King Afonso I, the King of Kongo (Congo) from 1509-1543, was an indigenous African converted to Christianity and educated by Portuguese priests. During his reign, Afonso, alarmed that his fellow countrymen were being enslaved and abused by Portuguese adventurers, sent desperate letters to the King of Portugal, urging him to control his subjects and to respect their alliance.
Some of Afonso’s first-person descriptions of despair and hope read like surreal-time lamentations from centuries past, singing the fates of “our own family” throughout the Caribbean Islands, Central America, South America, Europe, and North America.
Afonso’s song is expressed from the depths of souls en Français, en Español, en Nederlands, in English, and em Português, or other languages depending on where a slave ship landed.
Verse 1 - an easy verse about the resilience of enslaved peoples (in this case– Africans) to retain fragments of their culture.
Verse 2 - a hard to sing reflective verse about not understanding the impact of one’s actions and even feeling justified until the effects negatively impact your own family and power.
Verse 3 - the realization that familial connections may be more recent and less lost that one thinks.
The refrain - how a mix of consumer demand, religion, and government decimated the lives of nine million to twelve million individuals.
In 1514, King Afonso I sent a letter to the then King of Portugal, Dom Manuel I, complaining about Fernão de Melo, a merchant with intercontinental interests in slave trading and other goods. In this letter, King Afonso sought help getting more priests to minister to his kingdom. Also, he asked for arms because he expected a native rebellion against his plans to destroy their pagan idols. He thought Fernão de Melo would assist him, out of charity and love of God. Instead, he got a highly leveraged business deal that was paid by Congo but may have never been fulfilled by de Melo.
History professor, Malyn Newitt, translated Afonso’s appeal as follows:
“We received this ship with a great deal of pleasure because we supposed that he came in the service of God, but in fact he came because of his great greed. We then asked Gonçalo Pires if Fernão de Melo had some ships in which he could send us guns and muskets to help us when we burned the great house of idols, because if we burned it without the help from Christians they [the people] would immediately start a war to kill us. And de Melo told us no, but that if we sent him some trade goods, he would buy them for us and would send us all the help that we needed.”
Later in this letter, King Afonso stated he had sent fifty slaves for Fernão de Melo and wife’s personal use as well as other trade goods.
“And we waited for a whole year without receiving any message.”
In 1526, Afonso sent another complaint addressed to King Joao III of Portugal. This letter was found in Hochschild’s book:
“Each day the traders are kidnapping our people — children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family”
He went on to write,
“This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. . . We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. ... It is our wish that this kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves.”
Eventually, King Afonso I passed a law, a partial ban on indiscriminate slavery, requiring a review of all individuals being embarked on slave ships from his country.
The Slavevoyages.org database (or Voyages) contains information on nearly 36,000 voyages connected to the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. It records some 575 voyages showing North Congo and the Congo River as the Principal Region of Slave Purchase from 1527 to 1866. Thus, King Afonso’s attempted review was no easy task.
Aside from Afonso’s own words, the decimation of Africa’s population can also be seen in a study by British economist, Angus Maddison, which cites five different sources. The most conservative of these estimates shows Africa’s continental population at around 61 million in 1700.
One hundred and twenty years later, with the world’s population nearly doubling to 1.04 billion, Africa’s growth to 74 million is tiny by comparison. A longer perspective shows the world’s growth rate between the years 1500 and 1820 (320 years) was believed to be nearly double that of Africa. Indications are strong that Africa’s lag in population growth was directly related to slavery and the forced relocation of millions of its peoples. Maddison estimates that as many as 9 million individuals were enslaved out of Africa. Voyages estimates that the number could be closer to 12 Million.
Consider the impact this way:
Census numbers show the combined populations of Georgia and South Carolina today at about 15 Million. Over the next 350-year period, remove 9 million women, men, and children from Seminole, GA. to Indian Land, SC. Spread them over at least four different continents. Colonize those left behind. Convert or subsume their current political structure and erase anything that poses a threat to the establishment’s powerbase. What does it take for “Our Own Family” to maintain its indigenous culture, sense of being, or recover from such devastation in the Old World or the New World?
