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The Traders are Kidnapping  Our People-4-King Leopold's Ghost

Several dozen of the letters survive, above his signatue, with its own regal flourish of double underlinings. Their tone is the formal one of monarch to monarch, usually beginning " Most high and powerful prince and king my brother..."But we can hear not just a king speaking. "But we can hear not just a king speakingLater the same year.....; we hear a human being, one who is aghast to see his people taken away in even greater numbers on slave ships. Alfonso was no abolitionist. Like most African rulers of his time and latter, he owned slaves, and at least once he sent some as a present to his "brother" king in Lisbon, along with leopard skins, parrots, and copper anklets. But this traditional exchange of gifts among kings seemed greatly different to Affonso from having tens of thousands of his previously free subjects taken across the sea in chains.

Listen to him as he writes King Joao 111 of Portugal in 1526. Each day the traders are kidnapping our people-- children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family... This corruption and depravity are so wide spread that our land is entirely depopulated... We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour and Mass... It is our wish that this kingdom not be the place fro the trade and transport of slaves.

Later the same year:Later the same year:Many of our subjects eagerly lust after Portuguese merchandise that your subjects have brought into our domains. To satisfy this inordinate appetite , they seize many of our black subjects,,,They sell them... after having taken these prisoners [to the coast] secretly or at night...As soon as the captives are in the hands of white men they are branded with a hot-iron. Again and again Affonso speaks about the twin themes of the slave trade and the alluring array of cloth, tools, jewelry, and other knick knacks that the Portuguese traders used to buy their human cargoes.These goods exert such a great attraction over simple and ignorant people that they believe in them and forget their belief in God....

My Lord, a monstrous greed pushes our subjects, even Christians, to seize members of their own families, and of ours, to do business by selling them as captives. While begging the Portuguese king to send him teachers, pharmacists and doctors instead of traders, Affonso admits that the flood of material goods threatened his authority. His people "can n ow procure, in much greater quantity than we can, the things we formely used to keep them obedient to us and content." Affonso's lament was prescient; this was not the last time that the lust for Europe's great conucopia of goods undermined traditional ways of life elsewhere. The Portuguese king showed no sympathy, King Joao 111 replied: "You...tell me how vast the Congo is, and how it is so thickly populated that it seems as if no slave has ever left."

Affonso pleaded with his fellow sovereigns as one Christian with another, complete with the prejudices of the day. Of the priests turned slave traders, he wrote:Affonso pleaded with his fellow sovereigns as one Christian with another, complete with the prejudices of the day. Of the priests turned slave-traders, he wrote:In this kingdom, faith is as fragile as a glass because of the bad examples of the men who come to teach here, because the lusts of the world and lure of wealth have turned them away from the truth.

Just as the jews crucified the Son of God because of covetousness, my brother, so today he is again crucified. Several times Affonso sent his appeals for an end to the slave trade directly to the Pope in Rome, but the Portuguese detained his emissaries to the Vatican as they stepped off the boat in Lisbon.Affonso's despair reached its depths in 1539, near the end of his life, when he heard that ten of his young nephews, grandsons and other relatives who had been sent to Portugal for a religious education  had disappeared en route.

" We don't know whether they are dead or alive," he wrote in desperation, " nor how they might have died, nor what news we can give of them to their fathers and mothers." We can imagine the king's horror at being unable to guarantee the safety even ogf his own family. Portuguese traders and sea captains along the long route back to Europe sidetracked many a cargo between the Kongo kingdom and Lisbon; these youngsters, it turned out, ended up in Brazil as slaves.

His hatred for the overseas slave trade and his vigilance against its erosion of his authority won Affonso the enmity of some of the Portuguese merchamts living in his capital. A group og eight made an attempt on his life as he was attending Mass on Easter Sunday in 1540. He escaped with only a bullet hole in the fringe of his royal robe, but one of his nobles was killed and two others wounded.His hatred for the overseasslave trade and his vigilance against its erosion of his authority won Affonso the enmity of some of the Portuguese merchants living in his capital. A group of eight made an attempt on his life as he was attending Mass on Easter Sunday in 1540. He escaped with only a bullet hole in the fringe of his royal robe, but one of his nobles was killed and two others wounded.

After Affonso's death, the power of the Kongo state gradually diminished as provincial and village chiefs, themselves growing rich on slave sales, no longer gavae much allegiance to the court of Mbanza kongo. By thye end of the 1500s, other European countries had joined in the slave trade; British, French, and Dutch vessels roamed the African coast, looking for human cargo. In 1665, the army of the weakened kingdom of the Kongo fought a battle with the Portuguese. It was deafeated, and the ManiKongo was beheaded. Internal strife further depleted the kingdom. whose territory was all taken over by European colonies by the late 1800s.

Except for Affonso's letters, the written record of these times shows them entirely through white men's eyes. How did the Europeans, beginning with Diogo Cao and his three ships with faded red crosses on their sails, appear to the people living at the great river's mouth? To see with their eyes, we must turn to the myths and legends that have filtered down over the centuries. 

At first, Africans apparently saw the white sailors not as men but as vumbi-ancestral ghosts-since the Kongo people believed that a person's skin changed to the colour of chalk, when he passed into the land of the dead. And it was obvious that this was where these menacing white vumbi had come from, for people on the shore saw first the tips of an approaching ship's masts, then its super structure, then its hull. Clearly the ship had carried its passangers up from their homes beneath the surface of the earth. Here is how the Portuguese arrival was recounted by Mukunzo Kioko, a twentieth-century oral historian of the Pende people:

Reference: Adam Hochschild

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