There was a succession of kings from the late 1300s when the kingdom of Kongo was formed (present-day Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo), but Garcia II Nkanga a Lukeni a Nzenze a Ntumba, also known as Garcia Afonso, is widely regarded as the greatest because he expelled the majority of the Portuguese from the colony that became Angola.
Afonso, who descended from Afonso I, the first Kongo king to accept Catholicism, reigned Kongo during its heyday (from 1641 to 1661). When the Portuguese first came to Kongo in the late 15th century, Afonso I, also known as Mvemba a Nzinga, requested to be baptized. As a result, he was given the name Afonso I.
The Portuguese initially landed in Kongo in the 1480s, and the kingdom was Christianized in 1491, according to history. In 1491, King Nzinga a Nkuwu, and his son Afonso were baptized as Catholics. King Joao was presented to King Nzinga in honor of Portugal’s king.
It would take more than a century for the first Kongo diplomat to arrive in Rome and meet with a pope in person.
After taking over the throne in 1587, King Alvaro II (Nimi Ne-Mpangu Lukeni Lua Nuemba) sent his cousin, Antonio Emanuele Ne Vunda, to the Pope. Before arriving in Rome, the expedition took more than three years, passing through Brazil, Lisbon, and Madrid. According to one story, Ne Vunda’s mission was to request priests be sent to the Kongo and to “plead the case for a Congolese bishopric.”
The arrival of Ne Vunda in Rome made headlines. Pope Paul V, who was excited to meet Ne Vunda, took pleasure in the publicity that welcomed his arrival. His aim for advancing global Christianity included strengthening ties with Kongo. The pope even devised an elaborate ritual for Ne Vunda’s entrance in 1608, according to Face2Face Africa. The protocol featured a parade, a reception for the delegation in the Vatican’s Sala Regia, and the feast of the Magi.
However, when Ne Vunda arrived in Rome on January 2, 1608, he was quite unwell. He was placed in a luxurious bed in the papal palaces, and the pope even paid him a visit. Three days later, Ne Vunda died, and the funeral procession planned on January 6 became a suitable send-off.
The pope ensured that the entire procedure was documented by commissioning a bust of Ne Vunda, which was made of colored marble with a deep green-black stone and featured a nobleman’s shirt and a quiver of arrows. According to history, there was some debate on how best to reflect a Christian African ambassador’s identity. Should the focus be on religion or culture? Ne Vunda was represented as an African in African garb at the conclusion of the day. His bust is said to be in the Baptistery, a side chapel of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome’s five great ancient basilicas, where he was also laid to rest.
Today, Ne Vunda is regarded as the first African ambassador to Europe in history. In 1608, two engravings, the Guillermus Du Mortier bust and an etching portraying Ne Vunda in fine European costume, clutching a document assumed to be a letter from King Alvaro II to the pope, were created in his honor.