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The Development of an African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1491–17501

  • John Thornton (a1)

Scholarly opinion on the conversion of the Kingdom of Kongo to Christianity has generally been that it was superficial, diplomatically oriented, impure, dangerous to national sovereignty or rejected by the mass of the population. This article argues that although Christianity in Kongo took a distinctly African form it was widely accepted both in Kongo and in Europe as being the religion of the country.

This was possible because Kongo, as a voluntary convert, had considerable leeway to contribute to its particular form of Christianity. Also, European priests were much more tolerant of syncretism in Kongo than in regions like Mexico, where colonial occupation accompanied the propagation of Christianity. Kongo's control over the theological content allowed the religion to gain mass acceptance while its control over the Church organization and finance allowed it never to be an instrument for foreign domination, in spite of Portuguese attempts to use it as a ‘fifth column’. When European priests arrived in Kongo during the Portuguese colonial occupation at the end of the nineteenth century, they rejected the local form of Christianity, thus ending its acceptance among Europeans as Christianity.

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2 Balandier, Georges, Daily Life in the Kingdom of the Kongo, trans. Helen, Weaver (New York, 1968); Randies, W. G. L., L'ancien royaume du Congo (Paris, 1968), among others.

3 Balandier, in particular, saw the Kongo in terms of the situation coloniale.

4 Birmingham, David, ‘Central Africa from Cameroun to the Zambezi’, in Gray, R. (ed.), Cambridge History of Africa, IV (Cambridge, 1975), 332.

5 Axelson, Sigbert, Culture Conflict on the Lower Congo (Stockholm, 1970).

6 The conversion of the king of Kongo is described by Rui de Pina, based on an inquest conducted among the crew of the ships that took part in the expedition to Kongo in 1491. His account in its original form, written about 1492, is only known from an Italian translation written some years later (photographically reproduced in Leite De Faria, Francisco, Umarelação de Rui de Pina sobre o Congo escrita em 1492 (Lisbon: Series Separata, Agrupamento de Estudos de Cartografia Antiga, 1966); the original appeared in Studio). A somewhat less detailed version of the events appeared in his Crónica del Rey D. João II, a MS in Arquivo Nacional de Torre do Tombo (henceforward ANTT) Livraria of c. 1515, eventually published in 1792. António Brásio has published an edition of the sections on Kongo based on the printed and the MS text in Monumenta Missionária Africana (12 vols. Lisbon, 19521981), I, 6165, 121124.

7 Afonso sent his account of the events to Portugal with his ambassador Pedro de Sousa, who was also his cousin, in about 1508 or 1509: Afonso I to Manuel I, 5 October 1514 in Brásio, , Monumenta, I, 301. Since François Bontinck suggests that Afonso only became king in 1509, this was among his first acts. It was probably from the account, now lost, that a series of letters addressed from Afonso to the Pope, the King of Portugal, the Lords of his kingdom and to his people was composed, and from which most of the details of this period are reconstructed; these letters dated by Brasio to 1512, and probably written in Portugal as an example of style to be sent on Afonso's behalf to the various addressees, are printed in Brásio, , Monumenta, I, 256273. More detail on the events, not found in these letters, but probably based on the same accounts appeared in other books, first by Fernandes De Enciso, Martin, Suma de Geographia (Seville, 1519), 109110, and then by João de Barros in 1552 (sections published in Brásio, , Monumenta, I, 142144).

8 Balandier, , Daily Life; Randies, L'ancien royaume.

9 Vansina, Jan, Kingdoms of the Savanna (Madison, 1966), 5864.

10 Published in Brásio, , Monumenta, II, 222275passim.

11 On the nature of this correspondence and its effect on the historiography of Kongo Thornton, John, ‘Early Kongo-Portuguese relations: a new interpretation’, History in Africa, VII (1981), 183204, and especially 190 and 195.

