The Story of Africa


- One god, many deities


- Two worlds


- Rites and living


- Religion and politics


- Islam


- Intellectual traditions


- Practices


- North Africa and Ethopia


- The Berbers


- East Africa


- West Africa


- Christianity


- North Africa


- Ethiopia and Nubia


- Missionaries


- African churches



The Kongo

Missionary Samuel Crowther
In 1490 the first missionaries came to Sub-Saharan Africa at the request of King Nzinga of Kongo (also known as the Manikongo). They came with craftsmen who rebuilt the Manikongo's capital in stone at Mbanza Kongo (in the North of modern Angola), and baptised the King. King Nzinga's son Afonso (born Nzinga Mbemba) was sent to Portugal to study and amazed the catholic hierarchy with his intelligence and intense piety.

"It seems to me from the way he speaks as though he is not a man but rather an angel, sent by the Lord into this kingdom to convert it; for I assure that is he who instructs us, and that he knows better than we do the Prophets and the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and the lives of the saints and all the things concerning out Holy Mother the Church?For he devotes himself entirely to study, so that it often happens that he falls asleep over his books, and often he forgets to eat and drink in talking of the things of Our Lord." - The Franciscan missionary, Rui d'Aguiar, writing to King Manuel of Portugal about the piety of the Mani Kongo, King Afonso of the Kongo, 25th May 1516.

Afonso's son, Henrique, subsequently became the first black African bishop in the Catholic church. But the kingdom of the Kongo was ruined by the slave trade, which caused a massive drain on manpower.

The Soyo

The Soyo people were initially junior partners in an alliance with the Manikongo, but this changed in the 17th century. The Soyo traded with the Dutch from whom they bought firearms in exchange for slaves, ivory and copper. The Soyo eventually usurped the Manikongo and laid waste Sao Salvador, the Kongo seat of power. The Soyo set up their capital in Mbanza Soyo (now modern Porto Rico on Zaire river in northern Angola). By 1665 the Kongo empire had largely disintegrated.

The Soyo elite

Capuchin missionaries from Portugal established themselves as crucial intermediaries between the Soyo and Europe. They were helped by eight or ten interpreters, many related to the ruler, bound by a vow of secrecy and governed by many rules. The interpreters were a privileged group and did not pay tax or do military service. Their job was to translate during confession, prepare the altar and teach. By the late 17th century the ruler of Soyo was attending mass three times a week, carried in a hammock, wearing a cross of solid gold.

However, there was conflict between the Capuchins and the Soyo over the issue of monogamous marriage and traditional religious practices. The Capuchins did not want the Soyo to sell baptised slaves to the English or other non-Catholic traders. They insisted that baptised slaves could only be sold to the Portuguese.


At the beginning of the 18th century there was an attempt to revive the fortunes of the Kongo empire. In 1704, Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, a young Kongolese woman, born to a noble Catholic family, claimed to be possessed by the spirit of St. Anthony. Inspired by this visitation she set about fighting to reestablish the preeminence of the old Kongo empire. She led a crusade of a thousand followers to Sao Salvador in 1704. Two years later she was burnt at the stake for heresy.

Christianity persisted in the region, although it evolved in its own way, specific to the area. Missionaries who turned up in the 19th century, expecting to convert the local population, found people practising their own Africanised form of Christianity. All Souls Day had merged with the veneration of ancestors (a fusion repeated in many other parts of Africa), and the Virgin Mary had become something of a fertility symbol.

In the rest of Africa, Christianity made little headway in the 18th century. Rulers in West Africa were mildly interested at first, seeing Christianity as something to add on to their own religions. But they grew hostile when told they had to make a choice: it was either Christianity or traditional religion. South Africa was the site of greater Christian missionary activity. The Moravian Brethren (closely linked to the Lutherans) of Eastern Europe, established a mission in 1737. In 1799 the London Missionary Society (LMS) followed suit.

19th century white missionaries

At the beginning of the 19th century, very few people in Africa were practising Christians, apart from Ethiopians, Coptic Egyptians and people living in the remnants of the Kongolese Empire (modern Congo Brazzaville and western DR Congo).

In the 1800s, Catholic missionary expeditions were launched with new vigour to the West, in Senegal and Gabon. Protestant missionaries took up work in Sierra Leone in 1804. The missionaries represented a big spectrum of denominations or churches: Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, many of them in competition and conflict with each other.

