Just How Christian Was the Kingdom of Kongo?

Officially, the Kingdom of Kongo became the first Catholic state in Africa. But how closely did its people follow the religion?

Mar 12, 2024By Greg Pasciuto, BA History
catholicism kingdom kongo


The Kingdom of Kongo was the first pre-modern African country to convert to Catholic Christianity. Following the arrival of Portuguese and Italian missionaries, Kongo’s elites adopted the new religion and ordered their people to follow suit. The kingdom was even recognized by the Pope in Rome as a bastion of Christian devotion. But given the persistence of local Kongolese customs in historical records, how Catholic was the Kingdom of Kongo? Did the people of Kongo and their European missionary guests have different notions of what it meant to be Christian?


The Kingdom of Kongo and the Meeting with Europe

local ruler welcomes missionary
A local ruler in Kongo welcomes a Capuchin priest and his entourage, by Bernardino da Vezza d’Asti, 1740s, Source: Kuntshistorisches Institut in Florenz


By the time Europeans set ashore on the coast of Central Africa, the Kingdom of Kongo had already existed for nearly a hundred years. Its people came from Bantu-speaking ethnic groups which had migrated across the region centuries ago. The kingdom’s government was structured around a ruler known as the Mwene Kongo, his council of advisors, and local tributary officials. Much like the emperor of China, the position of the Mwene Kongo had spiritual significance. He was not only responsible for maintaining order and dispensing justice but he also occupied a crucial place in the Kongolese cosmology.


Portuguese sailors reached the Kingdom of Kongo around 1483, as part of the so-called Age of Discovery. Portugal had instigated the beginnings of a global slave trade decades earlier and had similar designs for Kongo. After all, a pre-existing system of slavery did exist in the area. However, it is essential to note that Kongolese ideas of enslavement were different from later trans-Atlantic conceptions of chattel slavery.


capuchin priest blesses sangamento
Capuchin priest blessing a local ruler during a sangamento, an important ceremony in Kongo, by Bernardino da Vezza d’Asti, 1740s, Source: Khan Academy


Arriving in Kongo not long after the sailors and merchants were Roman Catholic missionaries. Seeking to spread the Christian religion across the globe, they quickly set about converting Kongo’s aristocracy. In 1491, the Mwene Kongo himself, Nzinga a Nkuwu, accepted Catholic baptism. From this point onward, the Kingdom of Kongo would become a lone center of Christianity in an otherwise “pagan” region.

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audience central african king
Audience with the King of Kongo, by Olfert Dapper, late 17th century, via Picryl


Kongolese Religion Before Catholicism

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Sculpture depicting Nzambi a Mpungu, in a position possibly influenced by Christian iconography, photograph by daderot, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The arrival of the Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo added another devotional element to an already deep spiritual cauldron. Kongolese religion did exist prior to Catholicism; in fact, it thrived. Rituals, ideas of morality, and the role of the spirits determined the order of the Central African world.


At the core of Kongolese religion lay the concept of ancestor veneration. A creator deity, Nzambi a Mpungu, did exist, but it was far more remote than familial ancestors. The people of Kongo believed their deceased family members could influence the lives of the living if properly cared for. People gave animal sacrifices and other offerings in ancestral shrines. In this regard, the Kingdom of Kongo was similar to other African societies across the continent.


nkisi figure kingdom of kongo
Nkisi male power figure from Kongo, 19th century, Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Kongo spirituality also included veneration of statues and other constructed objects. These artifacts, known as Minkisi (sing. Nkisi), were more than simply sacred vessels. To the Kongolese, they contained sacred medicine, capable of healing the sick or downtrodden.


Conversely, they could also be used for malicious reasons by angry practitioners.


The typical Nkisi was made out of wood, but shells, metal, stones, or pegs could also be added. Each object had its own spiritual meaning. It was the job of a spiritual expert known as a nganga (plural Banganga) to communicate with the ancestral world and interpret the ancestors’ knowledge of people’s fates. Unfortunately, due in part to their wooden composition, Minkisi from the earliest parts of Kongo’s history have not survived.


Afonso I and Catholic Kongo

afonso i mwene kongo
Modern depiction of King Afonso I of Kongo, 2021, Source: Deutsche Welle


Nzinga a Nkuwu may have converted to Catholicism in 1491, but his relationship with the church is not entirely clear. When he died in 1506, his son, Mvemba a Nzinga, took the throne. Mvemba a Nzinga adopted the Portuguese name Afonso. It would be under Afonso that the Kingdom of Kongo would become renowned internationally as a Catholic kingdom.


Afonso’s rise to the throne of Kongo was not straightforward. Unlike in Western Europe, the king’s oldest son did not automatically inherit his father’s office. Instead, Afonso saw an early challenge from his half-brother, a non-Christian. Afonso and his army would ultimately defeat his brother, which Afonso claimed was because of his prayers to Saint James the Apostle. Under the new Mwene Kongo, the true story of the Catholic Kingdom of Kongo was about to begin.


afonso coat of arms
Coat of arms of King Afonso I of Kongo, early 16th century, Source: Research Gate


Afonso was highly educated, having studied with Portuguese priests. He ordered the construction of churches and destroyed symbols of Kongo’s indigenous belief systems. Yet his relations with Portugal weren’t all smooth. In some 24 letters to his counterparts in Portugal, Afonso lamented the moral corruption of some European priests in his lands. Additionally, he expressed his anger at the Portuguese Crown’s growing demand for Kongolese slaves. He viewed the visitors’ greed and plunder as an attack on his country’s sovereignty.


Afonso never managed to curb the slave trade. His successors upheld the Kingdom of Kongo’s image as a Catholic stronghold. However, his tensions with Portugal were unfortunately a harbinger of things to come.


Translation and Religious Syncretism

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Capuchin priest baptizing Kongolese Christian converts, by Bernardino da Vezza d’Asti, 1740s, Source: The Wiley Online Library


Christianity probably could not have taken off the way it did in Kongo without translation. The Catholic religious orders in Africa — most notably the Jesuits and the Capuchins — were faced with a religious landscape quite unlike their own back in Europe. To win the hearts and minds of the Kongolese populace, they had to make Christian concepts understandable in the local languages.


The translations that the missionaries made weren’t always accurate. For example, they equated the Kongolese Nzambi a Mpungu with the Christian God, despite major conceptual differences. Other translations, however, meshed better. The Catholic veneration of saints bore some key similarities to the veneration of ancestors in Kongo. Priests, whether Jesuit or Capuchin, recognized the necessity of translation and the utility of language to their project.


kongo crucifix jesus
Crucifix, by unknown Kongo artist, 16th-17th century, Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Kongolese interpreters were just as important to the translation process as the European missionaries. Throughout its history, the Kingdom of Kongo struggled to attract a sustainable number of foreign priests Additionally, the kings of Portugal repeatedly sought to block the ordination of African priests for political reasons. However, while a large indigenous priesthood did not become a reality, Kongolese Catholics played an essential role in ministering to their people. They also provided their Portuguese and Italian guests with valuable information on the languages and cultures of Central Africa.


Kongolese Catholics are known to have authored sermons. Manuel Roboredo, a Capuchin-linked catechist of mixed African and Portuguese descent, was one such author. Roboredo was highly respected by his European colleagues. Other native Kongolese catechists undoubtedly existed, but their names have largely been lost to time.


What the Europeans Thought of Kongo Christianity

antonio manuel print vatican
Engraving depicting Kongo’s ambassador to Rome, Antonio Manuel ne Vunda, Source: Picryl


The Christianization of the Kingdom of Kongo was a collaborative process between local Central Africans and missionaries from Europe. But a major question remains for us — what did the Europeans and Kongolese think of African notions of Christianity? Were there any points of contention?


Let’s start with the European standpoint on Kongolese Catholicism. European missionary views regarding Kongo were not uniform. Initially, they seem to have been more positive, especially during the reign of Kongo’s Afonso I. The missionaries were impressed with Afonso’s zeal for the Catholic religion; many explicitly praised him in their writings. Later kings won praise as well. In 1605-1608, King Álvaro II sent an ambassador, Antonio Manuel ne Vunda, to meet with the Pope in Rome.


kingdom of kongo persecution
Capuchin missionary in Sogno burns a shrine to traditional Kongolese religion, by Bernardino da Vezza d’Asti, 1740s, Source: Federal University of Paraná, Brazil


Some of the priests left behind long manuscripts detailing their time in the Kingdom of Kongo and surrounding territories. Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo, an Italian Capuchin priest, wrote a particularly famous account between 1654 and his death in 1678. In addition to written histories, the Capuchins produced a number of watercolor paintings of life in Africa. Some depict them guiding the Kongolese in prayer, while others document important local cultural practices.


Not all of the accounts were positive, however. Some Capuchin priests were frustrated by the persistence of indigenous Kongo customs. They might react violently, as depicted in the painting above. Tensions also existed between the friars and their African interpreters over linguistic misunderstandings. Still, from the 15th through the 18th centuries, Europeans consistently recognized at least the elite of the Kingdom of Kongo as properly Christian.


What the Kongolese Thought of Kongo Christianity

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Triple-barred crucifix, 16th-19th centuries (all figures), Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Unsurprisingly, the Kongolese conceived of some aspects of Catholic Christianity differently from the Europeans. The Kingdom of Kongo’s adoption of Catholicism didn’t occur in a vacuum, nor did the way its people perceived the new religion. All of these developments happened in the context of pre-existing local belief systems.


The more extreme end of Kongo Christianity saw the destruction of traditional religious artifacts like minkisi. This does not seem to have been the norm, though. Instead, the people of Kongo more commonly adopted elements of Christianity that fit most with their pre-existing rituals and beliefs. Concepts that had no equivalent in their culture, such as the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, didn’t receive as much attention.


Kongolese Christian artwork reflects the indigenization of Catholicism in the region. Many crucifixes combine European formats with Central African artistic styles. Figures such as saints and even Jesus himself were depicted in a more opaque manner than European works from the same period.


Conclusion: How Christian Was the Kingdom of Kongo?

kingdom of kongo modern map
Map of the Kingdom of Kongo, superimposed on a modern map of African countries, Source: Encyclopedia Britannica


As our overview of the Catholic missionary project in Kongo comes to an end, let’s return to our first question: Just how Christian was the Kingdom of Kongo? We’ve seen how European missionaries and Kongolese Catholic converts interacted to produce a dynamic new faith and way of life. But how devout were the rulers and people of Kongo?


The Kongolese did not follow Christianity in the same way as their European guests. As records indicate, they held onto many of their previous customs and beliefs. However, they may also still have viewed themselves as devout Christians, and the Catholic Church as a venerable institution. Kongo’s ruling class adopted Christianity and maintained their commitment to the Church for centuries. Their recognition by the Pope only cemented their status.


Perhaps the main takeaway from Kongo Catholicism is that there was no singular form of Christianity in the pre-modern era. The Kingdom of Kongo mixed its old culture with Catholic rituals and doctrine, creating a new, syncretic culture in the process.

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By Greg PasciutoBA HistoryGreg is a Stonehill College graduate and aspiring writer and editor from Boston, MA. When he isn’t working his full-time job, you might find him reading, completing creative word searches, or just looking to learn new skills for life. His historical interests are particularly centered on the history of religion and the interactions of different cultural groups. Not limited to a single geographic region, Greg enjoys uncovering the stories of cultures all around.