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Portuguese Intervention In The West

The main aim of the Portuguese, when they first came to sub Saharan Africa in 1443, was to enhance and enrich the Portuguese Crown. With a very small population, Portugal had for centuries struggled to define itself in Europe against its larger neighbour Spain. It had only acquired independence in the mid 13th century.

By the 15th century Portugal was comparable to many kingdoms in Africa, although possibly less rich and less well endowed scholastically than Mali and Ghana. The Jewish and Moorish populations had been expelled from Portugal in the mid 15th century severely depleting the cultural and intellectual life. But already by the beginning of the 15th century Portugal had begun to excel in one area - navigation.

In 1482 Diogo Cao completed a journey of nearly 8,000 km from Portugal, down the West African coast, arriving at the mouth of the River Congo. He was the first European to travel this far down the West African coast, and he quickly realised there was a very powerful ruler in the region.

This Manikongo, or king, resided over 300 km inland at Mbanza Kongo, and yet everyone knew him and paid tribute to him at the coast. So for the Portuguese there was a leader to negotiate with, who had authority over many people, in a region with great commercial potential. The main commodities were ivory and copper, and of course slaves.
Slaves were an important aspect of that trade from the beginning, but the Portuguese also imported silver and peppers.

But there is another strand to the Portuguese intervention in West Africa. Having made contact with each other, the two kings - Nzinga a Nkuwu, the Manikongo, (or king of the Kongo), and King Joao II of Portugal began what in later years under their successors was to become an intensely religious relationship. And the Manikongo developed a fascination for all things European.

Within eight years of first arriving, the Portuguese had made a deep impression on the ruling class of the Kongo. Four young Bakongo men were sent to be educated in Portugal. The Manikongo was baptised Dom Joao I (the same name as his Portuguese counterpart), along with his son, Nzinga Mbemba, who became Affonso.

The newly named Dom Joao I took possession of an entourage of carpenters and masons, large amounts of European cloth, a selection of horses and cattle, and a piece of revolutionary technology: a printing press, complete with two German printers. The first printing press had only been invented forty years earlier.

By the second half of the 17th century, the Portuguese stopped launching any further military conquest. And while they continued to benefit from the slave trade, they began to lose control of the trade network which bought and sold the slaves.

Aside from the Dutch, British and French appearing on the scene in the 17th century, a host of other communities and groups tapped into the trade network, both on the east and west of the continent. Increasingly, these traders acted independently of both the Portuguese crown and traders based in Lisbon.

When Affonso became king in 1506, he set out to learn everything there was to learn about the Portuguese ruling class, court etiquette, the laws of the country and the Catholic Church. (After an initial bout of enthusiasm, his father's commitment to Christianity had faded).

Later, Affonso's son, Henrique, was to become the first black Bishop in the Catholic Church.

The Franciscan missionary Rui d'Aguiar was amazed at King Affonso's piety and dedication:

"It seems to me from the way he speaks he is not a man, but an angel, sent by the Lord in this kingdom to convert it. For I assure you, it is he who instructs us. He devotes himself entirely to study, so that it often happens that he falls asleep at his books, and often he forgets to eat and drink in talking of the things of our Lord."

In 1512 the King of Portugal ordered a coat of arms be drawn up for the Manikongo. But good will between kings and the piety of the newly converted king were not enough to deal with the rush of commercial greed which soon enveloped the Kongo.

The demand for manpower in the New World meant the slave trade soon took over all other commercial transactions, and it attracted a mass of rootless, ruthless entrepreneurs, some BaKongo, or neighbours of the BaKongo, some Portuguese and people from mixed races.

Dona Anna de Sousa Nzinga first emerged in the Ndongo Kingdom in the 1620s. She dealt with a catalogue of disaster and disadvantages, emerging finally as an extraordinary strategist, warrior and negotiator. Her father, the king of Ndongo, was deposed, her son was killed by her half-brother, Mbandi, and she was driven out of the kingdom.

Under pressure from the Portuguese, Mbandi finally called on Nzinga for help. She returned and negotiated with the Portuguese on his behalf, agreeing to a Christian baptism in the process.

When the Portuguese betrayed their agreement, Nzinga sought allies among the Jaga people. She took the opportunity to avenge the death of her son by killing Mbandi.

Forced out of her kingdom once more, she built up a huge military following with the help of the Jaga and a large number of slaves. From her base in Matamba she attacked Ari, the new king of Ndongo, whom she considered a puppet of the Portuguese.

For nine years she fought the Portuguese relentlessly supported by the Dutch and the Jaga. Finally she was defeated in 1656. According to a Dutch emissary she dressed like a man and kept a harem of men at home. She died in 1663 and was succeeded by her sister Dona Barbara.

As early as 1514, the Manikongo, Affonso I, complains, writing from his palace in Mbanza Kongo, to Manuel I about the behaviour of the former Governor of Sao Tome Fernao de Melo:

"He sold our goods at the lowest price possible. With the money he bought a slave from Goa and another. He sent us them in one of the first ships, saying they were the carpenters. At the same time he sent us some blue cloth all gnawed by rats…all this we have been able to endure because of the love of our Jesus Christ."

Listen HereListen to Paul Bakabinga reading a letter from King Affonso, Manikongo, to King Manuel I of Portugal

Later on in Affonso's reign, it was obvious that whatever the initial rewards in terms of material goods and skills, the slave trade was beginning to undermine the fabric of the kingdom. On 18th October 1526, Affonso complained to the Portuguese King. He claimed the slave trade was robbing the country of its best men.

"Sir, there is in our kingdom, a great obstacle to God. Many of our subjects crave the Portuguese merchandise which your people bring to our kingdom so keenly. In order to satisfy their crazy appetite they snatch our free subjects, or people who have been freed.

They even take noblemen and the sons of noblemen, even our kinsmen. They sell them to white men who are in our kingdom, after having transported their prisoners on the sly in the dead of night. Then the prisoners are branded. The white men…cannot say from whom they have bought the prisoners. "

Listen HereListen to Paul Bakabinga reading a letter from King Affonso, Manikongo, to King Manuel I of Portugal

As the 17th century proceeded, the voracious demands of the slave trade and the breakdown of loyalty among Kongo's client states, all conspired to undermine the position of the Manikongo. The special relationship between the BaKongo and the Portuguese turned sour, as alliances and enmities increasingly turned solely on profit.

In 1665 the Kongo army was defeated by the Portuguese at the battle of Mbwila. The head of the Manikongo was cut off and put in the chapel situated on the bay of Luanda.

In 1704 a young Kongo woman called Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita claimed to be possessed by St. Anthony and declared it her mission to restore Kongo to its former glory. She founded a church in Mbanza Kongo, then called Sao Salvador by the Portuguese, which became very popular.

Her following attracted jealousy and criticism. She was burnt at the stake for heresy, along with her baby son in 1706. Pedro IV, ruler of the Kimbungu, ordered her death with the encouragement of Catholic priests.