Introduction – Mbemba to King of Portugal

In 1483, the Portuguese sailor Diogo Cao arrived at the mouth of the Congo River, claiming Africa for Portugal under the authority granted that kingdom by the Vatican. At that time, the Kingdom  was one of the largest on the continent. There were twelve provinces covering parts of Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Gabon, Namibia, and Zambia. It was an important player in the African trade in gold, copper, ivory, cloth and pottery, into which Cao hoped to integrate Portuguese commerce.

Things moved quickly in the 1480s. Cao had taken several nobles to Portugal after his initial visit and by 1485, the ruling King Nzinga a Nkuwu converted to Christianity. He was baptized in 1491, when Catholic priests arrived in the kingdom. Over the decades that followed, there was considerable back and forth between the Kongo and Portugal.

Nkuwu’s successor, Nzinga Mbemba, is the author of this module’s document. Trained by Catholic priests during the late fifteenth century, when he took power in 1509, he established the Catholic Church as the Kingdom’s state religion, built schools for the elite, and sent many nobles to train in Europe; his son became the Kingdom’s first Catholic bishop.

By 1526, forty years of trade and diplomacy with Portugal had led to the development of a fairly extensive trade in slaves, some heading to Sao TomĂ©, a previously uninhabited island off Africa’s west coast that Portugal had developed to grow sugar. Initially, plantation workers were enslaved as part of warfare on Kongo’s frontiers. Over time, though, the source of slaves became unclear, and – in Mbemba’s view – bypassed Kongo law and sovereignty.

As you read through these letters ask yourself:

  • How does Mbemba relate to Portuguese king Joao III?
  • What is the relationship between Christianity and commerce?
  • What solutions does Mbemba see to the problem of the Portuguese slave trade? What does this teach us about the Kongo state?
Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Kongo issued to King Affonso I (Wikimedia Commons)

This module was last updated in December 2021.


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A Few Words that Changed the World Copyright © 2022 by Thomas Peace is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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