Dom Henrique (circa 1495-circa 1526), the son of Mvemba Nzinga, the Mani Kongo, was the first bishop of the Kongo kingdom and probably the first African bishop of the Catholic Church. His 15 years of study in Portugal made him the most highly educated Kongo person of his age.
Dom Henrique was born in about 1495 at Mbanza Nsundi, 75 km (45 mi) south of Malebo Pool. His father Mvemba Nzinga, or Afonso, was already a Christian whose zeal for the faith was well known.
Although Mvemba Nzinga was not yet in power, as a son of the Mani Kongo (ruler of Kongo) he was recognized as a strong candidate for the throne. Thus, he was sent out of the capital as Mani Nsundi (ruler of Nsundi), a post often given to the heir apparent. In 1506, on the death of the Mani Kongo Nzinga Nkuwu, Mvemba Nzinga replaced his father after a bitter succession war against his brother.
The young Henrique, however, lived only briefly with his family at the capital Mbanza Kongo (later San Salvador), for Afonso included his son in the first contingent of young men sent to study in Portugal. Henrique, therefore, left his family at the age of eleven or twelve to study abroad. In general, most of the Kongo students in Europe did poorly in their studies because they could not easily adjust to the new land. This was not the case for Henrique, who zealously applied himself to the study of theology and Latin.
In 1513, Henrique was part of an important diplomatic mission to Rome. On the advice of King Manuel I of Portugal (reigned 1495-1521), the Mani Kongo Mvemba Nzinga, a Christian king, sent envoys to vow fealty to Pope Julius II (in office 1503-13). Young Henrique was made member of the mission since it was also instructed to request a dispensation with regard to his age in the case of his possible elevation to the post of bishop. Such a dispensation was necessary for, at 19, Henrique was far from the required age for such an office. The Kongo delegation, constituted in Mbanza Kongo, then attached itself to the Portuguese delegation in Lisbon. Together the two groups proceeded to Rome where they presented themselves before the pope.
When the Portuguese and Kongolese representatives arrived in Rome on March 12, 1514, they learned that Pope Julius II, to whom the letters of obedience were addressed from Mvemba Nzinga, had died several months before. Since Leo X (in office 1513-21) had now been elected pope, the envoys had to modify their plans. Although the delegates could not officially present the letters professing obedience to Julius II, they could offer Leo X the gifts they had brought along. The pope accepted the gifts and agreed to grant a dispensation for the consecration of Henrique as a bishop.
After this audience with the pope, Henrique returned to Portugal, where he continued his studies. In 1520, he was ordained a priest and shortly thereafter consecrated as bishop. One year later, in 1521, he returned to the Kongo with the title bishop of Utica (in Tunisia), since the Portuguese opposed the creation of a diocese in Kongo. Although the Mani Kongo hoped that Dom Henrique’s presence at Mbanza Kongo would add to the king’s power and prestige, the new bishop did not live long after his return. Dom Henrique died in 1526, if not sooner.
The life of the Bishop Dom Henrique serves to remind us that Christianity in the western region of Zaire has very ancient roots. His life also stands as testimony to the existence of a small group of literate Africans who flourished during the golden years of the kingdom of the Kongo.
Ndaywel è Nziem
G. Balandier, La vie quotidienne au royaume du Kongo,, du XVIème au XVIIIème siècles, Paris, 1965, English translation by Helen Weaver published as Daily Life in the Kingdom of the Kongo from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, New York, 1968; F. Bontinck, “La première ‘Ambassade’ Congolaise à Rome, 1514,” (“The First Congolese ‘Embassy’ to Rome, 1514,”), Études d’Histoire Africaine, I, 1970, pp. 37-73; J. Cuvelier, L’ancien royaume du Congo (“The Old Kingdom of Kongo”), Brussels, 1946; W. Rabozuk, “Notes sur l’enseignement dans l’ancien royaume du Congo” (“Notes on Teaching in the Old Kingdom of Kongo”), Likundoli, Series A-2, 1974, pp. 25-44.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume Two: Sierra Leone-Zaire. Ed. L. H. Ofosu-Appiah. New York: Reference Publications Inc., 1979. All rights reserved.