(EUROPEANS to ASIA and AFRICA in the 1500s – continued)

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Expansion and Slave Trading from Luanda

In the 1530s, the King of Kongo, Afonso I, grew old and tired, and in 1542 or '43 he died, and as was common among other monarchies, a succession conflict and bloodshed followed. Afonso's nephew, Diogo, emerged triumphant over one of Afonso's sons: Pedro. A party of three Jesuit priests and a lay preacher arrived in 1548 and tried to put matters straight in the Kongo's capital, São Salvador, without success. Diogo reverted to animist and other cultural traditions including keeping an entourage of concubines. And he forbade his subjects to attend missionary schools.

In the 1540s, an inland kingdom to the south of Kongo, Ndongo, was providing slaves to traders from São Tomé. Ndongo was subservient to the king of the Kongo, and King Diogo went to war against Ndongo to protect what he believed was the Kongo's monopoly on trade with the Portuguese. Ndongo's army routed the Diogo's army, and in 1556 established independence. Soon after, Ndongo's king welcomed the arrival of a group of Jesuits, the king hoping to improve relations with the Portuguese.

After the death of King Diogo of Kongo in 1561, a civil war erupted over who was to succeed him, a war that killed both whites and blacks. And so it went. The war's victor was Afonso II, but he was murdered by his brother, Bernardi, while at mass. Bernardi died in battle against a neighboring king and was succeeded by Alvaro I, who ruled Kongo for the next twenty years.

In 1568 the Kongo was invaded by Jaga tribesmen. Alvaro fled, accompanied by Bakongo princes and others. The Jaga seized the capital, São Salvador, and burned villages and churches. Portuguese on the island of São Tomé sent a force of 600 men to the Kongo, and after eighteen months they drove the Jaga away and reinstalled Alvaro as king. In the minds of dissatisfied Bakongo, Alvaro was associated with the Portuguese, and with this Alvaro's power declined.

Portuguese Inland and South to Luanda

Unable to do business safely in Kongo, traders from São Tomé transferred their slave prospecting a little to south, at Luanda, on the Atlantic coast. Rumors of great deposits of gold and silver inspired the Portuguese to send a force inland toward the kingdom of Ndongo to conquer and Christianize. Prolonged guerrilla warfare began between the Portuguese and the Ndongo kingdom. Defeated by tropical diseases and stiff resistance by Ndongo, the invasion came to a halt in the late 1580s. In Luanda, remnants of Portugal's army took up slave-trading and making forays into the interior. Inland from Luanda a greater instability had arisen. New warlords led bands of starving refugees which fought one another and devastated settled communities. Local rulers were drawn into the slave trade with the Portuguese, and at times they were destroyed by it.

In Kongo in the 1590s, rebellious Bakongo people allied themselves with the Dutch against the Portuguese. Many Portuguese withdrew from the Kongo region, leaving behind some missionaries, including a Jesuit college at São Salvador.

Luanda became a Portuguese colony, and Portugal sought white settlers for its new colony. Portuguese from the Kongo, exiles and convicts from Portugal and criminals from Brazil gathered south of Luanda, at Benguela. Frustrated in their search for silver and gold, and unable to compete in slave trading, some of these settlers turned to fishing and farming. Some others returned to the Kongo where they took concubines and joined slave trading communities along Kongo trade routes.

Involved in the slave trade, Portuguese governors at Luanda allied themselves with roving African bands known as the Imbangala, who appeared along the coast. The Imbangala were led by warlords who were participating in the slave trade. They settled inland, creating the kingdom of Kasanje, which became a slave-trading center between points east and the Atlantic coast.

More attempts at expanding inland had been urged by Jesuit missionaries, the Jesuits looking for souls to save. Portugal lost more than 2000 soldiers from diseases and enemy attacks and again gave up its push inland. Portuguese who attempted to settle in the interior were frequently harassed or caught in the turmoil of local conflicts and intertribal warfare.

In Luanda, Jesuits quarreled among themselves but united against those colonial governors who attempted to interfere with their activities. The Jesuits were responsible for education. They trained blacks and mulattos for the clergy and for lower administrative positions in the colony's bureaucracy – to the annoyance of Portuguese settlers who blamed the trained Africans for all of what they saw as the colony's problems.

While participating in the slave trade, the Jesuits took on the role of protector of the Africans, the Jesuits believing that the best way to convert Africans was to sell them, in order to introduce them to Christianity through the dignity of labor on plantations in the Americas. Ships owned by the Jesuits were engaged in the shipment of slaves from Luanda to Brazil. And before departing, slaves were baptized en masse. Although wishing to protect the Africans, the Jesuits sanctioned the use of force against them, claiming that Africans were an unreasonable people who responded only to corporal punishment.


Portugal in Africa, by James Duffy, Penguin African Library, 1963

Additional Reading

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, 1999

Copyright © 2001-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.