12 Some of these Portuguese names are given in a denunciation of them by an anonymous (probably Jesuit) survey of affairs in Kongo In Brásio, , Monumenta, II, 330. The act making the local Portuguese community self governing is an alvará of João III, dated 1553; Brásio, , Monumenta, II, 321322.

13 Pigafetta, Filippo, Relazione del Reame di Congo (1591) mod. ed. Giorgio, Cardona (Milan, 1978), 5657 (original pagination presented in modern edition – readers can also find the original pagination marked in the critical French translation, Willy, Bal, ed. Description du royaume de Congo et des contrees environnantes (Louvain, 1965)).

14 Diogo I to Diogo Gomes, 15 August 1546, Brásio, , Monumenta II, 147.

15 Auto De Devasa De D. Diogo I, 10 April 1550, Brásio, , Monumenta II, 248261passim.

16 Sebastião Souto to King, c. 1561, Brásio, , Monumenta II, 477480.

17 See Diogo's titles as used in his correspondence in Brásio, , Monumenta II, 149, 174.

18 Manuel Bautista to King, 7 September 1619; Brásio, , Monumenta VI, 375384.

19 Teobaldo Filesi has discussed the relationship between Kongo, Rome and Portugal at length in a series of articles appearing in the Italian journal Africa. See especially ‘Le Relazioni tra il regno del Congo e la Sede Apostolica nel XVI secolo’, Africa, XXII (1967), 413460; ‘Duarte Lopez ambasciatore del Re del Congo presso Sisto V nel 1588’, ibid. XXIII (1968), 44–83; and ‘Nuove Testimonianze sulla missione Congolese a Rome del 1608’, ibid, XXIII (1968), 431–469.

20 Cavazzi Da Montecuccolo, Giovanni Antonio, Istorica Descrizione de' tre regni Congo, Matamba ed Angola (Bologna, 1687), Book 4, nos. 13–40; Biblioteca Estense Modena, MS Italicus 1380, α N.9.7, Giuseppe Monari da Modena, ‘Viagio al Congo’, fos. 221v-224 (435–40). Monari's work, written in 1723, incorporates in this section an older chronicle of the Capuchin mission, possibly written about 1659 by Giacinto Brugiotti da Vetralla; Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, MS 3533, De Teruel, Antonio, ‘Descripcion Narrativa de la Mission serafica de los padres Capuchinos…en el reyno de Congo’ (c. 1664), fos. 123126.

21 See the various letters of Kongo kings addressed to Popes in Brásio, ; Monumenta III, 234235 (1583), V, 262263 (1607); VII, 5153 (1622); XI, 138140 (1651).

22 See various letters of Popes and Vatican officials to Kongo kings in Brásio, , Monumenta III, 342343 (1587); 542543 (1596); V, 649650 (1610); VII, 1113 (1622); IX, 386387 (1645); XI, 67 (1651); XII, 310312 (1660).

23 A point meticulously made (however, for his own purposes) in de Hooglede, Hildebrand, Le martyr Georges de Gheel et les débuts de la mission de Congo (1645–52) (Antwerp, 1940).

24 Archivo ‘De Propaganda Fide’ (henceforth APF), Scritture originali in Congregazioni Generali (henceforth APF: SOCG), vol. 249, vol. 343v, De Cerolla, Buenaventura, ‘Relasion de los ritos gentilicos, ceremonias diabolicas y supersticiones destos infelicissimos Reynos de Congo’ (c. 1653).

25 Macgaffey, Wyatt, ‘The cultural roots of Kongo prophetism’, History of Religion, XVII (1977), 184185.

26 Birmingham, , in Cambridge History of Africa, IV, 341.

27 Hilton, Ann (née Wilson), ‘The Kongo kingdom to the mid-seventeenth century’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 1977), 254256, 307. Her own account of priests as representing a cult of ‘sky spirits’ is, however, probably not correct.

28 Such lists are found in Cavazzi, , Istorica Descrizione, book I, nos. 183197; APF: SOCG, vol. 249, fos. 336344, Cerolla, ‘Relasion’, and scattered throughout other Capuchin sources.

