Skip to main content

New Light on Cavazzi's Seventeenth-Century Description of Kongo*

  • John K. Thornton (a1)

The very full description of west central Africa given in Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo's book, Istorica Descrizione de’ tre regni Congo, Matamba ed Angola, first published in 1687, has long been one of the most important sources for the reconstruction of the social, political, economic, and religious history of these three Central African states in the seventeenth century. This is true even though it has long been known that Cavazzi was not an eyewitness to all that he described, especially in the kingdom of Kongo, which he visited only briefly after finishing the draft of the book. Therefore, the recent discovery of a new, unknown manuscript version of Cavazzi's work among the family papers of Dr. Carlo Araldi of Modena is very useful, for it helps us to understand the sources that Cavazzi used to write the portions of his work on Kongo, the one area of west central Africa of which he had no first hand knowledge.

Since the Istorica Descrizione was published several years after Cavazzi's death by another Capuchin, Fr. Fortunato Alamandini, who noted in his own introduction that he had edited the final version from a confused mass of documents and notes, the new manuscript initially raised the hope that fuller versions of Cavazzi's original source material might be contained in it. I therefore examined the portions of the manuscript pertaining to Kongo with high hopes that the document would contain masses of fresh eye-witness source materials that Fr. Alamandidi had weeded out to make Istorica Descriizione a publishable work.

Hide All

I wish to thank Joseph Miller who assisted me in obtaining a copy of the original manuscript as well as provided helpful criticism of earlier drafts of this paper.

Hide All


1. Cuvelier, Jean, “Notes sur Cavazzi,” Zaire, 3(1949), pp. 175–84; Francisco Leite da Faria's introduction to Graciano Maria da Leguzzano, ed. and trans., João António Cavazzi de Montecuccolo, Descrição histórica dos tres reinos Congo, Matamba e Angola, (2 vols.: Lisbon, 1965, iIviii) provides both an introduction to Cavazzi's life and work and a critical summary of Cavazzi's sources and the history of the manuscript. See also Streit, Robert and Dindinger, Johannes, Biblioteca Missionum, (30 vols, Freiburg and Rome, 19161974) 16:pp. 761–62 for a summary of editions.

2. Pistoni, Giuseppe, “I manoscritti ‘Araldi’ di Padre Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo,” Atti e memorie, Accademia di Science, Lettere e Arti di Modena, 2(1969), pp. 152–65. Thanks to grants from the American Philosophical Society and the University of Virginia, as well as the gracious hospitality of Dr. Araldi, Joseph C. Miller was able to make a microfilm copy of the manuscript in December 1976. This film is now on file at the Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Manuscripts Department, no. 10217. I have made use of a copy of this film in the University Research Library at UCLA for my study.

3. Cavazzi, , Istorica Descrizione de’ tre regni Congo, Matamba ed Angola, Bologna, 1687, I, paras. 24. Further references to this work in intralinear notes and the footnotes are to the paragraph numbering in the 1687 edition, which will facilitate reference to readers using the 1690 edition or the modern Portuguese translation of da Leguzzano. References to the “Missione Evangelica” are to the foliation of the 1667 version, which is longer and incorporates numerous editorial emendations of the 1666 draft.

4. Istorica Descrizione, VI, incorporates most of this section of the Araldi Manuscript. I have not made an examination of the fascinating, lavishly illustrated manuscript.

5. The publication history of the manuscript, once it got to Europe can be traced in Pistoni, Giuseppe, Fra Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo: Documenti inediti, (Modena, 1972), which describes a twisted course of political and family conflicts which delayed the publication of the manuscript for sixteen years.

6. Cavazzi's manuscript in the Araldi manuscripts on Matamba suggests that he was always anxious to combine mission history with ethnographic study, but apparently could not do the same job for Kongo with the sources then available in Luanda; consequently, one of his first activities in Europe was to fill out this section for Kongo.

