Who Was Africa's 1st Ambassador to Europe?

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

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 5: Who was Africa's first ambassador to Europe?

Most of us assume that the flow of human beings, ideas, trade and information between Europe and Africa was one-way, and that Africans were a "primitive" people outside of time, living in ignorance and isolation until Portuguese navigators "discovered" them sometime in the 15th century, and then forced them into slavery. That, at least, is how my generation was taught, when we were taught anything at all about Africa and its Africans.

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But it turns out that long before English settlers arrived at Jamestown, Va., in 1607, African kingdoms were a lot more sophisticated and highly organized, and those kingdoms' relations to European visitors and to their monarchs back home much more complicated than we have been led to believe. And, indeed, the flow of contact between Europe and Africa was in both directions. African kingdoms established formal diplomatic relations with European kingdoms, as equal parties, to regulate matters such as trade.

If we think of the Sahara Desert, the Atlantic, the Red Sea, the Nile and the Indian Ocean as highways, those highways had two lanes. Greek and Roman sailors traded as far down the coast of the Red Sea as the Horn and much further south in East Africa using a book, published in Greek in about A.D. 60, as a guide to navigation and trading all along the coast. It was called The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. 

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Around A.D. 330 the Emperor Ezana of Axum, in present-day Ethiopia, declared Christianity to be the official state religion, which has entailed regular contact between Ethiopian and European clerics ever since. African slaves were found throughout Europe centuries before the Portuguese navigated their way down the coast of sub-Saharan Africa in the 15th century, at least from A.D. 711, when the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula. 

One of the great kings of the Empire of Mali, Mansa Qu, the predecessor to the legendary Mansa Musa (who made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324), set sail to explore "the Western Ocean" (the Atlantic) circa A.D. 1312 with a large party, in search of the new worlds that Columbus would encounter almost two centuries later. Mansa Qu and his party never returned, which is how Mansa Musa became emperor, as he explained to the Egyptian court chronicler, al-'Umari, on his journey. 

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And, as we have seen in Amazing Fact No. 1, by the time the first 20 African slaves ended up in Jamestown, more than 500,000 Africans had already been shipped to the New World. In other words, both as independent agents and as slaves, black Sub-Saharan Africans experienced a wide variety of contact with Europe and Europeans throughout modernity.

Nevertheless, it comes as quite a surprise to most of us to learn that some independent African kingdoms actually sent their own ambassadors to their European counterparts, and these ambassadors were accorded all the rights and privileges of other nations' ambassadors. 

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As the historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton discovered, the king of Kongo sent an ambassador named Chrachanfusus to the court of the King of Portugal as early as 1488. He presented the king with many splendid gifts, including ivory that was "marvelously white and shone," according to a report by Portuguese chronicler Rui de Pina. Chrachanfusus was baptized and given the name of Joao de Silva. He is the first African ambassador to Europe of whom we have records.

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.)

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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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