(EUROPEANS to ASIA and AFRICA in the 1500s – continued)
From their base on the island of São Tomé, the Portuguese set up a trading post at Gwato, enjoying successful diplomacy and trading for pepper and slaves with a small kingdom there called Benin. The Portuguese also brought with them to Gwato some missionaries, who baptized a small segment of the Benin population and taught a few people how to read and write.
The Portuguese established a presence farther south, at São Salvador, in what was called the Kongo. People of the Kongo, the Bakongo, knew how to work metal, including iron, but their economy mostly involved the palm tree. From the fruit of the palm they made bread, and from the pulp of the fruit they derived oil for cooking and their skin. From the palm tree they also made wine and acquired fibers for mats, baskets, fishing snares, clothes, and the roofs of their homes.
Portugal and Jesuit missionaries developed friendly relations with the Bakongo people, especially their kings. The king of the Kongo and the Bakongo people from 1506 to 1540 was Mbemba-a-Nzinga, also known as Afonso I. When a youth he had ten years of clerical instruction and had become a devout Christian. He had acquired an admiration for Christian values and European culture, and like European Christians he believed that slavery was a normal part of world affairs. Slave traders from São Tomé had followed the missionaries into Kongo, searching for slaves for Portuguese sugar plantations on São Tomé. King Afonso participated in the slave trade for the sake of revenue, but he was angered by the rapacity of the Portuguese slavers and their taking profits that he believed should be his.
Portuguese slave traders were devious. They convinced communities to rebel against Afonso's rule and then they used the rebellion as an excuse to make war against them, which created prisoners of war more slaves. By the 1520s slave trading had left Afonso's kingdom in turmoil, his authority undercut and some areas depopulated.
In 1522, the Portuguese took over the administration of Kongo, while Afonso remained nominally as king. About 200 Portuguese were residing in the Kongo capital, São Salvador, and mixed Portuguese and Bakongo people were increasing in number, some of whom would fill government positions.
Afonso sent friendly letters to the King of Portugal, complaining of the immorality and of the depredations created by Portuguese slave traders from São Tomé – letters that were confiscated in São Tomé. Afonso pleaded for more teachers, doctors and priests. He was a zealous Catholic and destroyed paganism where he could. He supplied his subjects with images of saints and crucifixes, and he built churches. His son was a bishop and was sneered at by Portuguese missionaries. Afonso's requests that reached Portugal were ignored. Portugal's king was more interested in developing his colony in Brazil.
Some among the Portuguese disliked the polygamy of the Bakongo people, and they viewed the Bakongo as shameless regarding sins of the senses. They saw the Bakongo as uninhibited and lustful, the result, some of them thought, of the Bakongo eating food that was too spicy. And those who disapproval of the Bakongo extended their disapproval to Portuguese clergy who were taking black mistresses.
The Bakongo kept boys and girls apart after infancy, and children were instructed in self-control, but those reaching late adolescence were allowed to dance, and their dancing was symbolic of procreation. Such movement shocked the missionaries, one of whom wrote that one did not describe "such things on paper."
Aside from what Portuguese missionaries saw, Bakongo law concerning sexual misconduct was harsh. Adultery was considered a transgression against taboos and a tearing of the fabric of society. Those judged guilty of sexual promiscuity could be sold into slavery or wrapped in dried palm leaves and burned alive. There were incidents of adolescent boys and girls hiding together and experimenting, but defloration of a girl was considered harm done to the girl's family, and that family was allowed restitution or revenge of some sort. Also, the Bakongo considered homosexuality a transgression and punished it.
Nevertheless, the attitude of Portuguese toward Bakongo morality gave them a rationale for making slaves of blacks in general. They believed that blacks were better off as slaves under the control of morally superior Europeans than left to run free – similar to Aristotle's claim concerning Greeks and their slaves.
Copyright © 2001-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.