Africa's early Ambassadors to Europe

Ambassador Antonio Manuel, appointed by Kongo (Angola) to Rome in 1604

Antonio Manuel

Long before Portuguese navigators somehow "discovered" an isolated and supposedly "primitive" people in the 15th century and long before English settlers arrived at Jamestown, Va., in 1607,  sophisticated African kingdoms existed and maintained complexed relations with Europe, including formal diplomatic relations with European kingdoms, as equal parties, to regulate matters such as trade.  

The African ambassadors were accorded all the rights and privileges of other nations' ambassadors.  King of Kongo (Angola) sent an ambassador named Chrachanfusus to the court of the King of Portugal as early as 1488.  Chrachanfusus was later baptized and given the name of Joao de Silva.  He is the first African ambassador to Europe of whom we have records.

The second documented African ambassador to Europe, Antonio Manuel was born in a province of the kingdom of Kongo  circa 1570 and became a mestre de escola (a teacher), with his first official position was to oversee the Church of the Holy Trinity in Soyo. This after the King of Kongo, Nzinga a Nkuwu, willingly converted to Roman Catholicism in the year 1491, and his son and successor strengthened the role and status of the Catholic Church during his reign. (Kongo was a Catholic kingdom thereafter.)

Ambassador Antonio Manuel was appointed to Rome in 1604 and 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 (counterintuitive to us today), as 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.  He then turned to the church.  Various clergy of the Carmelite Order in Lisbon and then in Madrid gave him shelter, support, and encouragement. He spent the next four years writing to various high-placed ecclesiastical officials in Rome, attempting to complete his mission. He finally 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.

History of first African Ambassadors to Europe by historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton 

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