Christianity Is Established in the Kingdom of Kongo

In the 1490’, the Kingdom of Kongo embraced Christianity, and under Afonso I, Christianity acquired many African elements. Uniquely African forms of Christian art and religious practice developed. Kongo’s new religion allowed it to prosper as a trading partner of Portugal, but the rising slave trade brought conflict and eventually led to the weakening of the kingdom.

Summary of Event

In the 1440’, Portuguese explorers ventured south along the African coast, and by 1482, Diogo Cão had made the first contact with the Kingdom of Kongo. Kongo then occupied portions of the present-day Congo Republics (Congo and Zaire) and Angola, and it was ruled by Manikongo (king) Nzinga Nkuwu. Exploration and colonization;Portugal of Africa
Kongo, Christianity in
João I
Afonso I (1455-1543)
Afonso I (king of the Kongo)
Diogo I (king of the Kongo)
Alvare I (king of the Kongo)
Alvare II (king of the Kongo)

Portugal sent a technical delegation, and, impressed by both the West’s technology and its faith, Nzinga Nkuwu was baptized as João I in 1491. He was joined by his court officials and his firstborn son, Nzinga Mbemba, who took the name Afonso. The benefits of conversion were immediate: missionaries, teachers, military advisers, and artisans were dispatched from Portugal. Along with them came one of Europe’s newest technological marvels, invented only forty years before: a printing press. Printing;press, Africa The soldiers soon proved their worth by leading João’s forces in suppressing a local rebellion. João paid for Portugal’s cultural and military aid in ivory, copper, and slaves.

As Christianity spread, tensions between the old and new religions increased. The missionaries rejected the assimilation of local religious customs into Christianity, and they destroyed the Kongolese’s fetishes. The traditional cult leaders, the nganga, fostered dissension by reemphasizing the importance of polygamy, which bound powerful families together. Most of João’s sons resented the Christian insistence on monogamy, which they realized would destroy the fragile network of alliances that held Kongo society together. By 1494, the manikongo and most of his sons had abandoned Christianity and returned to traditional religious practice.

At the time of João’s death in 1506, the kingdom was extensive and prosperous. The six provinces were governed by appointed chiefs with broad authority. Afonso was governor of Nsundi Province in the northeast, where he fostered the development of his people. After João’s death, Afonso, as a baptized chief and potential heir to the throne, became the logical champion of the Christian forces.

To avoid dynastic problems, the Kongolese throne did not pass down to the firstborn of the king’s principal spouse but was chosen instead from among the sons of lesser wives. With their European background, however, the Portuguese favored the firstborn. Afonso was challenged by his half brother Mpanzu, whose forces were far superior, although Afonso had Portuguese cannon and cavalry alongside his foot soldiers. Mpanzu, however, prepared the battlefield with poisoned stakes, and as the two forces clashed, Afonso outflanked him and drove him onto his own defenses, where he died.

Soon the legend arose that Santiago (Saint James the Apostle) had appeared in the skies on a white horse to lead the Christian forces. The identical fable is recounted about the Christian victory at Clavijo in 844, which turned back the Moors in Spain, and again about the Spanish victory over the Aztecs at Mexico City. It represents the triumph of Iberian Christianity over paganism, and, in the case of the Kongo, it was fully embraced in the mythology of Kongolese Christianity.

Once on the throne, Afonso I aggressively used his position to bring the Kongo all the advantages of his Portuguese connections. The Jesuits established a school for the nobility in the capital, while Afonso sent sons and nephews to Lisbon for higher education. One son, Enrique, became the first African bishop since early Christianity (and the last for four hundred years). Afonso feared that Enrique might be poisoned by enemies, however, so he left him little scope for his abilities. These concerns were well founded; several of the king’s nephews (and perhaps his sons as well) were taken into slavery, and in 1540, the Portuguese attempted to assassinate Afonso while he attended Easter Sunday Mass.

While remaining a devout Catholic, Afonso spread the faith by incorporating traditional religious practices. He destroyed fetishes but promoted the reverence of relics, and he assigned the high priest of the water cult to be the protector of the holy water in the churches. Afonso practiced monogamy, although his fidelity was questionable—at his death he left three hundred grandsons. In some ways, Christianity became the royal cult, and it took root in the country. Bakongo Catholicism was thoroughly Africanized, with traditional religious categories and cosmology incorporated into the creed and Christian teaching. Christian words for “God” and “priest,” for example, were literally taken from the Kikongo language.

