Nzinga, Mpanzu a
Mpanzu a Nzinga (circa 1460-1506), a contender for the throne of the Kongo kingdom in 1506, advocated a return to traditional religious values, thus reversing the initial acceptance of the Catholic religion and Western culture. Mpanzu, however, was defeated by his brother Mvemba Nzinga who welcomed the Portuguese as his allies.
Probably born between 1456 and 1460, Mpanzu a Nzinga was the son of Nzinga Nkuwu, the king of the Kongo who welcomed the Portuguese explorer, Diogo Cao, who landed at the mouth of the Zaire River in August 1482. While the king, the queen-mother and the king’s other son, Mvemba Nzinga, embraced the Catholic faith and took respectively the first names of Jõao I, Eleanor, and Afonso, Mpanzu a Nzinga remained faithful to his traditional beliefs.
Mpanzu’s adherence to custom won him the sympathy of the common people and of a large part of the nobility who supported him as the heir apparent to the throne. These partisans persuaded the king to abandon Christianity and to designate Mpanzu as his successor instead of Mvemba Nzinga, a fervent Christian.
The king returned to his traditional religion for several reasons. First, the Portuguese auto-da-fès (burning of heretics) stirred unrest among the people. Second, the king found it difficult to abandon polygamy, a practice enabling him to forge alliances which reinforced his power. Third, he concluded that the white man’s material power was not due to the efficacy of Christianity. Thus, around 1494, only three years after his baptism, Nzinga Nkuwu forced most of the missionaries and Portuguese to leave Mbanza-Kongo (the capital, later named San Salvador). The Europeans then went to live in the province of Nzundi (located north of Mbanza-Kongo on the Zaire River) which was governed by Mvemba Nzinga. Mpanzu Nzinga, meanwhile, established Mpangu province (located between Mbanza-Kongo and Nsundi), which he administered, and surrounded himself with traditionalists.
Mpanzu’s partisans brought many accusations against his rival Mvemba Nzinga, who destroyed traditional religious objects that had been venerated for generations and supported the new religion with great zeal. Therefore Mvemba Nzinga was dismissed as governor of Nsundi by the king. Although he managed to exonerate himself and receive pardon, he again fell into disgrace and was summoned to Mbanza-Kongo for discipline. Mvemba Nzinga, however, was able to delay his arrival in the capital, and the old king died before confronting his son.
After Nzinga Nkuwu’s death in 1506, an intense succession dispute erupted. Some authors, for example Batsikama, believe that, strengthened by popular support and by the Mani-Vandu (spiritual chief of the earth and traditional priest of coronations), Mpanzu a Nzinga succeeded Nzinga Nkuwu as the invested king before his brother Mvemba Nzinga was able to gain power several months later, probably in 1507. Cuvelier, however, claims the war of succession, which brought the Christian Mvemba Nzinga to the throne, began immediately following the death of the king.
What is certain is that Mpanzu’s refusal to convert to the Christian religion won him the hostility of the Portuguese who defended Mvemba Nzinga. Because of Portuguese help, the followers of the new religion, despite their small numbers, crushed Mpanzu’s more numerous partisans. Mpanzu was killed and Mvemba Nzinga became king. Although the conquerors attributed their success to divine intervention, their victory is best explained by the fact that they had Portuguese artillery while Mpanzu’s forces had only traditional arms. Mpanzu’s death marked a turning point for the Kongo kingdom. With the accession of a “Christian prince,” Portuguese exploitation, under the guise of Christianization, increased dramatically.
Mpanzu a Nzinga was a farsighted chief and a fierce defender of custom. Unlike his Christian brother, who kept him from the throne, he correctly interpreted Portuguese intentions in the Kongo. The Portuguese hid behind their religion in order to destroy Kongolese society. After Mpanzu a Nzinga’s defeat, the Portuguese gained increasing control over the affairs of the kingdom. Perceiving the disastrous consequences of cultural assimilation, and advocating respect for traditional values as a basis for harmonious development, Mpanzu a Nzinga can be considered the precursor of authenticity.
G. Balandier, La vie quotidienne au royaume du Kongo du XVI’eme au XVIIIème siècle, 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; R. Batsikama, Voici les Jagas ou l’histoire d’un peuple parricide bien malgre lui (“Here are the Jagas or the History of a People Parricide Despite Themselves”), Kinshasa, 1971; J. Cuvelier, L’ancien royaume du Congo (“The Ancient Kingdom of Kongo”), Brussels, 1946; W.G.L. Randles, L’ancien royaume du Congo des origines à fa fin du XIXème siècle (“The Ancient Kingdom of Congo from its Origins to the End of the 19th Century”), Paris, The Hague, 1968.
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.