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Afonso I of Kongo: The ruler caught up in the slave trade

Carla Fernandes
May 12, 2021

Afonso I of Kongo strategically pursued a close mutually beneficial relationship with Portugal. At first, he collaborated in the slave trade, but later rejected it when it got out of control.

African Roots | Afonso 1 | Porträt

He collaborated in the slave trade, but later rejected it.

When did Afonso I live?

Afonso I of Kongo, born Mvemba a Nzinga in 1456, succeeded his father João I of Kongo and ruled the Kongo Kingdom from circa 1507 to circa 1542.

What was Afonso I renowned for?

While his father had welcomed the first Portuguese travelers, Afonso I went further in embracing the religion at the expense of tradition. Some historians view this as a strategic move to ensure good relations with Portugal. However, he was mindful of keeping a mutually beneficial partnership with the Portuguese and showed negotiation skills through his many letters, which he wrote to King Manuel I and his successor João III, particularly once the slave trade got out of control.

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What did education mean to Afonso I?

Christianity came with reading and writing. As a ruler, Afonso constantly exchanged letters with the Portuguese Crown, mostly concerning religious practice and administration issues. He also sent one of his sons, Henrique Kinu a Mvemba, to be trained as a priest. Henrique ended up being consecrated as one of the first, if not the first, African Catholic bishops in 1518. 

Afonso I: The king who thought twice about the slave trade

How did Afonso I get involved in the slave trade?

Many criticize Afonso for participating in the slave trade. Trading in slaves at that time was legal. Even in African societies, slaves were to be found, mostly as prisoners of war, but they were treated differently than those shipped away. They were still regarded as human beings and, in some cases, would see their rights and freedom restored. The Portuguese Crown considered slaves to be the country's most valuable resource, and Afonso accepted to trade in slaves, not fully aware of the impact of slavery, in exchange for Portugal's support in setting up an administrative system and building religious institutions.

Did Afonso I think twice about the slave trade?

With new plantations in São Tomé demanding huge numbers of laborers, the hunger for slaves grew, and soon after, the trade got out of control. Afonso tried to rein it in. In a letter he wrote to Portugal's King João III in 1526, he was vocal about how the trade was gradually depleting his kingdom and how he wanted to stop it. "Our country is being completely depopulated, and Your Highness should not agree with this", he pointed out, stressing that "it is our will that in these Kingdoms there should not be any trade of slaves nor outlet for them."

The trade was driven by the greed of both Portuguese merchants and Afonso's own people, who, as he wrote, were "keenly desirous" of the goods brought into the region by the merchants.

Scientific advice on this article was provided by historians Professor Doulaye Konaté, Professor Lily Mafela and Professor Christopher Ogbogbo. African Roots is supported by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

A previous version of this article gave the addressee of Afonso's 1526 letter as being Manuel I. This has been corrected. The department apologizes for the error.