Affonso I King of the Kongo 1506 to 1540
'We cannot reckon how great the damage is, since the merchants daily seize our subjects, sons of the land and sons of our noblemen, vassals and relatives … and cause them to be sold; and so great, Sir, is their corruption and licentiousness that our country is being utterly depopulated.'—Afonso I, in a letter to King João of Portugal, 1526
In 1506, Nzinga Mbemba, also known as Afonso I, succeeded his father, Nzinga Nkuwu, after a battle with his brother. Afonso I ruled for thirty-seven years, the longest reign in Kongo history. While his father maintained limited contact with the Portugese and viewed Christianity as a cult headed by them, Afonso I was a devout Christian who gladly welcomed trade with the Portugese.
Immediately upon his accession, Afonso started building churches and made Catholicism the state religion, under the aegis of his son Henrique, an ordained Catholic bishop. He banned and burned all non-Christian idols and any paraphernalia associated with magic and sorcery. In addition, he fashioned his court after the court of Lisbon and embarked on a modernization program, focusing on the education of the elite.
The economy was based mainly on the tribute system where the king derived his revenue from the trade in ivory and raffia fabric, supplemented by trade tolls and taxes. The currency, nzimbu shells which came from the fishing grounds at Luanda, was monopolized by the king. Afonso controlled the trade himself. At first, trade between Kongo and Portugal was conducted in an atmosphere of peace and friendship, with letters being exchanged between King Afonso and his “royal brother,” King Manuel.
In 1512, the famous regimento issued by the Portugese declared, in the first part, that it was a “civilizing mission” using, as Duffy states, “tact and discretion… to create where possible an African parallel to Portugese society.” However, in the second part, Manuel was attentive to “material gain” stating that “this expedition has cost us much: it would be unreasonable to send it home with empty hands. Although our principal wish is to serve God and the pleasure of the King, he should… fill the ships with slaves, or copper, or ivory.” Afonso wanted technical aid from the Portugese to provide his subjects with the skills and education available in Europe. The Portugese, however, were interested in slaves. Subsequently, commerce degenerated into the inhuman slave trade, which brutalized Africans and denied them their humanity.
From 1514, the slave trade became an integral part of the economy. Afonso’s attempts to control and later abolish the slave trade were futile, as the Portugese appetite for slaves was insatiable.
By 1516, Kongo was exporting 4,000 slaves annually until 1540, when it increased to approximately 7,000. The Portugese pressed for more slaves, and the demands of the tribute system forced Afonso to comply with their excessive demands. The standard source of slaves—war captives and criminals—was drying up and new sources—slave raiding and buying slaves from the Tio region with nzimbu shells—were found. The revenue from the slave trade financed the hiring of priests, artisans, and teachers, and purchased luxury items for the nobility.
Harried by the Portugese and the slave trade, Afonso I had to secure the allegiance of the nobility to maintain his position as mwene Kongo. Therefore, all the revenue from the slave trade was eventually disbursed to the nobility. Social and political life in Kongo were transformed as the gap between the educated, Christianized nobility and the masses increased, leading to the shameful exploitation of the latter.
Before Afonso came to the throne, the Portugese were fascinated with the mythical gold mines of Kongo. In addition to the trade in slaves, they also wanted to exploit the mineral wealth of Kongo. However, Afonso and successive rulers maintained control over the copper of Bembe and the working of Mbanza Kongo iron.
Trade with the Portugese had always been unequal, and with the slave trade, the Portugese transgressed all boundaries to satisfy their craving for African slaves. Afonso balanced the forces affecting his kingdom by catering to the indulgences of the nobility. He survived several efforts to topple him, including an assassination attempt by the Portugese in 1540.
Afonso’s death in 1543 went unnoticed by the king of Portugal.
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