The life and times of Antonio Emanuele Ne Vunda, the world’s first African ambassador to Europe


The life and times of Antonio Emanuele Ne Vunda, the world’s first African ambassador to Europe. 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). Still, 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 (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.


According to history, the Portuguese initially landed in Kongo in the 1480s, and the kingdom was Christianized in 1491. In 1491, King Nzinga, a Nkuwu, and his son Afonso were baptized as Catholics, indicating that religion had become an important component of the realm. 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 “pleading 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 media attention that welcomed his arrival. His aim for advancing global Christianity included strengthening ties with Kongo. The Pope even arranged an elaborate protocol for Ne Vunda’s entrance in 1608, according to Face2Face Africa. The protocol included a procession, 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 very sick. Nevertheless, he was placed in a comfortable bed in the papal apartments, and the Pope even visited him. Three days later, Ne Vunda died, and the funeral procession planned for January 6 became a fitting send-off.


The Pope ensured that the entire process 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 about how best to represent a Christian African ambassador’s identity. Should the focus be on religion or culture? As a result, Ne Vunda was portrayed as an African in African garb at the end 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, the Guillermus Du Mortier bust and an engraving featuring Ne Vunda in elegant European garb, holding a document presumed to be a letter from King Alvaro II to the Pope, were created in his honor.


The Kongo’s History


According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Kongo was a “loose federation of small polities” before the Portuguese arrived, but conquered territories were integrated as a royal inheritance as the kingdom grew. The kingdom, with its capital being Mbanza Kongo, had provinces, including Nsundi, Mpangu, Mbamba, and Mpemba.


“The capital and its environs were densely populated, even more so than other towns in and around the realm.” This enabled the manikongo (King of Kongo) to have the manpower and materials needed to wield tremendous power and concentrate the state close at hand,” according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.


Afonso, who became king in 1509 after the Portuguese arrived in 1483, forged close links with Portugal while expanding Kongo’s borders. Still, he quickly ran into problems with the Portuguese over the slave trade. As a result, he assumed trade command to ensure that no persons were enslaved and exported unlawfully. Kongo was eventually restored by the Portuguese after it was engulfed in succession issues and was controlled by opposing warriors in the east.


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