Manikongo Afonso I, the greatest king of the Kongo, reigned from 1506 to 1545. He worked with the Portuguese to bring Christianity to the Kingdom - which was located in the area of present day Angola, Congo, and Zaire - and was the first African king to be recognized in Europe. In the end, however, he was unable to contain the Portuguese, who wished to develop the slave trade.
Afonso was born Mvemba Nzinga and son of the manikongo - the king - of the Kongo, who in 1482 made the first contact with the Portuguese. Mvemba converted to Catholicism, taking the name Afonso. When his father, Nzingu Kuwu (João I), reverted to the traditional Kongo religion, Afonso welcomed the expelled missionaries to the province he governed. The Kongo political system provided for the open election of a successor from among the descendants of the first king. Upon his father’s death, Afonso’s non-Christian brother attempted to deny him the election, but Afonso defeated him in battle and took the throne. He attributed his victory to divine intervention, inspired by a vision of Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Apostle), who was also the symbol of Christian victory over the Muslims during the crusades in Spain and Portugal.
Afonso entered into relations with King Manuel of Portugal to the profit of both countries. Manuel supplied missionaries and craftsmen to the Kongo; Afonso granted trade privileges to the Portuguese. In his domestic policy Afonso pursued a progressive course, building schools and roads and encouraging development.
The Portuguese became an increasing problem within the kingdom. Many of the architects, doctors and pharmacists turned to commerce rather than practicing their professions. They ignored the laws of the Kongo, and in 1510 Afonso had to ask Portugal for a special representative with authority over his countrymen. Manuel responded with an ambitious plan for Westernizing Kongo society in exchange for ivory, copper, and slaves. Afonso rejected most of the plan, but the expanding slave trade presented serious challenges to the Kongo’s stability. Afonso did not repudiate slavery on principle, but in 1526 he issued decrees to regulate and moderate it.
Initially, slavery was limited to war captives, who were numerous enough because of various local battles and continual border disputes. A commission was set up to see that no one was kidnapped into slavery, but soon almost every Portuguese, including the missionaries, was raiding far into the interior, and the Portuguese craftsmen expected to be paid in slaves. By the 1530s the slave traders had contacts on São Tomé Island, an off-shore colony with a royal trade monopoly from Manuel. Because São Tomé stood to lose by strong bonds between Kongo and Portugal, it made every attempt to sabotage those relations.
The Portuguese were wrongly convinced that the Kongo had vast mineral riches that the king was keeping from them. In 1540 they attempted to assassinate Afonso on Easter Sunday as he attended mass, and he barely escaped.
Afonso promoted Christianity diligently, destroying traditional religious symbols and building churches and schools, but the few missionaries he was sent proved to be lazy, corrupt, and venal; they took concubines and lived as nobility. The other Portuguese were also poor examples of the new faith, engaging in drunken orgies and theft. In 1529 and again in 1539 Afonso appealed to the pope for intervention against Portuguese abuses, but to no avail. He sent talented young men to Portugal to be educated. Among them was his son Dom Henrique, who was consecrated a bishop in 1518. This attempt at developing an indigenous clergy failed, even though Dom Henrique returned to the kingdom. In spite of difficulties and the scandalous behavior of the Portuguese, the kingdom nevertheless slowly became partly Christianized.
When Afonso died, there was a dynastic struggle, and his immediate successor, Pedro I, was overthrown and replaced by a grandson, DIOGO I. The Kongo remained at least nominally Christian for over a century, but the hopeful signs of African-European partnership in international relations were shattered by the Portuguese, who began a ruthless expansion of the slave trade.
Norbert C. Brockman
Mitchison, Naomi. African Heroes. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1969 (young adult).
Dictionary of African Biography. Algonac, MI, and New York: Reference Publications, vol. 1, 1977; vol. 2, 1979.
Lipschutz, Mark R., and R. Kent Rasmussen. Dictionary of African Historical Biography. 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Encyclopedia of World Biography. Palatine, IL: Heraty, 17 volumes, 1973-1992.
Additional reading: M’Bokolo, Elikia. *Affonso Ier, le roi chrétien de l’ancien Congo * (Affonso I, Christian king of ancient Kongo, 1975).
This article is reproduced, with permission, from *An African Biographical Dictionary, *copyright © 1994, edited by Norbert C. Brockman, Santa Barbara, California. All rights reserved.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (complete article): Afonso I