Lourenço da Silva Mendonça and the Black Abolitionist Movement in the 17th Century 
by José Lingna Nafafé.
Cambridge, 468 pp., £47.99, August 2022, 978 1 108 97419 6
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In March​ 1684, a prince from the African kingdom of Ndongo arrived in Rome. Lourenço da Silva de Mendonça was there, as José Lingna Nafafé explains in his new book, to demand the legal abolition of Atlantic slavery. He was bringing ‘an ethical and criminal kufunda [case] before the Vatican court, which accused the nations involved’ – including the Vatican, Italy, Spain and Portugal – of ‘crimes against humanity’. The Vatican was the leading court in the Catholic world and in the 15th and 16th centuries had issued a series of papal bulls permitting the enslavement of Africans – which meant it also had the judicial authority to ban slavery under ecclesiastical law.

Mendonça was born in Ndongo in Angola in the late 1640s. In 1671 a Portuguese army defeated troops led by his uncle, King João Hari II. Hari had been a thorn in the side of the Portuguese for years, and when he led a rebellion against the annual slave tribute, an expeditionary force was sent to put it down. After a nine-month siege of the capital of Ndongo, Pungo Andongo, the rebels were defeated, João Hari was executed, and Mendonça and the other Ndongo royals were sent to Brazil. The Portuguese divided them between Brazil’s different captaincies (administrative regions), but Mendonça remained in Salvador da Bahía, the colonial capital. It was there he saw at first hand the plight of enslaved Angolans, who were subjected to violence, rape and abuse.

Mendonça occupied an ambiguous position; he was recognised in imperial documents as an ‘African prince’, but his freedom was circumscribed by the Portuguese. In 1673 he was deported again. The majority of Africans in Brazil were of Angolan origin, and the colonial officials in Salvador feared that the Ndongo royals might continue to command loyalty. The Palmares community in Salvador, founded by escaped slaves in 1605 and almost an independent African state in Brazil, was a potential rallying point. Mendonça and three of his brothers were therefore sent to Portugal, where they were placed in different monasteries. Mendonça spent at least three years studying at Vilar de Frades, near Braga, acquiring the knowledge of Catholic law that he would demonstrate in the 1684 court case.

Mendonça left Vilar de Frades around 1677 and moved to Lisbon, where he became attorney general of the confraría (or religious brotherhood) of the free Blacks of Lisbon. The confrarías organised the charitable distribution of food, medicine, alms and dowries, and co-ordinated care for the sick. (Brotherhoods for free Black subjects had a long history. The first church to be built by an African confraría, Nossa Senhora do Rosário, was founded in Cape Verde in 1506, and the brotherhoods spread across the Portuguese imperial world to Lisbon, Angola and Brazil.) As the attorney general for a confraría in the capital of the Portuguese empire, Mendonça was perhaps the most powerful African in the Lusophone world. He worked alongside the apostolic notary in Lisbon, and through him secured a letter of recommendation from the Portuguese crown that enabled him to leave Lisbon in 1681. He went to Toledo and then Madrid, where he spent several years in diplomatic and Church circles putting forward the case for the abolition of slavery, eventually gaining support from the Spanish crown.

There isn’t a place for Mendonça in traditional accounts of abolition, which have generally presented it as an act of British paternalism rather than the result of an African campaign for justice. By piecing together the details of Mendonça’s campaign, Nafafé shows that abolitionism began not with William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, but with a transnational African movement a century earlier. In order to make this case, he has to reconstruct the complex and intertwined worlds of Angola, Brazil and Southern Europe in the 17th century. The Portuguese arrived in Angola in the late 15th century, but it was only with the founding of Luanda in 1575 that they began to formulate a colonial policy. When the sugar boom in north-east Brazil took off in the first half of the 17th century, the trade in enslaved Africans from Angola expanded rapidly (‘Without Angola there is no Brazil,’ it was said at the time). Portuguese governors to Angola during this period enacted a series of brutal policies. In 1622, João Correia de Sousa seized the Kasanze district and enslaved hundreds of Catholic converts – undermining the Vatican’s justification of slavery as leading to conversion. Under his successor, Fernão de Sousa, the Portuguese subverted a Mbundu system known as baculamento: Ndongo sobas (headmen) had paid their taxes in produce, now they had to pay in captives.