7. The Capuchin archive of Luanda was removed from that city to Palermo in 1830, but the contents of the archive have never been located in recent times, and it may have been destroyed by Allied bombing raids in 1944. Jadin, Louis, “Recherches dans les archives et bibliothèques d'Italie et du Portugal sur l'ancien Congo,” Bulletin des Séances, Académie royale des sciences coloniales, 2(1956), pp. 953–55. On some of the contents see below, note 19.

8. Pistoni, , Cavazzi, pp. 59. In the Archivo Segreto Vaticano, Nunziature di Portugallo, Vol. 30, Divizione I, is an empty folder entitled, “Istorica Descrizione de tre Regni di Congo, Angola e Matamba.” Perhaps there was once a copy of the 1671 draft there.

9. Biblioteca Publica e Arquivo Distrial de Evora, Códice CXVI/2-1, Cavazzi, “Vite de Frati Minori Cappuccini dal Ordine del Serafico Pre San Francisco morti nelle Missioni d'Etiopia dall ‘anno 1645 sino all ‘anno 1677.” These biographies are similar in most ways, and in some cases identical, to the biographies of Istorica Descrizione, although they do contain some material not found in Istorica Descrizione, and biographies of some missionaries not found in the later work at all. It seems quite clear that Cavazzi did not use his later research to touch up the 1671 draft for publication.

10. For the subsequent publication history of the book, see Streit, and Dindinger, , Biblioteca Missionum, 16:pp. 761–62.

11. Randles, W.G.L., L'ancien royaume de Congo, (Paris, 1968) has the most accurate kinglist in modern scholarship. Modern scholars have the advantage of access to unpublished contemporary documents of earlier kings that seventeenth century writers did not have. The period of the early seventeenth century is especially well known thanks to the letters of the kings themselves and the extensive Jesuit documentation. See Brásio, António, Monumenta Missionaria Africana, (1st series, 11 Volumes, Lisbon, 19521971), vols. 5 to 9 for published documents of the period.

12. For example, Archivio Provinciale dei Cappuccini, Toscana, Girolamo da Montesarchio, “Viaggio dal Gongho” (1669), and Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, Ms 3533, Antonio de Teruel, “Descripción Narrativa de la mission serafica de los Padres Capuchinos … en el Reyno de Congo” (ca. 1664).

13. Cavazzi apparently did not use da Montesarchio's well-known “Viaggio” (see note 12) to write his biography but another separate report. Cavazzi's passage and another account of Fr. Girolamo's life in the Archivio di Stato, Milano, Fundo de Religione, 6501, “Annali”, 114-58, vary in ways which suggest that each made use a now lost third source.

14. Other copies of the dossier exist at the Biblioteca Nazionale, Napoli, Ms VII-B-85 and the Archivio Generale dell'Ordine Frati Minori Cappuccini, Rome, H-34, 1.

15. Pistoni, , Cavazzi, p. 17.

16. In Kimbundu the language of Massangano where this event was said to have occurred, mpakasa is a common wild buffalo. Joseph Miller, personal communication, 3 January 1977.

17. Interestingly enough, among the signs mentioned by Cavazzi was the ominous crying of night birds. Such an omen was mentioned as having significance among the Kongo elsewhere in a denunciation of their “superstitious” religious practices! Archivio “De Propaganda Fide”, Scritture Originali riferite in Congregazione Generale, Vol. 249, fol. 339, Buenaventura da Cerolla, “Relasion de los ritos gentilicos …” (ca. 1650).

18. See da Montesarchio's, “Viaggio”, f. 154, for his much more favorable impression of Álvaro VII.

19. On this archive see note 7 above. The various testimonies on miracles, the conversions of heretics, and other certifications cited in “Missione Evangelica” seem to come from the Luanda archive. I have also suggested elsewhere that reports of baptisms and marriages were filed there. Thornton, John, “Demography and History in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1550-1750JAH, 18(1977), 510 and note 17. Still other reports and complaints of missionaries were filed there and reproduced for the Propaganda Fide in 1726 as part of an investigation into secular clergy-Capuchin relations. This dossier has been reproduced by Jadin, , “Le clergé séculier et les Capuchins au Congo et d'Angola aux XVIe et XVIIe sièclesBulletin de Institut historique belge de Rome, 36(1964), pp. 329–97.