The abolition of slave owning in 1807 and slave trading in 1834 throughout the British Empire proved to be two important turning points. Outlawing the slave trade and converting freed slaves became a powerful motive for setting up European Christian missions. Human compassion in Europe for the plight of slaves meant that money could be raised to fund the considerable expenses of setting up a mission.

The Protestants spread the Christian gospel through the slaves who were liberated from slaving ships along the West Coast after 1834. The application of Christian doctrine was much stricter than it had been in previous centuries. The success of Christian missionary programmes can be linked to the education they offered. Many people in Africa wanted education; and missionaries taught people to read, in order that they might understand the word of God.

Rescued from slavery

Two stages in the conversion of Chief Sechele of the Bakwain
• Literacy and obesity:
"As soon as he had an opportunity of learning, he set himself to read with such close application, that from being comparatively thin, the effect of having been fond of the chase, he became quite corpulent from want of exercise. Mr. Oswell gave him his first lesson in figures, and he acquired the alphabet on the first day of my residence at Chonuane.

He was by no means an ordinary specimen of the people, for I never went into the town but I was pressed to hear him read some chapters of the Bible. Isaiah was a great favourite with him; and he was wont to use the same phrase nearly which the professor of Greek at Glasgow, Sir D.K. Sandford, once used respecting the Apostle Paul, when reading his speeches in the Acts: 'He was a fine fellow, that Paul!'"

• Baptism and division:
"Seeing several of the old men actually in tears during the service, I asked them afterwards the cause of their weeping; they were crying to see their father, as the Scotch remark over a case of suicide, 'so far left to himself.' They seemed to think that I had thrown the glamour over him, and that he had become mine. Here commenced an opposition, which we had not previously experienced. All the friends of the divorced wives became the opponents of our religion. The attendance at school and church diminished to very few besides the chief's own family." - Description of Chief Sechele of the Bakwain or Bakuena, a group within the Bechuana people (of modern Botswana) taken from Missionary Travels and Research in South Africa by David Livingstone, 1857.
The missionary traveller David Livingstone (1813-1873) believed that the slave trade could only be suppressed by a combination of Christianity and trade. He travelled extensively from east to west in southern Africa dedicated to bringing Christianity to all, but never staying very long anywhere. He was most successful among the Tswana people (in modern Botswana), even though conversion to Christianity upset the status quo of this community.

Neither Livingstone nor other missionaries had much impact on the slave trading which went on between the interior and the East coast. They failed to convert any significant numbers of Muslims to Christianity. Livingstone's well-intentioned call for colonisation as an antidote to the horrors of slavery, paved the way for a host of missionaries and speculators to follow in his footsteps and cause immense hardship for the people of southern Africa.

Dedication and deceit

Many European missionaries worked extremely hard running their missions, risking their lives and good health in the process. They varied enormously in their ability to contribute to the quality of life of those they lived with. Some remained dedicated but contemptuous of those they claimed to be converting. Others developed deep affection and respect for those they worked with and made a long lasting impression.

The Scottish factory worker, Mary Slessor was one such missionary. She spent over 40 years in southern Nigeria, in Calabar. She learnt the local language and lived a life of total simplicity. She dealt head-on with some of the customs of the region, such as throwing twins into the bush to die, and negotiated an end to this. Today she is still revered and loved as a local figure.


Among the least admirable missionaries in history is reckoned to be the Reverend Helm of the Christian Missionary Society (CMS) who deliberately mistranslated a document drawn up between King Lobengula of the Ndebele and the British South Africa Company of Cecil Rhodes. This resulted in King Lobengula giving away all his land to speculators, thinking he had only signed away a limited mining concession. He was one of the rulers of southern Africa who had consistently refused to convert to Christianity.

Another runner up for the title of villainous missionary is the Catholic priest, Friar Anthonio Barroso, who persuaded the illiterate Dom Pedro V, King of the Congo to sign a note in 1884. He believed it was a thank you letter for a gold-backed chair; in fact it was an oath of loyalty and submission to the King of Portugal.

Portuguese missionaries in Angola and Mozambique in the late 19th century and 20th century were renowned and feared for their willingness to work hand in glove with the Portuguese colonial authorities. As a result of this alliance between church and state, Protestant missions proved very popular and many of Angola and Mozambique's leading nationalists were educated in Protestant missionary schools.
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