When the Kongo King wrote to the King of Portugal against Slavery

Mbanza Kongo, capital of the Kingdom of Kongo, in 1745

King Mvemba a Nzinga, most commonly known as Afonso I of Kongo, or Nzinga Mbemba, was a Kongo king who ruled over the Kongo Empire from 1509 to late 1542 or 1543. He wrote a letter in 1526 to the Portuguese king decrying the capture of his subjects to be taken as slaves in the transatlantic slave trade. The Portuguese were also assisting brigands in Kongo and illegally purchasing free people as slaves. This letter contradicts the story that African kings sold their own into slavery, as has been re-told countless times in history books; moreover, this is also similar to Queen Nzingha‘s stance against slavery a century later; she fought almost 40 years against the Portuguese for the freedom of her people.  Afonso I of Kongo wrote:

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“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.

Afonso was also concerned about the depopulation of his kingdom through the exportation of his own citizens into slavery. The king of Portugal responded to Afonso’s concerns, writing that because the Kongo purchased their slaves from outside of the kingdom and converted them to Christianity and then intermarried with them, the kingdom probably maintained a high population and probably was not affected by the missing subjects. To lessen Afonso’s concerns, the king [of Portugal] suggested sending two men to a designated point in the city to monitor who was being traded and who could object to any sale involving a subject of Afonso’s kingdom. The king of Portugal then wrote that if he were to cease the slave trade from the inside of the Kongo, he would still require provisions from Afonso, such as wheat and wine.

8 thoughts on “When the Kongo King wrote to the King of Portugal against Slavery

  1. This is very important to know. I’ve been watching some documentaries recently involving music history involving Africans inventing certain genres. One of them is called Gurumbe: Afro-Andalusian Memories which mentions how Spain and Portugal were the first European countries to enact in the slave trade. The word “Fandango” even comes from one of the Congolese languages. Some of the people in that kingdom who would be modern-day Congolese, Angolans, and Gabonese were in places like Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina which I learned in the documentary Tango Negro.

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    1. Wow… thanks Ospreyshire… I did not know about the word “Fandango”… see we repeat these without knowing where they come from. I will check out the documentary “Tango Negro”. It sounds really good…
      A few years back, one of the blogs I followed was about the life of a Black woman in Argentina, whose family had been in Argentina at least as far back as the 1800s, and who was born and raised there. She talked about how through wars, depopulation, and intermarriages, the Black population in Argentina had been almost eradicated to the point that even Argentinans today do not know that there are Black Argentinans (not the recent arrival from the motherland).

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      1. You’re welcome, Dr. Y. I would’ve never guessed that about Fandango either. Even “Tango” comes from the Lingala and Kikongo word for “time” or “moment” which makes this an actual cognate and not an original Spanish word. There’s also a type of music in Uruguay created by the Afro-Aruguayans called Candombe which comes from “Ndombe” the Kikongo word for “black”. When I researched some candombe music, I found a band called Kimba which I find to be very interesting. Hahaha!

        Tango Negro was a very informative and entertaining documentary. In Argentina and Uruguay, there’s been an effort to mention the African origins of those types of music much less Black History in that part of South America.

        That doesn’t surprise me about that Afro-Argentinean woman. They interview a Black woman from that country in that same situation in Tango Negro where she talks about how her family has been around since the 1800s and how people thought she was either Cuban or Uruguayan and not Argentinean which always frustrated her. Sadly, the Afro-Argentine community was subjected to being on the front lines during their war of independence, disease, genocide, forced interracial relationships, etc. The current census ranks the Black population in Argentina to be 0.4% of the national population while the white population is 96.7%. America, Canada, England, France, and even Germany have lower white demographic percentages in their respective populations, to put this into perspective.

        The Afro-Argentinean and Afro-Uruguayan population were able to trace their origins to the former Kingdom of Kongo and some have also been self identifying as Congolese and Angolan to name a few with these various traditions and music.

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      2. Wow… thank you Ospreyshire… this is very informative… I knew about Candombe, but not the origin of its name, or even of the name “tango”. I am not surprised that a lot of the Afro-Argentineans (the few left) and Afro-Uruguayans were able to trace their origin to the Kingdom of Kongo, given that a lot of the slaves from the Kongo (here the big one) were taken to South America, but I did not know that they proudly today self-identify as Congolese and Angolan…. we really need to build a bridge with our brothers and sisters of Latin America.

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      3. No problem. I certainly learned a lot from that documentary and began listening to some of that music. Good on you for knowing that about the lineage with the Black population in those parts of the Americas. I definitely agree with that connection needing to happen.

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