Portuguese legal documents referred to the export of ‘slaves’ as if this was a long-standing practice in Angola, rather than a concept adapted from Roman and European law in order to satisfy European merchants’ commercial interests. Certainly, the taking of war captives was common in Africa, as in many other parts of the world; but the aim was eventually to incorporate these captives in an expanded society, rather than excluding them systematically, as the legal framework of Atlantic slavery sought to do. As Nafafé points out, although leading figures in the Portuguese empire’s intellectual elite, such as António Vieira, attempted to justify slavery with reference to supposedly ‘African’ customs, the reality was much more complex. The Western notion of the ‘slave’ was very different from the legal concepts found in Africa at the time, but the Portuguese treated it as synonymous with the Kimbundu concept of kijiko. This referred to a debtor who was still a free person – such a person’s condition was temporary, making it distinct from chattel slavery.

Using an impressive range of archival and published material, Nafafé places Mendonça’s legal case in its proper context. If there really was a tradition of slavery in Africa, how can we explain the kings of Kongo and Angola demanding the return of the captives unlawfully seized by Correia de Sousa in 1622? Why did João II, king of Portugal from 1481 to 1495, tell a German traveller that it was hard to get hold of slaves in Africa? Why did so many Angolan slaves try to escape the Brazilian plantations and join maroon communities such as Palmares? It is by understanding the way in which the Portuguese transformed ‘the traditional system of servitude into a profit-making machine’ that we can fully make sense of Mendonça’s moral outrage at the Atlantic slave system. He was exercised by the question of who fitted the category of ‘slave’, and made it clear at the Vatican that those sold into slavery were not considered slaves under Ndongo civil law.

Nafafé stresses that Mendonça wasn’t operating alone. The confrarías played an important role: Mendonça arrived at the Vatican with letters of support from brotherhoods in Lisbon, Madrid and Luanda which rejected untruths that were circulating about the slave trade: that enslaved Africans were not subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment; that enslavement was in keeping with Christian concepts of just war. Mendonça’s work was also influenced by members of other groups that had experienced the violence of Portuguese imperialism. Among those who nominated him for attorney general was Dom Lorenzo Del Real, a Peruvian of Quechua heritage who was a councillor of Christ – a highly sought-after rank – and a ‘guardianship porter’ to Carlos II, the king of Spain. He also received support from Gaspar de Mesquita, a ‘New Christian’ descendant of Jews forcibly converted to Christianity during the Inquisition (other New Christian merchants played a significant role in the Atlantic slave trade). This network of contacts helped Mendonça to turn his appeal into a ‘supranational issue that needed to be dealt with internationally’.

There are few academics studying precolonial African history. This book is testament to Nafafé’s years of research in archives in Brazil, Portugal and the Vatican, and to his detailed understanding of the religious, literary and ethnographic contexts of the surviving sources. His analysis of the seal on Mendonça’s legal appeal is a good example of his method. Mendonça included the words morir es lo más cierto (‘death is certain’), which also appear on the seal of the Propaganda Fide, the Vatican department responsible for overseas matters. But the full Latin saying is mors certa est, at eius hora incerta est (‘death is certain, its hour is not’). By omitting the second half of the phrase, Mendonça was making a point that can’t have been lost on Vatican legal scholars: for enslaved Africans, death was a certainty that came sooner rather than later.

The details of Mendonça’s daily petitions at the Vatican have not survived. What we do know is the outcome: the Propaganda Fide accepted his argument. Letters were sent to the papal nuncios in Spain and Portugal instructing both countries to stop the abuses associated with slavery. Later the same year, Portugal passed a law imposing much stricter regulations on transatlantic slave ships, limiting the number of days they could spend travelling between West Africa and Brazil and making it harder for merchants to commit fraud by deliberately misreporting the number of people on board. (To evade taxes, slave ship captains often registered only a third or a half of the real number of enslaved people they transported.) Until now, historians haven’t drawn a connection between this law and Mendonça’s case, but Nafafé argues convincingly that it was a response to the Vatican hearing. The warning letter frightened the Portuguese: an outright ban on the Atlantic slave trade, or even tighter controls on it, would have had serious consequences for its empire. In the end, Portugal didn’t abolish slavery in its colonies until 1869. One important gap remains: despite all Nafafé’s research, we don’t know what Mendonça made of the legislation, or indeed anything about his life after he went to the Vatican. Like so many Africans of the 17th century, free or enslaved, he disappears from the record.

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