Voyages begins tracking the first slave ship expeditions during King Afonso’s rule. What follows are a few of the 36,000 recorded voyages as examples of how Afonso’s “Our Own Family” and subjects disappeared into the New World.
In 1520, a ship carrying slaves from Portuguese Guinea sailed into Puerto Rico. It started with 324. The database states that 44 were disembarked into San Juan, 249 disembarked into a port not recorded. Other queries showed flags of Great Britain, USA, Spain, Brazil, and France disembarked slaves in Puerto Rico.
From 1524 to 1542, Voyages shows that slaves ships sailed into the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Honduras. In 1568, ships flying English flags were showing up in Colombian ports like Santa Marta and Rio de la Hacha.
In 1594 shows principal, secondary, and tertiary slave landings occurred in both Buenos Aires and Brazil.
In 1598, NS de Esperanza sailed into Veracruz, México. It was registered in Seville and flew under Portuguese or colonial flags as well.
In 1619 S João Batista arrived in Veracruz, Mexico and delivered 180 slaves. It is reported to have been captured and the slave cargo taken into Virginia where 25 slaves were sold. 24 slaves were sold in Jamaica.
In 1625, Rosario y de la Palma, flying a Portuguese flag arrived in Havana, Cuba, leaving 21. Then it went to an unspecified port in Brazil leaving 8, sailed to Veracruz, Mexico leaving 110.
In 1711, Union Sloop, flying a British flag, made a principal delivery of slaves into South Carolina. That is, after a port of call in Kingston Jamaica, leaving 53 there and 60 in Georgia.
In 1758, the Unity arrived in Charleston, SC from doing principle trading in Sofala (Mozambique). 228 slaves disembarked.
In 1797, French ships sailed into Montevideo, Uruguay from the Indian Ocean after trading in places like Mauritius in the Indian Ocean about 750 miles east of Madagascar.
The Diana was registered in Rhode Island. It began its voyage in the winter of December 1792. It began the purchase of slaves in February 1793. It arrived with slaves August 7, 1793, delivering into the Caribbean Dutch Colony of St. Eustatius. There, it delivered 12 of the 40 slaves. The second listed landing is Savannah, GA, delivering 23.
The Sally sailed from Rhode Island in 1803, the same year as the Louisiana Purchase from France, Africans were embarked from West Africa. It sailed to Havana where 24 slaves were unloaded and then to New Orleans where 110 slaves were discharged.
These are but eleven voyages out of 36,000 recorded for posterity. But their message is clear.
All of these events are captured in King Afonso’s song: the spreading of Christianity; his own involvement in the trading of slaves; the horrible effects of the Portuguese slave trade on his family; the loss of his powerbase and a large number of his subjects; his partial ban to stem the trade; and his own family members (“our own family”) chained inside the hulls of ships, headed for a new world order that would eventually displace native cultures in ways very similar to what happened in the Congo.
While King Afonso’s family may have been be lost to generations, it remains very likely that familial connections between U.S. citizens and Cuban citizens, as well as other countries, do still exist.
Spain conceded Florida to America in 1819. The last voyage by a slave ship to Cuba is listed in the Voyagers database only as Voyage Identification Number 4998. It landed in 1866 and disembarked 700 slaves purchased from the West Coast of Africa.
At a minimum, there are living Baby-Boomer-aged people who experienced these freed slaves as great-grandparents in both the U.S. and in Cuba. With the resources now available, it is only matter of time until the descendants of African slaves will find some not-so distant Latino cousins and reunite as “our own family”.
The author quotes three sources in this article:
● Groningen Growth and Development Centre of the University of Groningen (The Netherlands) maintains macroeconomic data through the Maddison Project. The World Economy, A Millennial Perspective by Voyage Identification Number 4998was published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development at Groningen.
● Emory University's, Voyages Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database
● The Portuguese in West Africa, 1415–1670: A Documentary History, edited by Malyn Newitt
● King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild