Nzinga Nkuwu

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Nzinga Nkuwu

Nzinga Nkuwu (died 1506) was an African ruler also known as João I, the first baptized manikongo, or king of Kongo. The state of Kongo was under Portuguese influence in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

Nzinga Nkuwu reigned as the divine king of a Bantu African state near the mouth of the Congo River when the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão discovered it in 1482. Nzinga Nkuwu was fifth in succession of the founding dynasty of Kongo, which had begun in the late 14th century and came to a shadowy end in the late 19th century.

The Kingdom of Kongo was centered in what is today northern Angola, with its capital at Mbanza (later São Salvador), 125 miles from the sea. It exerted authority over a large area bordering the Congo River in the north, the Dande River in the south, the Kwango River in the east, and the Atlantic Ocean in the west. It was divided into six or more provinces under nominally hereditary rulers who more or less acknowledged the supremacy or paramountcy of the manikongo.

The Portuguese equated this polity with their own strongly centralized feudal monarchy. They envisioned its discovery as a great opportunity to secure an African alliance in furtherance of their grand design for a route to the Far East, converts for Christianity, and an anti-Islamic alliance with the semimythical Prester John, Christian king of the Indies. In reality the manikongo's state was rather less stable and less substantial than the Portuguese supposed.

Alliance With Portugal

Two or three years after the first contact, Nzinga Nkuwu welcomed Diogo Cão on a new expedition which brought gifts and emissaries from the Portuguese king, João II. Doubtless he saw in them equally attractive opportunities for an alliance which would strengthen the authority of his own state over its tributaries. Urging the further exchange of gifts, goods, and representatives, he dispatched an African delegation to the Portuguese court, advising João II that he would welcome priests, artisans, and farmers from Portugal to aid his realm.

Consequently, in 1490, Nzinga Nkuwu received another expedition, of three ships under the command of Rui de Sousa, bearing priests, workers, soldiers, and Africans who had been tutored in Portugal. Nzinga Nkuwu was baptized into Christianity within the month (taking the name of his royal Portuguese brother, "João") as João I, first Christian king of Kongo. The connection brought early advantages. Nzinga's power increased, and Portuguese soldiers aided in suppressing a rebellion on the coast north of the Congo's mouth. He sent his first son, Nzinga Mvemba, baptized as Affonso, to Portugal, where he was educated for 10 years, returning more a European prince than an African one.

João l's Portuguese alliance soon soured. By the mid-1490s only a handful of official priestly representatives remained, plus a few soldiers with orders to search overland for Prester John. By 1500 the Kongo "experiment" was at least temporarily abandoned by the Portuguese crown for the sake of the great Indian Ocean discoveries, commencing with Vasco da Gama's historic voyage of 1498. Official relations gave way to a new breed of largely uncontrolled adventurers and renegade traders from the island of São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea. These operated with different objectives: personal commercial exploitation and the swiftly rising slave trade.

Rejection of European Culture

Meanwhile, the consequences of confrontation between deeply differing cultures and policies were felt in the rise of division and factionalism in the manikongo's court. Traditionalists resisted the imposition of an alien religion coupled with a monogamous social ethic which threatened the structure of politics and the social security of a polygamous society. The parties polarized around rival heirs to João l's throne—his first and second sons, the one the heir presumptive, Affonso, a Europeanized Christian, and the other a traditionalist abetted by the Manikongo's advisers and wives.

The latter son prevailed, and João I, persuaded by the demands of his polygamous court, lapsed from Christianity, exiled his son Affonso to a distant province with his mother and loyal Portuguese advisers, and resumed the original aspect of Nzinga Nkuwu. Nevertheless, upon his death in 1506, the struggle for succession was concluded with the accession of Nzinga Mvemba: Affonso I, the second Christian king of Kongo.

Thus began an extraordinary partnership which remains one of the poignant might-have-beens in the bitter story of Africa's experience with Europe. For what began in the expectation of mutual advantage and development degenerated within two reigns into the rapine of plunder, civil war, and the slave trade.

Further Reading

The important 16th-century account of Kongo is that of merchant-explorer Duarte Lopes and Filippe Pigafetta, translated into English as Report of the Kingdom of the Congo (1881). The most useful accounts in English are in James Duffy, Portuguese Africa (1959), and Basil Davidson, Black Mother: The Years of the African Slave Trade (1961), which also appears in recent editions as The African Slave Trade.