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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.
LOOKING FOR STATUS
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.
A POWERFUL RULER
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.