Who Was Africa’s 1st Ambassador to Europe?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: The answer lies a lot further back in time than you think.

Antonio Manuel, by Francesco Caporale, 1629. RomeSanta Maria Maggiore, Baptistery (The Image of the Black, Vol. 3, pt. 1)
Antonio Manuel, by Francesco Caporale, 1629. RomeSanta Maria Maggiore, Baptistery (The Image of the Black, Vol. 3, pt. 1)

Antonio Manuel was born in a province of the kingdom of Kongo (in today’s Angola) circa 1570. As Thornton tells us, he was educated there, became a mestre de escola (a teacher), and his first official position was to oversee the Church of the Holy Trinity in Soyo. (The King of Kongo, Nzinga a Nkuwu, willingly converted to Roman Catholicism in the year 1491, and his son and successor, Afonso, strengthened the role and status of the Catholic Church during his reign. Kongo was a Catholic kingdom thereafter.)

The Kongo king, Alvaro II, appointed Antonio Manuel ambassador to Rome in 1604, and he set out for Rome soon after. The king sent him there to complain to the pope about the behavior of the Portuguese man who had been sent to Kongo as the bishop in 1596.

Manuel traveled to Rome by sailing first to Brazil. Though it seems counterintuitive to us today, it was shorter to travel to Europe from Angola by sailing first to Brazil, because of the flow of currents and the direction of the winds. He also wanted to go to Brazil to attempt to free a Kongo nobleman who had been wrongly enslaved. Manuel demonstrated considerable diplomatic skills in successfully accomplishing this man’s release from slavery; however, the remainder of his travels turned harrowing. 

Dutch pirates intercepted Manuel’s vessel while he was en route to Portugal and stole most of his money and his possessions. When he finally arrived in Lisbon, he sought the aid of some of his fellow Kongos who were living there, but was turned down. So he turned to the church. 

Various clergy in the Carmelite Order in Lisbon and then in Madrid gave Manuel shelter, support and encouragement. He spent the next four years writing to various high-placed ecclesiastical officials in Rome, attempting to complete his mission. Finally, he made it to Rome, seriously ill and nearly destitute. 

At the Vatican, he was housed in a wing of the papal residences. When the pope heard that he was near death, he visited him and personally gave him the last rites. He died on Epiphany (Jan. 6, 1608), and at his funeral, he was compared with the black Magus (one of the three Wise Men) who are thought to have visited the baby Jesus on the first Epiphany Day. Bernini created a bust of him, and it adorns a side of the chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, which is entirely dedicated to memorializing Manuel’s mission.

We know much less about the other African ambassador, who was immortalized in a beautiful color portrait. His name was Miguel de Castro, and he was chosen to represent the Kingdom of Kongo in the Netherlands. The Dutch had occupied Brazil and were at war with Portugal in Angola in 1642. Just as Manuel had done before him, de Castro sailed first to Brazil to negotiate Dutch assistance. Then he sailed to the Netherlands, where he was well-received. Jasper Becx painted a portrait of him along with two of his servants.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correctly identify the artist who painted Miguel de Castro.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.

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