The Kingdom of the Kongo was an autonomous country from the 14th to 20th century. Portuguese Jesuits arrive in the Kingdom of the Kongo in the late 15th century and introduce Catholicism to the king and his son. They willingly accept the new religion, language, and culture. The father and son both change their names to Catholic Portuguese kings – the father becomes Jao and the son Afonso I.
Afonso I becomes king and pushes to expand Catholicism throughout the Kongo. One of the trade offs he makes is allowing the Portuguese to take undesirable people out of the country in exchange for the expense of building churches and spreading their shared religion. The king of the Kongo and the king of Portugal considered each other royal brothers and exchanged letters. When the Portuguese began taking people out of the country that were of higher status and sometimes nobility, Afonso I responded with letters to both the king of Portugal and the Vatican requesting greater control of what was becoming a slave trade. He sent his son to Portugal to become a Bishop with the hopes of establishing his own connection to the Vatican so he would no longer need the Portuguese. He didn’t doubt his faith but he did doubt the Portuguese Jesuits.
When Afonso I dies in 1542, his son Alvaro is ready to become king, there are debates and conflicts about his ascension to the thrown. The Portuguese offer to support his transition to the thrown and Alvaro accepts. Afterward, the Portuguese work out a deal with Alvaro to settle in the southern part of the Kingdom of the Kongo and rename it Angola.
Imagine leaving the Kingdom of the Kongo or the colony of Angola as a Portuguese-speaking Catholic and being kidnapped on your way to Brazil or the Caribbean by Calvinist pirates. Imagine arriving on the island of Manahatta to see animals, plant life, and people you have never seen. People who have an entirely different view on the universe and creation. Imagine the same people who brought Catholicism to your country are the same people that were taking you to Brazil or the Caribbean to work as a slave. What do you believe in on the slave ship, on the pirate ship, and while living on the island of Manahatta?
Faith plays a large role in the shaping of the 17th century. The Dutch, Spanish, French, and English are having wars with each other and within their own nations over varying views on Christianity while enslaving others. At times, becoming a Christian was a pathway out of slavery but this began to narrow as the Transatlantic Slave Trade encompasses more nations.
Imagine living in New Amsterdam where Black people were able to get married in the Dutch Reform Church in the 1640s but after the transition to New York, Black people are not allowed to be Christian. Now imagine new laws being passed that allow you to become Christian but establishes that if you were enslaved before becoming a Christian, you would remain enslaved. What would you believe in?
In 1643, Director General of New Amsterdam Wilhem Kieft began granting Black people in the colony/outpost of New Netherland land and half freedom. The previously enslaved would have to purchase their children’s freedom and pay an annual tribute to the company. The first two Black land owners were Catalina and Domingo, both from Angola. She receives 8 acres of land and he receives 12 acres of land July 13th 1643. These land grants were given during a time known as Kieft’s War that started earlier that spring between the Dutch and the First Nations. Kieft wanted to create a buffer zone between New Amsterdam and the trail the First Nations used to attack the town. In this sense, Black people from Angola and the Kongo expanded their freedoms because of the resistance of Native Americans.
What Catalina and Domingo begin will become known as the Land of the Blacks and will stretch from the West to East Village of present day New York City. It will grow to become twice the size of today’s SoHo. A total of 28 land grants will be earned by former Company Slaves from 1643 to 1663. The Land of the Blacks will continue into the time of New York City that starts September 1664.
On September 8th 2017, Kamau Ware spoke at the American Association of State and Local History Annual Meeting in Austin, TX.