Dom Pedro de Sousa[1] was a nobleman of the BaKongo people who inhabited much of central West Africa[2] during the first decades of Portuguese contact with sub-Saharan Africa. In historical archives like those of the Torre do Tombo in Lisbon, D. Pedro’s name appears on documents of various genres shedding light on early relations between the BaKongo and Portugal. As a witness of the events from the 1480s to the 1530s,[3] a period of Portuguese colonization and growing involvement in the slave trade, it may be easy to view D. Pedro as an agent of hegemony or a victim of racism. While neither one of those assumptions would be incorrect, we must bear in mind that D. Pedro was looking for solutions within the pre-existing  political world of BaKongo.

 The Portuguese  colonization of West Africa was fomented by commercial and religious conflict in the Mediterranean. In the early fifteenth century, trade within the Mediterranean was dominated by Venice, Genoa, and Catalonia. Trade routes between the Mediterranean and areas further east were controlled by the Ottoman and Mamluk states. Access to those routes for Christian merchants from the Mediterranean was complicated by religious tensions between Christians and Muslims. In times of crusade, Italian and Iberian merchants might find themselves blocked from eastward trade. In times of peace, they might be able to negotiate commercial privileges from Muslim rulers.

Portugal’s  role in the Mediterranean panorama was shaped by its relations with neighboring states, including conflict with the Nasrid emirate in southern Iberia and struggles for autonomy against the emerging Spanish Empire. In the fifteenth century, Portuguese rulers adopted a strategy of bypassing the Mediterranean to trade directly with eastern markets. This strategy led them along the West African coast. At the same time, Portuguese kings maintained good relations with papacy and attempted to extend Christian control in the western Mediterranean. In 1415, Portugal conquered the city of Ceuta, establishing a foothold in North Africa which remains under Spanish control today. In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV, delighted by the construction of the the Casa da Mina (Elmina), a trading warehouse in Ghana,[4] sent a letter to King Dom João II granting him apostolic authority to evangelize Guinea and beyond.[5] 

The BaKongo political system had features that the Portuguese could relate to, although in other respects it was completely foreign to them. At first the BaKongo and the Portuguese could communicate only through translators using signs,[6] but the Portuguese quickly learned that there was a great ruler named Manicongo.[7] Mani meant “Lord”, hence Manicongo meant the “Lord of the Congo” who ruled from Mbanza-Kongo.[8] The Portuguese frequently used the term Manicongo to refer to the kingdom itself as well as its ruler. Like the Mediterranean, the BaKongo region was subject to political conflict fertile for exploitation. Some conflicts were caused by insubordinate vassals of the king.[9] Other conflicts were initiated by members of the royal family. In the early years of contact, two Christian converts from the king’s family, D. Affonso and D. Pedro, went on an idol-burning mission that upset their fellow BaKongo.[10] When the time came near for D. Affonso to inherit the kingdom, he was sent into exile by his father, Manicongo, and had to launch a military campaign against his brother Panso Aquitimo in order to assume the throne.[11]

It is in this context that we encounter D. Pedro de Sousa or Pedro de Manicongo, nephew of King Manicongo.[12] Although the sources do not reveal how D. Pedro first came into contact with Portuguese culture, there are three likely possibilities.

  1. Diogo Cão, the first Portuguese ship captain to reach Manicongo, dropped anchor at the mouth of the Congo River in 1482. He then returned to Portugal with some BaKongo officials who had voluntarily boarded his ship.[13] He took them with him for two reasons. First, he had sent an envoy inland that did not return on time,[14] so he kept the BaKongo officials as surety for the return of his envoy. This type of hostage exchange in diplomatic contexts was not unusual in the Mediterranean.[15] Such hostages could expect comfortable living conditions and respectful treatment as long as the diplomatic situation did not deteriorate. In addition, during their time in Portugal, Cão wanted cultured men to teach the hostages the Portuguese language and customs so that they could return and act as intermediaries. Among the BaKongo hostages was a celebrated official whose BaKongo name was Caçuta or Kasuka.[16] He was baptized as D. João de Sousa.[17] Given D. Pedro de Sousa’s baptismal name, it is possible that he was one of Caçuta’s companions.
  2. When the hostages returned to Manicongo fifteen months later, more BaKongo officials were baptized and certain young men were selected to go to Portugal for indoctrination.[18] D. Pedro may have been one of these young men.
  3. After King Manicongo was baptized on May 3, 1491 as Dom João, a large group of BaKongo noblemen were baptized. They included a Dom Francisco,[19] who is mentioned in later texts with D. Pedro and is likely his cousin. D. Pedro may have been baptized as part of this group.

