From the late 1300s when the kingdom of Kongo was formed (present-day Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo), there was a succession of kings but Garcia II Nkanga a Lukeni a Nzenze a Ntumba, also known as Garcia Afonso, is widely considered to be the greatest as he expelled most of the Portuguese from the colony that became Angola.
Afonso ruled Kongo at the height of its fame (from 1641 -1661), having descended from Afonso I, the first Kongo king to embrace Catholicism. Afonso I, who was known as Mvemba a Nzinga, had asked to be baptized in the late 15th century when the Portuguese first arrived in Kongo. This gave him the name Afonso I.
History says the Portuguese first arrived in Kongo in the 1480s and the kingdom was Christianized in 1491. Religion became a huge part of the kingdom that King Nzinga a Nkuwu and his son Afonso were baptized as Catholics in 1491. King Nzinga was given the name King Joao after Portugal’s king.
It would take more than 100 years for the first Kongo ambassador to reach Rome and make personal contact with a pope.
King Alvaro II (Nimi Ne-Mpangu Lukeni Lua Nuemba), who had taken over the reign in 1587, sent his cousin, Antonio Emanuele Ne Vunda to the pope. The journey took more than three years via Brazil, Lisbon and Madrid before landing in Rome. Ne Vunda’s task was to ask for priests to be sent to the Kongo and to “plead the case for a Congolese bishopric, according to one account.
Ne Vunda’s arrival in Rome made news headlines. Pope Paul V, who was eager to meet Ne Vunda, enjoyed the publicity that greeted the African royal’s arrival. Enhancing connections with Kongo formed part of his plan for promoting global Christianity. Face2Face Africa earlier reported that the pope even arranged an elaborate protocol for Ne Vunda’s entrance in 1608. The protocol included receiving the delegation at Sala Regia at the Vatican, a procession and the feast of the Magi.
However, Ne Vunda was really sick when he arrived in Rome on Jan 2, 1608. He was put in a bed in a comfortable room in the papal apartments and the pope even visited him. Ne Vunda passed away three days later and the procession set for Jan 6 turned into a befitting funeral.
The pope made sure the whole process was documented and commissioned a bust of Ne Vunda, made from colored marble with a deep green-black stone and featuring the shirt worn by nobles and a quiver of arrows. According to history, there was confusion over how best a Christian, African ambassador’s identity should be represented. Should religion or culture be the focus? At the end of the day, Ne Vunda was portrayed as an African in an African dress. It is documented that his bust is in the Baptistery, a side chapel of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the five great, ancient basilicas of Rome, which was also the setting for his funeral.
Ne Vunda is today considered to have been the first African ambassador to Europe in history. His memory has also been immortalized in two engravings in 1608 such as the Guillermus Du Mortier bust and an engraving featuring Ne Vunda in elegant European garb, holding a document presumed to be a letter from King Alvaro II to the pope.
History of the Kongo
Ahead of the arrival of the Portuguese, Kongo was a “loose federation of small polities, but, as the kingdom expanded, conquered territories were integrated as a royal patrimony,” according to an account by Encyclopaedia Britannica. The kingdom, with its capital being Mbanza Kongo, had provinces, including Nsundi, Mpangu, Mbamba, and Mpemba.
“The capital and its surrounding area were densely settled—more so than other towns in and near the kingdom. This allowed the manikongo (king of Kongo) to keep close at hand the manpower and supplies necessary to wield impressive power and centralize the state,” said Encyclopaedia Britannica.
After the arrival of the Portuguese around 1483, Afonso, who became king in 1509, forged strong ties with Portugal while extending the borders of Kongo but he soon faced challenges with the Portuguese over the slave trade. He, therefore, took charge of the trade to ensure that people were not illegally enslaved and exported. The Portuguese would later help restore Kongo after it was faced with disputes over succession and was then being controlled by rival warriors in the east.