
After the arrival of the Portuguese, Afonso was assigned to rule
Kongo's northern province of Nsundi
was accompanied by a number of Portuguese priests. He was successful in
his rule there, extending Nsundi's borders north of the Congo River.
According to Afonso's account of events,
his father lost interest in Christianity
toward the end of his reign.
Afonso, on the other hand, became a devout Christian. Intrigues at
court, caused the king to doubt his son, and he was deprived of his
province. Eventually Afonso regained his father's trust and was
returned to the province.
Rise to power
Around 1509 King João I died, and potential rivals lined up to take
over the kingdom. It 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.
Afonso time 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
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
and the Holy Ghost
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).
Reign as Manikongo
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.
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
, 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 rosie, 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
, who was elevated to the status of bishop in 1518.
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
The Slave Trade
In 1526 Afonso wrote a series of letters complaining about the
behavior of the Portuguese
country and their role in the developing 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
Afonso was a determined soldier and extended Kongo's effective
control to the south, especially. His letter of 5 October 1514
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, complaining of Portuguese complicity in
purchasing illegally enslaved people.
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.
Before the arrival of the Portuguese, slavery had already existed
in Kongo. Despite its establishment within his kingdom, 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.
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.
- Afonso's letters are all published, along with most of the
documents relating to his reign in:
António Brásio, Monumenta Missionaria Africana
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,
- African Political Ethics and the Slave