What we do know is that in December 1491, five Christian missionaries were sent from Portugal to the Congo: João de Santa Maria, João de Portalegre, Antônio de Lisboa, Rodrigo de Deos and Vicente dos Anjos.[20] When João de Portalegre and Antônio de Lisboa passed away, the others returned to Portugal in 1503 with three Congolese students, D. Enrique, D. Manuel and D. Pedro de Sousa. The students were enrolled in the Convent of St. Eloy. D. Pedro excelled in learning and met regularly with the King of Portugal, D. Manuel, and Queen Maria.[21] In 1513, D. Enrique and D. Pedro went to Rome to meet Pope Leo X. D. Pedro was appointed bishop of the island of São Tomé in West Africa.[22] Later D. Pedro’s cousin, King Affonso of Manicongo put him in charge of the province of Huébo.[23] At this stage, class and lineage were just as important, if not more important, than racial categories as a basis for discrimination.[24] D. Pedro’s position as a nobleman, a member of the royal lineage, and an educated Christian were relevant in his interactions with the Portuguese alongside his blackness and BaKongo ethnicity.

In these translations I strive to reflect the author of each text and the ambience in which they wrote. In some instances, it has been necessary to change the syntax for coherency, but I avoid doing so for the sake of modernization or concision. I have added or changed punctuation as Portuguese grammar and orthography was still evolving. If there is any danger of misrepresenting the author when accommodating the text to English, I try to give an interpretation in the footnotes.

I. Order from João II to Rui Gil (1493)

II. Testament of Álvaro de Caminha (1499)

III. Letter from Pedro de Sousa to Manuel I (1513)

IV. Mapping Manicongo (1502)

[1] “Dom was an honorary title applied to monarchs, princes and ecclesiastics.” América Venâncio Lopes Machado Filho, Novo dicionário do Português arcaico ou medieval (Salvador-Bahia: Projeto Depare, 2019), 221-2. D. Pedro was awarded this title as nephew of the King of Manicongo.

[2] The BaKongo kingdom spanned much of what is now western Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, and Gabon. 

[3] D. Pedro passed away in the S. Eloy convent in Portugal in 1538. António Brásio, Monumenta missionaria africana I: África ocidental (1471-1531) (Lisboa: Agência Geral do Ultramar Divisão de Publicações e Biblioteca, 1952), 100.

[4] Trading warehouses were called “factories” (feitorias). The Casa da Mina processed and packaged pepper, gold, copper, sugar and slaves among other things. It grew into the city of São Jorge da Mina. Kwasi Konadu, Africa’s Gold Coast through Portuguese Sources, 1469-1680 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), 66-7.

[5] Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 7.

[6] These translators were likely from Guinea or Benin. João de Barros, Decada primeira da Asia de Ioão de Barros: Dos feitos que os portugueses fezerão no descoberto & conquista dos mares & terras do Oriente (Lisbon: Impressa per Iorge Rodriguez, 1628), fol. 39.

[7] The Congolese scholar Raphaël Batsîkama gives us the king’s name: Ndo Nzwawu Nzing’a Nkuwu. Raphaël Batsîkama, L’Ancien royaume du Congo et les BaKongo (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1999), 4.

[8] De Barros, Decada primeira, fol. 51.

[9] Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 133-5.

[10] Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 297-8.

[11] Panso Aquitimo had refused baptism when his father and other officials received it. At the time of this exile, King Nzing’a Nkuwu had apostatized from Christianity to the indigenous religion. Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 141.

[12] Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 242.

[13] De Barros, Decada primeira, fol., 39-40.

[14] I am assuming that the BaKongo had managed to communicate the standard time lapsing for an out and back trip from the coast to Mbanza-Kongo. This journey would be about two weeks, with rests along the way.

[15] Adam Kosto, Hostages in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[16] Didier Mumengi, La naissance du Congo: De l’Égypte à Mbanza Kongo (Kinshasa: L’Harmattan, 2009), 200.

[17] De Barros, Decada primeira, fol. 39-40.

[18] Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 43 and 58.  

[19] This group includes D. Francisco. D. Gonçalo, D. Jorge, D. Rodrigo, and D. Diego (Caçuta’s brother). Brásio,  Monumenta missionaria, 121.

[20] The sources disagree about whether they were Dominicans, Franciscans, or both. Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 92.

[21] Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 222.

[22] Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 96, 146

[23] Likely Huambo, Angola. Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 461, 463.

[24] Herman Bennett, African Kings and Black Slaves: Sovereignty and Dispossession in the Early Modern Atlantic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 1.

Related Primary Sources

  • Brásio, António. Monumenta missionaria africana I: África ocidental (1471-1531). Lisboa: Agência Geral do Ultramar Divisão de Publicações e Biblioteca, 1952.
  • De Barros, João. Decada primeira da Asia de Ioão de Barros: Dos feitos que os portugueses fezerão no descoberto & conquista dos mares & terras do Oriente. Lisbon: Impressa per Iorge Rodriguez, 1628.
  • De Pina, Rui. Crónica de D. João II. Torre de Tombo, PT-TT-CRN-19.
  • Konadu, Kwasi. Africa’s Gold Coast through Portuguese Sources, 1469-1680. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.

Related Secondary Sources

  • Batsîkama, Raphaël. L’Ancien royaume du Congo et les BaKongo. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1999.
  • Bennett, Herman. African Kings and Black Slaves: Sovereignty and Dispossession in the Early Modern Atlantic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.
  • Green, Toby. A Fistful of Shells. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.
  • Mumengi, Didier. La naissance du Congo: De l’Égypte à Mbanza Kongo. Kinshasa: L’Harmattan, 2009.


Property, Race, Religion, Trade