29 Ricard, Robert, The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1966), 4042.

30 For example, see the course of Christian instruction presented in the Kikongo catechism of 1624; Bontinck, François and Nsasi, D. Ndembe, Le catechisme kikongo du 1624; réedition critique (Brussels, 1978).

31 Ibid. passim.

32 [Cordoso, Mateus], História do Reino de Congo (Lisbon, 1969), 20 (modern edition by António Brásio of original of 1624).

33 Ricard, , Spiritual Conquest, 5560.

34 On the syncretism see Wolf, Eric, Sons of the Shaking Earth (Chicago, 1959), 164175.

35 Boxer, C. R., The Church Militant and Iberian Expansion (Baltimore, 1978).

38 Filesi, Teobaldo and de Villapadiena, Isidore, La ‘Missio Antiqua’ dei Cappuccini net Congo (1645–1835) (Rome, 1978), 5179.

37 Horton, Robin, ‘African conversion’, Africa, XLI (1971).

38 Curtin, Philip, The Image of Africa (Madison, 1964).

39 Boxer, C. R., The Portuguese Seaborne Empire (New York, 1969), 6583. See the thorough study of Bontinck, François, La lutte autour la liturgie chinoise (Louvain, 1962).

40 Boxer, , Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 238245.

41 Ibid. 238–40.

42 Pedro II to Juan Bautista Vives, 28 November 1623 (summary in Italian of non-extant original), Brásio, , Monumenta VII, 161.

43 Cardoso, George, Agíologio Lusitania (Lisbon, 1666) in Brásio, , Monumenta I, 8788.

44 Zorzi, Alessandro, ‘Informatiõ hauuto jo Alexandra da portogalesi. 1517. I Venecia’, fos. 132–132v, in Francisco, Leite de Faria and Avelino, Teixeira Da Mota (eds.), Novidades Náuticas e Ultramarinas numa informação dada em Veneza em 1517 (Lisbon, 1977).

45 Ibid. fo. 132v; Rui d'Aguir to King Manuel I of Portugal, 25 May 1516 originally published in Damião de Gois, Chronica, etc. in Brasio, Monumenta, I: 1361 (edition from the MS in ANTT, Livraria and published edition of 1566). Aguir noted, ‘I certify to your Highness that he teaches us [,] and knows the Prophets and the preaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ and all the lives of the saints and all things of the Holy Mother Church better than we others do.’

46 Letter of Cristovão Riberio (August 1548), Italian extract of about 1558 in Brasio, , Monumenta II, 186; see the use of ‘ambiro’ and ‘igreja’ interchangeably in Jorge Vaz to Captain of Sao Tomé, 11 February 1549 in ibid, II, 228.

47 See the discussion in Bontinck, and Nsasi, , Catechisme, 1723 and Filesi, and Vilapadiena, , Missio Antiqua, 185186.

48 Bontinck, and Nsasi, , Catechisme, 3233.

49 Cavazzi, , Istorica Descrizione, book 4, no. 42. Capuchin attempts to replace the term kudia mungwa (to eat salt) for baptism, which they felt did an injustice to the sacrament, failed – as late as 1798 Raimondo da Dicomano still reported women asking to have their children baptized as saying ‘Nganga, nganga anamungtoalAntonio, Brasio (ed.), ‘Informação do Reino de Congo de P. Raimondo da Dicomano, 1791–95’, Studio, XXXIV (1972), 24.

50 Hence the constant lists of unacceptable practices.

51 ANTT, Inquisição de Lisboa, 159/7/877, Visita a Angola, 1596–7, fo. 10v.

52 ibid, passim.

53 Bontinck, and Nsasi, , Catechisme, passim; see the definition of sacerdotis (nganganquissi) in Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale (Rome) (henceforward BNCR); Minori, Fundo 1896, MS Varia 274, ‘Vocabularium latinum, Hispanicum et Congoese’ (c. 1648), fo. 93v.

54 Boxer, , Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 238245.

55 Thornton, John, ‘Demography and history in the kingdom of the Kongo, 1550–1750’, J. Afr.Hist., XVIII (1977), 514.

56 Capuchin requests for large numbers of these medals are found scattered through APF:SRC, Congo, vols 2–3 passim.

57 Merolla Da Sorrento, Giralamo, Breve e succinta relazione del Viaggio nel Congo (Naples, 1692), 151.

58 APF:SOCG vol. 457, fo. 371, Andrea da Buti to Propaganda Fide, 1674 Provinciale dei Cappuccini da Firenze, Archivio, Bernardi da Firenze, Filippo, ‘Ragguaglio del Congo…’ (1711), fo. 623; Merolla, , Relazione, 112.

59 For example the coronation of Garcia II in 1651, an event which established a long-lasting precedent.

60 Merolla, , Relazione, 152.

61 BNCR, Fundo Minori 1896, MS Varia 274, fos. 17, 107. Templus = nzo amquissi; Biblia = Muquissi mucanda. In this dictionary note also that priest is nganga a nkisi (fol. 93v).

62 Ibid. fo. 17, Bibblia = muquissi mucanda.

63 Nacional de Madrid, Biblioteca, MS 3533 de Teruel, ‘Descripcion Narrativa’, fo. 99. The description is complete with terminology of non-Christian nkisi which he was bent on destroying.

64 Macgaffey, Wyatt, ‘Fetishism revisited: Kongo nkisi in sociological perspective’, Africa, XLVII (1977) 172173 for a discussion of the term in modern anthropology.

65 Baião, António, A Inquisição em Portugal e no Brasil: Subsidies para a sua História (Lisbon, 1906), 151 and passim.

66 See the detailed discussion in Chaunu, Pierre, ‘Sur la fin des sorciers au XVIIe siècle’, Annales: Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations, XXIV (1969).

67 Common usage in all the Capuchin texts of the late seventeenth century, for example: Da Caltanisetta, Luca, ‘Relatione della Missione fatta nel Regno di Congo’ (1701) in Rainero, Romain, II Congo agli inizi del Settecento nella Relazione di P. Luca da Caltanisetta (Florence, 1972) fo. 39–39v. I have cited the folio numbers of the original manuscript to allow readers to consult the French translation of Bontinck, François, Diairie Congolaise (1690–1701) (Louvain, 1971) in which the foliation of the original is included as well. Also see the usage in another great seventeenth century missionary and diarist, da Montesarchio, Girolamo, ‘Viaggio al Gongho’ (1669) in Piazza, Calogero, La Prefettura Apostolica del Congo alia meta del XVII Secolo (Milan, 1976), 179180.

68 Zorzi, , ‘Informatiõ’, fo. 132v.

69 Marco Vigerio della Rovere to Papal Secretary, 8 January 1534, translated with commentary in Bontinck, François, ‘Du nouveau sur Dom Afonso, roi de Congo’, African Historical Studies, III (1970), 151162.

70 Thornton, John, The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition 1641–1718 (Madison, 1983), 48.da Caltanisetta, Luca, ‘Relatione’, fos. 35v–36.

71 At least one Kongo had his own child legitimized according to these rules, document from the Livro de Legitimações de João III (ANTT) in Brásio, , Monumenta II, 240241.

72 See the contrast made by Jesuit priests between the sensuous and sinful Álvaro III (died 1622) and his virtuous successor, Pedro II (1622–4), Cordoso, Mateus to Rodrigues, Manuel, ‘Relação da morte del Rey D Álvaro III…’ in Brásio, , ‘O problema de eleição e coroação dos reis do Congo’, in História e Missioló;gia: Ineditos e esparsos (Luanda, 1973), 232239.

73 Thornton, , Kingdom of Kongo, 62.

74 Castro, Armando, Portugal na Europa de seu Tempo (Lisbon, 1977), 119135.

75 Renda: see Afonso I's usage in his letter to Manuel I, 5 October 1514, Brásio, , Monumenta I, 295. On the use of moradia: De Oliveira De Cadornega, António, História geral das guerras angolanas, 1680 (ed. José, Matias Delgado and Alves Da Cunha, M., 3 vols., Lisbon, 1973), III, 195.

