After the arrival of the Portuguese, Afonso was assigned to rule Kongo's northern province of Nsundi where he was accompanied by a number of Portuguese priests. He was successful in his rule there, extending Nsundi's borders north of the Congo River. According to Afonso's account of events, his father lost interest in Christianity toward the end of his reign. Afonso, on the other hand, became a devout Christian. Intrigues at court, caused the king to doubt his son, and he was deprived of his province. Eventually Afonso regained his father's trust and was returned to the province.
Rise to power
Around 1509 King João I died, and potential rivals lined up to take over the kingdom. It was an elective rather than a hereditary monarchy, thus Afonso was not guaranteed the throne. Afonso was assisted in his attempt to become king by his mother, who kept news of João's death a secret. This gave Afonso time to return to the capital city of Mbanza Kongo and gather followers. Thus when the death of the king was finally announced, Afonso was already in the city.
Battle of Mbanza-Kongo
The strongest opposition to Afonso's claim came from his half brother Mpanzu a Kitima (or Mpanzu a Nzinga). Mpanzu raised an army in the provinces and made plans to march on Mbanza-Kongo. According to Afonso's testimony, Mpanzu renounced Christianity and opposed the conversion of the country. In the battle that followed as Mpanzu's followers tried to storm the city, he was defeated, according to Afonso, when his men saw an apparition of Saint James the Great and the Holy Ghost in the sky. Mpanzu's army fled in panic. This miracle, which Afonso described in a letter of 1509 (now lost) became the basis for a coat of arms that Kongo used for the next three centuries (until 1860).
Reign as Manikongo
Virtually all that is known about Kongo in the time of Afonso's reign is known from his long series of letters, written in Portuguese primarily to the kings Manuel I and João III of Portugal. The letters are often very long and give many details about the administration of the country. Many of the letters complain about the behavior of several Portuguese officials, and these letters have given rise to an interpretation of Afonso's reign as one in which Portuguese interests submerged Afonso's ambitions.
Conversion of Kongo
Afonso is best known for his vigorous attempt to convert Kongo to a Catholic country, by establishing the Roman Catholic Church in Kongo, providing for its financing from tax revenues, and creating schools. By 1516 there were over 1000 students in the royal school, and other schools were located in the provinces, eventually resulting in the development of a fully literate noble class (schools were not built for ordinary people). Afonso also sought to develop an appropriate theology to merge the religious traditions of his own country with that of Christianity. He studied theological textbooks, falling asleep over rosie, according to Rui de Aguiar (the Portuguese royal chaplain who was sent to assist him). To aid in this task, Afonso sent various of his children and nobles to Europe to study, including his son Henrique Kinu a Mvemba, who was elevated to the status of bishop in 1518. He was given the bishopric of Utica (in North Africa) by the Vatican, but actually served in Kongo from his return there in the early 1520s until his death in 1531.
The Slave Trade
In 1526 Afonso wrote a series of letters complaining about the behavior of the Portuguese in his country and their role in the developing slave trade. At one point he accused them of assisting brigands in his own country and illegally purchasing free people as slaves. He also threatened to close the trade altogether. However, in the end, Afonso established an examination committee to determine the legality of all enslaved persons presented for sale.
Afonso was a determined soldier and extended Kongo's effective control to the south, especially. His letter of 5 October 1514 reveals the connections between Afonso's men, Portuguese mercenaries in Kongo's service and the capture and sale of slaves by his forces, many of which he retained in his own service.
In 1526 Afonso wrote two letters concerning the slave trade to the king of Portugal, complaining of Portuguese complicity in purchasing illegally enslaved people.
In one of his letters he writes
- "Each day the traders are kidnapping our people - children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family.This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. It is our wish that this Kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves."
- Many of our subjects eagerly lust after Portuguese merchandise that your subjects have brought into our domains. To satisfy this inordinate appetite, they seize many of our black free subjects.... They sell them. After having taken these prisoners [to the coast] secretly or at night..... As soon as the captives are in the hands of white men they are branded with a red-hot iron.
Before the arrival of the Portuguese, slavery had already existed in Kongo. Despite its establishment within his kingdom, Afonso believed that the slave trade should be subject to Kongo law. When he suspected the Portuguese of receiving illegally enslaved persons to sell, he wrote in to King João III in 1526 imploring him to put a stop to the practice.
Toward the end of his life, Afonso's children and grandchildren began maneuvering for the succession, and in 1540 plotters that included Portuguese residents in the country made an unsuccessful attempt on his life. He died toward the end of 1542 or perhaps at the very beginning of 1543, leaving his son Pedro to succeed him. Although his son was soon overthrown by his grandson Diogo (in 1545) and had to take refuge in a church, the grandchildren and later descendants of three of his daughters provided many later kings.
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- Afonso's letters are all published, along with most of the documents relating to his reign in:
António Brásio, Monumenta Missionaria Africana (1st series, 15 volumes, Lisbon: Agência Geral do Ultramar, 1952-88), vols. 1, 2 and 4.
- A separate publication of just his letters and allied documents in French translation is in Louis Jadin and Mirelle Dicorati, La correspondence du roi Afonso I de Congo (Brussels, 1978).