Affonso I

Affonso I (1460-1545) was a king of Kongo whose reign marked the high point of Portuguese and Christian influence in the kingdom, as well as the failure to establish relations between Europe and Africa on the basis of equality.

After the Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão reached the Kingdom of Kongo in west-central Africa in 1482, contacts between Kongo and Portugal multiplied. The Portuguese dispatched a technical assistance mission to Kongo, and in 1491 the Kongo king Nzinga Nkuwu was baptized under the name João I.

One of João's sons, Nzinga Mvemba, was baptized Affonso and upon his father's death in 1506 he assumed the throne of Kongo. Thereafter, relations between Portugal and Kongo became much more active. Missionaries, teachers, masons, carpenters, and military advisers were dispatched to King Affonso, who paid for their services with slaves, copper, and ivory. Serious problems soon developed, because many of the Portuguese preferred to engage in trade—especially the slave trade—rather than to exercise their crafts. Portuguese commercial establishments on the island of São Tomé also interfered in Kongo-Portuguese exchanges.

In 1512 Affonso requested tighter royal control over the activities of Portuguese nationals. King Manuel I decreed a royal monopoly over trade with Kongo, dispatched an envoy with jurisdiction over all Portuguese nationals, and submitted an extensive plan for the acculturation of Kongo involving the adoption of the Portuguese legal system, feudal titles, and court etiquette. Manuel's instructions were largely ineffective, and the Portuguese colony in Kongo was soon divided between a royal faction and a faction favorable to São Tomé interests, with the latter increasingly gaining the upper hand. The slave trade became the predominant European occupation; although Affonso himself was involved in this activity and did not object to it in principle, he strongly resented the traders' indiscriminate seizure of Africans, even including members of the Kongo nobility.

Portuguese missionary and educational activities declined. The number of missionaries during the reign of Affonso seems never to have exceeded 10, all of them residing at court. One of Affonso's sons, Dom Henrique, studied in Lisbon and Rome and served as bishop of São Salvador, the capital of Kongo, from 1520 until his death in 1526. By that time, however, the disruptive effects of the Portuguese presence had reached such dimensions that Affonso decreed the expulsion of all Europeans except missionaries and teachers. But he was forced to rescind his order and to content himself with setting up a board of inspectors to control all commercial transactions conducted by foreigners. Affonso's efforts in 1529 and 1539 to secure Vatican support through the dispatch of a mission to Rome met with no real success. The increasing disruption of Kongo royal authority culminated with the attempt by eight Portuguese to shoot Affonso in church on Easter Day, 1540. With this incident the reign of King Affonso ended, although the actual date of his death is not known. Portuguese factions supported rival contenders for the throne, and one of Affonso's grandsons, Diogo I, eventually ascended to the throne.

The reign of King Affonso left lasting memories in Europe and Africa. Kongo remained nominally Catholic during the following century, and lineal descent from Affonso became a recognized requirement for succession to the throne. At the same time, whatever illusions might have been entertained on both sides regarding the possibility of peaceful interaction between the cultures of western Europe and Africa were shattered in the reign of King Affonso; and a relationship that had started on a quasi-idyllic note deteriorated in less than one generation into the ruthless exploitation of Africa by Europeans.


Further Reading on Affonso I

There are discussions of Affonso I in Jan Vansina, Kingdoms of the Savanna (1966), a political history of Central Africa, and in James Duffy, Portuguese Africa (1959), which stresses colonial problems caused by Portuguese occupation.