76 De Barros, in Brasio, , Monumenta I, 145.

77 Afonso to Manuel I, 5 October 1514; Brásio, , Monumenta I, 297.

78 De Devasa, Auto, in Brásio, , Monumenta II, 251253 and 255258; see the original document, ANTT, Corpo Chronologico n, 242/121, fo. 7v, which contains two lines on this subject missing from the published edition, 257.

79 Pereira, Pacheco, Esmeraldo, 172.

80 De Pina, Rui, Chrónica, in Brasio, , Monumenta, I, 112.

81 Rui De Aguiar, 25 May 1516, in de Gois, , Crónica in Brásio, , Monumenta I, 361.

82 Afonso to João III, 18 March 1526, Brásio, , Monumenta I, 461. He was given Mpangu ‘pera dos gastos’ but remained in the capital.

83 Álvaro II to Juan Bautista Vives, 23 June 1623, in Brásio, , Monumenta VII, 36.

84 Álvaro II to Juan Bautista Vives, 25 October 1617, ibid, VI, 292–3.

85 Álvaro II to Pope Paolo V, 13 February 1613, ibid, VI, 129.

86 De Hooglede, , Martyr, 200204.

87 Carli da Piacenza, Dionigio, Viaggio del Padre Michael Angela de Guattini et del Dionigi de Carli da Piacenza…nel Regno del Congo (Bologna, 1674, an augmented edition of an original published in Reggio, 1671), 245 et seq. passim.

88 Merolla, , Relazione, 155156.

89 Polanco, João Afonso, Rerum Societas lesu Historia in Brasio, , Monumenta II, 320.

90 Bautista, Manuel, ‘Relação dos costumes, ritos, e abusos de Congo’ 7 September 1619, ibid, VI, 295, 297.

91 Afonso to Manuel I, 5 October 1514, ibid, I, 317.

92 Same to same, ibid. I, 295, 297.

93 De Gois, Damião in Brásio, , Monumenta I, 207; George Cordoso in ibid. I, 87.

94 See the brief of Pope Paolo III, 7 October 1536, printed and analysed by Bontinck, François in ‘Un document inédit concernant un missionnaire portugais au Royaume de Congo (1536)’, Neue Zeitschrift für Mission-teisschenschaft XXXIII (1977), 5866; Afonso to Manuel, 14 October 1514, Brásio, , Monumenta I, 299300.

95 Afonso to Manuel I, 5 October 1514 in Brásio, , Monumenta I, 295, 297.

96 On his life and elevation to bishop, Bontinck, François, ‘Ndoadidiki Ne-Kinu a Mubemba, premier evěque Congo’, Revue africaine de Theologie III (1979), 149169.

97 Documentary fragments of letter of Afonso I, 1526, in Brásio, , Monumenta I, 481; de Barros in ibid, I, 146.

98 Regimento to Manuel De Castro, n.d. (c. 1521), in ibid. I, 535–9.

99 Ibid, I, 537–8.

100 Bernardo da Cruz, acting bishop on São Tomé, exercised his powers through his cousin who was appointed a vicar to Kongo, Bernardo da Cruz to King, 3 November 1542; Brásio, , Monumenta II, 118119. Manuel Pacheco tried to enforce his rule earlier, but without success, Pacheco to King, 28 March 1536, ibid, II, 57. On the Jesuits' difficulties see Polanco's chronicle, ibid, II, 319–21.

101 ANTT, Inquisição de Lisboa, 159/7/877, Visita, fos. 64–82 especially, for events of 1593–6.

102 Filesi, , ‘Nuove testimonianze’, 431435.

103 Wilson, , ‘Kongo kingdom’, 297298. The situation at mid-century contrasts with the evidence of many priests in the testimony recorded in ANTT, Inquisição de Lisboa, 159/7/877. Visita.

104 The story is told in many places; see Filesi, and Villapadierna, , Missio Antigua, 1622.

105 Birmingham, , in Cambridge History of Africa, IV, 341342.

106 Axelson, , Culture Confrontation.

107 Filesi, and Villapadierna, , Missio Antiqua, 4079; Jadin, , ‘Le clergé séculier et les Capuchins au Congo et d'Angola aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles’, Bulletin de l'lnstitut historique beige de Rome, XXXVI (1964); 186206; ‘Les survivances chrétiennes au Congo au XIXe siècle’, Études d'histoire africaines, I (1970), 137185; Metzler, Johann, ‘Missionsbemühungen der Kongregation in Schwarzafrika’, in Metzler, J. (ed.), Sacra Congregationis de Propaganda Fide memoria rerum (2 vols. Freiburg, 1973), II, 882932 (Metzler's article relies on posthumous, unpublished work of Jadin for his discussion of the Kongo mission). In all fairness, it must be said that both these scholars give clear credit to the local church organization for the success of the Capuchins, but still see the Capuchins as the principal motivators of Christianity.

108 Literate, of course, in the same sense that most European countries were in the same epoch: literacy confined to the upper classes.

109 For example the Portuguese sailor in French service, João Afonso, noted in the mid-sixteenth century that Kongo had ‘monks and vicars of their own nation’ and that the king himself (Diogo or perhaps Pedro I ?) had studied in Portugal, unconfirmed but not impossible. Alfonse de Saintogne, Jean, La Cosmographie (1545) (ed. Georges, Mussel, Paris, 1904), 340. Musset believes that the manuscript was completed in 1530.

110 Thornton, , Kingdom of Kongo, 9293.

111 Afonso I to Manuel I, 5 October 1514 in Brásio, , Monumenta I, 322323; Sebastião Souto to King, c. 1561; Brásio, , Monumenta II, 477480.

112 Thornton, , ‘Demography and history’, 514515.

113 Das Cienças, Academia (Lisbon), MS Vermelho 296, ‘Viagem do Congo do Missionário Fr. Raphael de Castello de Vide hoje Bispo de S. Thomé’ (1778), fos. 53, 64. My thanks to Susan Broadhead for giving me a microfilm of this document. Broadhead has written a good account of the social and political history of this period. ‘Beyond decline: the kingdom of Kongo in the eighteenth and nineteenth century’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, XII (1979), 615650.

114 Ibid. fos. 29–30, 32, 57, 63, 67, 68–9, 77–8 and passim.

115 Ibid. fo. 77.

116 Ibid. fo. 29.

117 Ibid. fo. 69.

118 These positions are given, with considerable references to primary sources, in Axelson, , Culture Conflict, pp. 155202.

119 ‘Relatório da viagem ao Bembe do Cónego António José de Sousa Barroso’, 15 September 1884, in Mário, António Fernandes de Oliveira and Mendes Do Couto, Carlos Alberto (eds.) Angolana (3 vols. Lisbon, 19681976), II, 457461.

120 Ibid, II, 458–9.

121 Souindoula, Simão, ‘Missão Etno-Histórico do Soyo: Pesquísas arqueológicas’, Novembro: A Revista Angolana VI (June 1982), 6263.

122 Ibid. 62.

1 Research for this project was made possible by a grant from the Fundaçāo Calouste Gulbenkian of Lisbon under the topic ‘Christian Missionaries in Africa, XIV-XVII centuries’, to whose generosity I am grateful. Some of the microfilm copies of documents were purchased through a Faculty Development Grant of Allegheny College. I would also like to express my gratitude to Linda Heywood, Wyatt MacGaffey, Fraçois Bontinck and Jan Vansina, who commented on earlier versions of the paper. Finally sincere thanks to Maria Teresa Geraldes Acabado of ANTT and Fr. Metzler of APF for their assistance in obtaining copies of documents.

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