HRP Handover: Luke Pepera on a story of two kings

For our final HRP Handover for Black History Month 2020, we’re handing over to Luke Pepera, a writer, broadcaster, historian and anthropologist specialising in African history and culture.

In his blog, Luke compares the lives of two contemporary kings, both of whom ruled their kingdoms in the first half of the 16th century. If you’ve ever visited Hampton Court Palace you’ll have definitely heard of one of them, but the other might be new to you…

Historian, writer and broadcaster Luke Pepera

This is a story of two kings: Mvemba a Nzinga, or Afonso I, of Kongo (1460-1543) and Henry VIII of England (1491-1547). In many ways, the African king and European king were very similar. Both were war-mongering, ambitious, and deeply religious, and spent their lives and nearly all resources at their disposal in pursuit of the same goal: The stability of their kingdoms. For both, who knew that their reigns were very fragile, the roots of their obsession with stability lay in personal insecurities. And both felt that religion was key to the achievement of their shared ambition. Where they differed was in how they viewed and manipulated the same religion, Roman Catholicism. Afonso, who felt that Kongo’s stability depended on its relationship with Portugal, and that adopting Catholicism would improve this, keenly did so. But Henry, who felt that England’s stability depended on producing a male heir, and that Catholicism was preventing this, rejected it.

The coat of arms of the Kingdom of Kongo issued to Afonso I.

In Kongo, like in many African kingdoms, it wasn’t believed that the king’s firstborn son should inevitably succeed him. Instead, kings were elected out of a pool of potential candidates, and people would give their support to the candidate they thought would rule best. But if two factions gained considerable support, as sometimes happened, they would go to war, and the victor, after he or she had beaten, then exiled, or perhaps even killed, his or her rival, became ruler. Succession in Kongo was thus inherently unstable, and Afonso, having succeeded the throne after just such a conflict, knew this first-hand.

When his father, Nzinga a Nkuwu (later João I), died in 1506, supporters led by his mother, Leonor, rallied around him. She kept her husband’s death secret and sent a message to Afonso telling him to come quickly from Nsundi, the region he governed, to the capital. With her help, he disguised his soldiers and weapons as food deliveries and snuck them into the city. It worked like a charm. Mpanzu, Afonso’s half-brother and rival, was caught completely off-guard. He scrambled together his army and attacked, but was swiftly beaten. After the battle, Mpanzu was executed. Once Afonso was officially enthroned as the sixth king of Kongo, he asked the Portuguese king for military support, expanded his kingdom with more conquests, and established his rule by putting his sons and allies in charge of the different regions.

An 18th-century depiction of Kongo’s capital, and the Afonso’s main castle, the Bansa.

Meanwhile in England, Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VIII after his brother Arthur’s untimely death just a few years earlier. He was only 17 when he ascended the throne, and unlike his elder brother had not been groomed from an early age to be king. He’d enjoyed a rather carefree childhood. But now he was forced to abandon his passions, study kingship, and shoulder its heavy burdens. This included nothing less than the survival of his entire dynasty. And Henry’s knowledge of his family’s very weak claim to the English throne, and the previous century of bloody civil war, only added to the pressure. To avoid, or at least make difficult, the destruction of the Tudor dynasty, Henry knew he needed to produce a legitimate heir, a healthy baby boy.

King Henry VIII, by an unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c. 1520 © National Portrait Gallery, London

As we well know, this proved easier said than done. Henry and his wife Catherine of Aragon tried for years for a boy. But after numerous pregnancies and births, their only surviving child was a girl, Mary. It soon looked unlikely that the aging Catherine would give birth again at all, let alone to the heir. Henry fast lost interest in her, and became infatuated with the clever and ambitious Anne Boleyn. He also felt God was punishing him, and scoured the Holy Scriptures for answers. There, he found an obscure passage that suggested his marriage to Catherine (once Arthur’s widow) might be the problem. So in the early 1530s, he asked Pope Clement VII’s permission to divorce Catherine and marry Anne. The Pope refused. But Henry did it anyway. In the process, he severed nearly all ties with Rome and the Catholic kings of Europe, created and made himself the head of a new, English Church, and even executed his best friend, Thomas More, who’d disagreed with his actions.

Title page of the 1539 edition of Henry VIII’s Great Bible, the first authorised edition of the Bible in English.

And while Henry, to preserve the Tudor dynasty, rejected Catholicism, Afonso, to protect Kongo, embraced it. In the early 1480s, the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão met with Afonso’s father. Cão was the first European to reach Kongo, and with Nzinga’s blessing, he took back to Portugal several Kongolese noble children. There, they learnt Portuguese customs and the basics of Catholicism. When he returned with them a few years later, Cão was again sent away, this time with Kongolese ambassadors who told the Portuguese king (and probably the Pope) that Nzinga wanted to become Catholic. For several years, the ambassadors were schooled in Latin, literacy, and Christianity. When they returned in 1491, Nzinga, Leonor, and Afonso were baptised.

Afonso’s father Nzinga a Nkuwu, or João I of Kongo.

But though Nzinga introduced Catholicism to Kongo, Afonso loved it more. Near the end of his life, Nzinga rejected Catholicism and expelled the Portuguese priests. Afonso welcomed them to Nsundi, where, for some time, he’d been forcibly converting his subjects, destroying their idols, and warring against anti-Christian rebels. After Nzinga’s death, Afonso put the Christianisation of Kongo into overdrive. He sent more noble children to Portugal, including his son Henrique, who Pope Leo X made a bishop in 1518, and asked the Portuguese king to send him priests. One of these priests, Rui d’Aguiar, who likened Afonso to ‘an angel… that the Lord sent [to Kongo]…in order to convert it,’ described how the Kongo king would read Christian texts late into the night, and next morning would be found sleeping on them. Afonso also set up a school in the capital, filled them with noble boys and girls, and made the priests, and the Kongolese youths who’d accompanied Cão, teachers. He even built a wall around the school to prevent the children from escaping! Once educated, these youths were sent all over the kingdom to teach more Kongolese to read and write, and to convert them. Afonso’s strategy was remarkably effective. Literacy expanded rapidly, and because Kongolese priests taught a Christianity that welcomed many aspects of Kongo’s indigenous religion, conversion was peaceful.

Triple crucifix used for Christian worship in the Kingdom of Kongo, 16th-17th centuries (© Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City)

In the end, though, these kings’ actions, intended to preserve their kingdoms, had the opposite effect. During Henry’s reign, so much division was sown that it troubled the reigns of all three of his children, and with them his dynasty died. In Kongo, Portugal’s increased demand for slaves after America’s colonisation led to so much greed, theft, and corruption that even Afonso feared for his kingdom’s survival. He wrote twice to Pope Clement VII (in 1529 and 1539) asking him to regulate the slave trade. Twice, he was cold-shouldered, and the Portuguese, growing tired of his interferences, tried to assassinate him in 1540. Two years later, Afonso died, and as per his final wishes was buried in a stone, Catholic church.

Luke Pepera

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