In all his efforts, however, Afonso was poorly served by the Portuguese missionaries, many of whom were sent to the Kongo because they had had disciplinary problems at home. He regularly complained to the king of Portugal (and to the pope) about lascivious clergy and their violations of clerical celibacy. The missionaries often baptized large numbers of new converts, but then left them with little or no instruction on the precepts of their new religion. Missions;Jesuits in the Kongo

An important development of Bakongo Christianity was its contribution to African religious art. The Kongo was rich in minerals, especially copper and iron, and Bakongo sculptors proceeded to express their new faith in brass, bronze, and stone carvings. A number of altar crucifixes, statues, wall plaques, and staffs still exist, although most are now held in European museums. The African motifs are striking: several plaques show a seated Father-God with arms outstretched, nude with male genitals. On the crossbars of crucifixes are kneeling attendants, arms folded over their breasts. Grave markers are often carved with a crucified Christ, and there are amusing stone statuettes of missionaries on their donkeys. Sculpture;Kongolese

One unique statuette, now in a Dutch museum, has an opening in its belly for a reliquary. This sort of statue would be typical in medieval or Renaissance Europe, but around the neck of the figure hangs a collection of amulets and fetishes, a classic example of the blending of Christian and African cultic expressions. The altar crucifixes, perhaps because they were made for the use of foreign priests, are European in style, as are statues of Saint Anthony, a popular native of Portugal. On the other hand, the staffs, which were used by Christian governors and kings, combine African symbols, such as the protective leopard, with the figure of the ruler wearing a cross. The creation of Christian religious art continued in the Kongo for 150 years and was later revived in the colonial missionary period after 1880.

Afonso’s prime conflict with his patrons came over slavery. The slave trade Slave trade proved to be a long-term problem that would eventually contribute to the disintegration of the kingdom. In traditional African society, slaves were either criminals sentenced to a period of servitude or prisoners of war. They might be impressed into service as soldiers, servants, or farmworkers, but they were rarely used in trade. In 1498, however, the first slaves were shipped to the Americas from the Kongo. Portuguese masons, carpenters, and even missionaries soon abandoned those occupations for the lucrative slave trade, over the protests of the manikongo.

Six years after taking power, Afonso was asked to pay for a shipment of military supplies, priests, and artisans by returning the ship filled with slaves. Not having enough prisoners who qualified, Afonso raided a neighboring kingdom and sent six hundred slaves, who were promptly transshipped to Ghana to be exchanged for gold. The demands became more insistent, and when Afonso’s protests turned to anger, the pressures became threatening. Afonso was refused permission to build ships for trading and was told that his favored position could easily be transferred to another African ruler. As the manikongo attempted to develop legitimate trade, he found himself increasingly hampered by Portuguese merchants on the island of São Tomé. Impatient with the number of slaves Afonso was willing to produce, they opened their own slave depots on the Kongo mainland and began raiding upriver. Afonso tried to moderate the worst excesses of the slave trade, but to little effect. Most of the existing twenty-two letters between Afonso and the kings of Portugal concern the slave trade.


Events in the Kongo demonstrated that an indigenous African Christianity was possible, though the greed of Western slave traders doomed it to failure. The rise of the slave trade in the Kongo was a foreshadowing of both expanded chattel slavery and colonialism. Later kings continued the Catholic tradition in the Kongo while resisting the Portuguese. Diogo I (r. 1545-1561), the grandson of Afonso I who succeeded him after a dynastic conflict with Afonso’s son, continued to evangelize the country. Alvare I (r. 1568-1587), Alvare II (r. 1587-1614), and Alvare III (r. 1614-1622) enlisted the support of the popes. They remonstrated with the Portuguese and supported the Spanish against them, to little avail. By the seventeenth century, however, the new power in the slave trade was the Dutch, and papal appeals fell on deaf ears.

Further Reading

  • Gray, Richard. Black Christians and White Missionaries. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Details the development of African Christianity.
  • Hilton, Anne. The Kingdom of Kongo. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. The standard history of the Kongo kingdom.
  • Thiel, J. F., and Heinz Helf. Christliche kunst in Afrika. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1984. An illustrated history of indigenous African Christian art; chapter 3 is on Kongo art of this period. In German.
  • Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Details expanding contacts between Africans and the West, leading up to colonialism.

Late 15th cent.: Mombasa, Malindi, and Kilwa Reach Their Height

1481-1482: Founding of Elmina

c. 1485: Portuguese Establish a Foothold in Africa

Jan., 1498: Portuguese Reach the Swahili Coast

1502: Beginning of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

1505-1515: Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire

1527-1543: Ethiopia’s Early Solomonic Period Ends

Aug. 4, 1578: Battle of Ksar el-Kebir