20. Again we must note the obvious exception of Cavazzi's early description of Matamba in the Araldi manuscript. However, it was in Matamba where Cavazzi did his own “fieldwork.”

21. Simonetti, Giuseppe, “Il P. Giacinto Brugiotti da Vetralla e la sua missione al Congo”, Bollettino della società geografica italiana, 4th ser, 8(1907), pp. 305-22, 369–81. See Streit, and Dindinger, , Biblioteca Missionum, 16:pp. 470–72 for references to Brugiotti's other work.

22. Biblioteca de Palacio, Madrid, Ms 722, Juan de Santiago, “Breve Relación de lo succedido a dos Religiosos Capuchinos … al Reyno de Congo.”

23. Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, Ms 3533, de Teruel, “Descripción Narrativa.” Most of the Teruel manuscript was transcribed by Juan Mateo de Anguiano in his “Segunda parte del Crónica de la Misiones de Castilla. Misiones del Congo y Etiopia …, written in 1713 (BN Madrid, Ms. 18 178). This was in turn published by de Carrocera, Buenaventura as Misiones Capuchinas en Africa, I, Misión del Congo (Madrid, 1950). Anguiano substantially altered the plan of Teruel's work so that chapters do not appear in the same order and some parts which Teruel left separate were integrated into the text. There are two copies of Teruel's manuscript in the BN in Madrid. The first, Ms. 3533, is a complete original, complete with editorial emendations and careless calligraphy. The other, Ms. 3574, is in a substantially more legible hand and with fewer changes, but it is not complete since a large section from the middle of the manuscript is missing and (rather unaccountably) replaced by documents that have no relevance to the text. On the other hand, some portions of Ms. 3574, particularly those pertaining to religion, are more detailed than corresponding parts of Ms. 3533. It is necessary then to compare and contrast Ms. 3533 and 3574 with each other and with the eventually published and much more accessible Anguiano version.

24. Biblioteca Estense, Modena, Ms Italicus 1380, alpha N-9-7, Monari, , “Viaggio al Congo” (1723), fols 218–86. Leite da Faria attributes this chronicle to Giacinto Brugiotti, Histórica Descrição, xxvin42.

25. Religious life is amply described in da Montesarchio's “Viagglo al Gongho” as well as in his biography in Istorica Descrizione, IV paras 110-51 and Archivio di Stato, Milano, Fundo de' Religione, 6501, “Annali,” 114-58.

26. Antonio de Teruel's kinglist is in a section attached to “Descripción Narrativa”, but not numbered among its pages, entitled “Compendio noticioso de la Christianidad del Reyno de Congo de sus Reyes que hasan profesado.”

27. François Bontinck has resolved the considerable debate concerning the date of composition and author of the História. From a careful critical evaluation he has ascertained that the author was Matteus Cordoso, and the original manuscript was written in 1624. Histoire du royaume de Congo (1624),” Études d'histoire africaine, 4(1972), pp. 920. His translation is based on the edition in the original Portuguese by Br´sio, António, História do Reino de Congo, (Lisbon, 1969).

28. Gonçalo de Sousa to the Jesuit Generalate, 25 June 1633, in Brásio, , Monumenta, 8:pp. 238–39.

* I wish to thank Joseph Miller who assisted me in obtaining a copy of the original manuscript as well as provided helpful criticism of earlier drafts of this paper.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

History in Africa
  • ISSN: 0361-5413
  • EISSN: 1558-2744
  • URL: /core/journals/history-in-africa
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed