Short Teaching Module: Christianity and Slavery in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1480s-1520s

James Diskant
A stone monument with a cross on top


Portuguese missionaries brought Christianity to West Africa in the late fifteenth century. They had their greatest success at conversion in the Kingdom of the Kongo, a powerful state that was never conquered in the early modern period. Here rulers created a Kongolese version of Christianity, combining local beliefs and practices with imported ones. At the same time, the kings of Portugal made treaties with the rulers of Kongo and other coastal African states, supplying them with wool cloth, tools, and weapons, in return for gold, cotton cloth, ivory, and slaves. The three sources in this module provide evidence for both Christianity and slavery in the Kongo, allowing students to examine these two developments that occurred at the same time, though are often considered separately.


The first Portuguese colonies in Africa were established on many of the Atlantic islands, including the Azores, Cape Verdes, Madeira, and São Tomé. From their island bases, Portuguese explorers travelled south along the west coast of Africa, and traders set up permanent fortified trading posts. The kings of Portugal made treaties with the rulers of coastal African states such as Benin, Oyo, and Kongo, supplying them with wool cloth, tools, and weapons, in return for gold, cotton cloth, ivory, and slaves. A few missionaries ventured inland from the coast, working to convert people. They had the greatest success in the Kingdom of the Kongo, a powerful state that was never conquered in this era, and included parts of what is now the Republic of Congo, Zaire, and Angola.

Kongo was ruled by the manikongo, or king, who had both religious and political power and appointed governors for its six provinces. In the 1490s, priests began the first official Catholic mission to the Kongo, and interpreted a dream that two local nobles had simultaneously as an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Other revelations followed, and there were many converts, including the manikongo Nzinga Nkuwu (ruled to 1506), who took the Christian name João I, the same name as the king of Portugal. The next manikongo, Nzinga Mbemba, whose Christian name was Afonso I (ruled 1506–43), was raised as a Christian, sent his son and others to be ordained as priests in Europe, and worked to convert his subjects to Christianity.

Many of the ideas of Christianity – an unseen realm of divine figures and spirits that revealed itself through visions, priests with special powers, an initiation ritual involving water and signifying rebirth – paralleled religious ideas already present in the Kongo area, which meant it was not difficult for people to accept Christian teachings. The rulers and Kongolese church leaders revised Christian ideas and practices according to their own values, just as Europeans had done when Christianity first spread north from the Mediterranean. Kongo’s most important religious holiday, St. James Day (July 25), was also a celebration of King Afonso’s military victory over his brother. All Saints’ Day was also important, a time when Kongolese could visit the graves of their ancestors, as they traditionally did, while still celebrating a Christian holiday. Churches and chapels were built in all Kongolese provinces in the sixteenth century, each dedicated to a saint who was often chosen through revelation and linked to an otherworldly being already venerated in the area. Missionaries gradually learned KiKongo, so that they could hear confessions and preach in the local vernacular. The first book printed in a Bantu language was a bilingual catechism in Portuguese and KiKongo, written in 1556 and printed in 1624, which used terms for God, priests, and churches drawn from Kongo’s existing religious terminology. The kings of Kongo sent priests and catechists to other nearby kingdoms, and when catechisms and other religious literature was translated into their languages, these often followed Kongolese patterns.

At the same time that Christianity spread in the Kongo, sugar growing and processing expanded in the Mediterranean, the Portuguese Atlantic island colonies, and after 1515, in the islands of the Caribbean and Brazil. Producing sugar takes both expensive refining machinery and many workers to chop and transport heavy cane, burn fields, and tend vats of cooking cane juice. This means that it is difficult for small growers to produce sugar economically, and what developed instead were large plantations, owned by distant merchants or investors. The earliest sugar plantations in Europe and Africa were worked by both free and slave workers from many ethnic groups, but by the 1480s the workers in many sugar plantations, especially those on the Atlantic islands off the coast of Africa, were all Black African slaves.

Slave-traders from West African coastal areas went further and further inland to capture, buy, or trade for more and more slaves. Some rulers tried to limit the slave trade in their areas, but others profited from it, and raiders paid little attention to regulations anyway. They encouraged warfare to provide captives, or just grabbed people from their houses and fields. The slave trade grew steadily, and first thousands and then tens of thousands of people a year, the majority of them men and boys, were taken from Africa to work on sugar plantations. For 350 years after Columbus’s voyage, more Africans crossed the Atlantic than Europeans.

In the 1520s, King Afonso of Kongo wrote a series of letters to the King Joao III of Portugal, asking him to limit the importation of European goods and stop the enslavement of his people, and commenting on other matters. These are the first extant sources that discuss the effects of European actions from an African perspective. João did answer Afonso, but did nothing about the slave trade.
Sources for this module include a cross-shaped pillar made in Portugal and placed at what became known as Cape Cross, now in Namibia, an excerpt from a 1526 letter from Nzinga Nkuwu of Kongo to King Joao III of Portugal, and a 17th-century Kongolese crucifix.

How I Introduce the Source(s):
1486 Pillar: Working individually or in small groups, students should first study the pillar itself. What is it made from? What symbols does it show? What would you need to know to understand these symbols? If you could read the text on the pillar, what would you learn?

Then they should think about what the pillar might have meant, to the king of Portugal who ordered it erected, to the Portuguese forces that did so, and to the Africans who saw it. What might the king have been trying to accomplish by putting up pillars like this? What would a pillar accomplish that soldiers or missionaries would not? What do you think it meant to the Portuguese who put it up? Imagine that you are a local person, watching Portuguese forces put this up. What might you think about it at first? Then imagine you are from a later period, who simply saw this. What might you think of it? How might this be different if you were a Kongolese Christian, who knew very well what a cross meant?

Excerpt from the 1526 letter: After they have read the letter carefully, have students discuss the following questions with a partner or in a group: What did Afonso want from Joao? What does he ask him to stop, and what did he want instead? How does he describe the role of the Kongolese in the slave trade? The role of Portuguese slave-traders? How does Afonso use his status as a king to appeal to Joao, a fellow king? How does Afonso use the fact that he is a Christian in his letter? Why does he evoke God? Why might Afonso be particularly upset that free Kongolese were bring grabbed by slave traders?

Image of Crucifix (Nkangi Kiditu): Questions for partner or group analysis: What are the details of this crucifix? In what ways does it represent imported Christian imagery? In what ways does it represent ideas that are indigenous to the Kongo? In what ways does it combine local thinking and imported imagery?

Broader Questions

Once students have worked with all three sources, and read or examined additional course materials on the spread of Christianity and the slave trade, they could discuss the following broader questions:

  1. At the time of the initial encounter in the 1480s, what appeared to be the interests of the Portuguese? The Kongolese? Can it be characterized as an equal encounter?
  2. In what ways did these interests evolve during the next 40 years? Why?
  3. Who appeared to have made decisions in the two kingdoms, about both religion and trade?
  4. Once the slave trade was becoming more prevalent by the 1520s, what could well-placed Kongolese have done to have limited its development?
  5. How did the Kongolese make Christianity their own?
They could also use the readings for this chapter as the basis of a broader discussion of cultural encounters and interactions, religious blending, power and how it is used, perspectives, and cultural legacies.

Additional Resources:
Kat Cendana, “Kingdom of Kongo, 1390 – 1678” December 21, 2017, Accessed June 6, 2020.
Basil Davidson, The African Past, (London: Curtis Brown Ltd.), 1964
Kwekudee, Trip Down Memory Lane, May 13, 2013 Accessed June 6, 2020.
Ernest O’Rourke & Eileen E. Wood, Kongo: A Kingdom Divided (Los Angeles: NCHS, 2000)
Mario Pereira and Kristen Windmuller-Luna, “Kongo Christian Art: Cross-Cultural Interaction in the Atlantic World” October 30, 2015 Accessed June 6, 2020 https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2015/kongo/blog/posts/kon...
John Thornton, The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641-1718 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983)
John Thornton, “Early Kongo-Portuguese Relations: A New Interpretation,” (Cambridge University Press, originally 1981, republished 2014) accessed June 6, 2020.

Primary Sources


A stone monument with a cross on top

In the 1480s, the Portuguese brought pillars (or padraos) with them in their explorations of western and southwestern Africa and placed them at prominent points, claiming these for Portugal. This is a replica of one of them, from what is now called Cape Cross, in Namibia. At the top is a cross and underneath this is the coat of arms of the kings of Portugal. Beneath that is an inscription in Latin, with many abbreviations, which reads: “In the era of 6681 years from the creation of the world, 1482 years since the birth of Our Lord Jesus, the most High and Excellent and Mighty Prince, King D. João II of Portugal, sent Diogo Cão squire of his House to discover this land and place these pillars.” In placing these pillars, Diogo Cão claimed the land for Portugal, but they may have been interpreted very differently by local people. This source is a part of the Christianity and Slavery in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1480s-1520s teaching module.

Excerpt of letter from Nzinga Mbemba to Portuguese King João III

Document icon
In 1526, the king of the Kongo, Nzinga Mbemba (who by this time had adopted the Christian name of Afonso I) began writing a series of twenty-four letters to the Portuguese King Joao III appealing for an end to the slave trade. While a trading relationship had been in place between Portugal and Kongo since the 1480s, Afonso was increasingly unhappy that the relationship between both countries had degenerated into one in which the slave trade had become increasingly important. This source is a part of the Christianity and Slavery in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1480s-1520s teaching module.

Crucifix (Nkangi Kiditu)

Copper-alloy cast crucifix, with two kneeling figures resting on bar above hands, with a third projecting below the central figure's feet.
This 17th-century brass Kongolese crucifix was based on European models, but transformed by the local artisan who made it. In the center is Jesus, but with large hands, flattened feet, and African facial features, including protruding eyes that convey spiritual connection. This way of representing Christ developed in Kongo during the sixteenth century, and continues to today. Surrounding him are three small praying figures, who might represent the Virgin Mary or other saints, or the dead, mourners, intercessors, or captives, sit on its arms. This source is a part of the Christianity and Slavery in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1480s-1520s teaching module.


James A. Diskant, Ph.D, a historian of modern German History, is a retired high school history and government teacher. From 2001 to 2017 he taught at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Boston, Massachusetts, where he taught courses in world and big history, as well as in government and in research methods. As the author of student-based curricula, he had been an active member of history and pedagogical associations, including the World History Association and the National Council for the Studies, where he led workshops for teachers. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany and is an active member of EuroClio’s History and Learning Team. World History Commons staff and advisors also contributed to this module.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Christianity and Slavery in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1480s-1520s ," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-christianity-and-slavery-kingdom-kongo-1480s-1520s [accessed May 27, 2024]