Short Teaching Module: The Kongolese and the Portuguese, 1482 – 1526

James Diskant
Copper-alloy cast crucifix, with two kneeling figures resting on bar above hands, with a third projecting below the central figure's feet.
Wooden male figure decorated with pigment, nails, cloth, beads, shells, arrows, leather, nuts, twine
A stone monument with a cross on top.
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In order best to understand the nuances of the development of the transatlantic slave trade, a case study approach challenges students to think conceptually. This teaching module focuses on the period from 1482 – 1526 and allows students to investigate its development in the Kongo Kingdom, and the ways in which Kongolese traders interacted with the Portuguese both in the Kongo and in Portugal. In so doing students can seek to analyze why the Portuguese perceived need for slaves to work on plantations in its colonies in the New World took priority by the 1520s. Divisions within Kongolese society contributed to these tragic developments. Four sources are included in this module for student analysis.


The transatlantic slave system is an essential part of introductory world history courses, it is critically important to provide students opportunities to focus on individual people in specific places in Africa and in Europe, as well as in the Americas, and how they contributed to the development of this situation and/or tried to challenge its continuation and end it. When I taught this period of world history some years ago, I came across the National Center for History in the Schools’ wonderful materials in which they published spectacular units in world and United States history. In so doing, students can better understand people who made these decisions in their context in which they lived through primary source analysis and role play possible scenarios so that students can genuinely appreciate what happened and how decisions came to be made about its tragic course.

In order to understand the nuances of such developments, case studies help students understand local dynamics the best and allow students also to place these developments in a broader historical picture. In teaching this material, it is clear that students can learn best from a variety of source material – written, visual, oral – and from a mixture of teaching and learning activities that tap into various learning styles. This lesson adapted from O’Rourk and Wood, Kongo: A Kingdom Divided does that well by giving students an immediacy to these encounters. As part of a survey course in world history for ninth graders I used the material from 1483 – 1550 (the first 5 lessons) over the span of a week to illustrate the changes that the Kongolese experienced from a relationship based on a variety of exchanges to one that degenerated into one of a slave trade. They included historical background, a description of the geography and topography of the area, selected primary sources, a historical fictional story about a family and their different reactions to the arrival of the Portuguese from 1483 – 1526, as well as another fictional story leading up to the real account of an inquest in 1550 and two role plays around the inquest and around the kandas (the groups fighting for political support in the kingdom).

The work revolved around two key questions: “In what ways did the slave trade evolve from the Kongolese perspective? Why was it tolerated by some Kongolese leaders?” and additional open-ended reflection questions so as to allow opportunities for students to construct meaning from this material.

In this module I will focus on two of the primary sources (similar versions to #1 & #2 below) that I used that are available online and two others that can be added to extend this activity by using sources that are found in the public domain should an educator not have access to the entire lesson from O’Rourk and Wood.

  1. 1483: Pillar made in Portugal and placed at the mouth of the Congo river
  2. 1526: Excerpt from a Letter from Afonso I of Kongo to Joao III of Portugal
  3. Image of Male Nkisi
  4. Image of Crucifix (Nkangi Kiditu)
How I Introduce the Source(s):

Source #1: Pillar, 1483: In introducing this artifact have students bring up their source on their personal devices (if that is allowed) or print out copies for them. Also display the source on a screen in front of the class.
Have students work in small groups to figure out what it said, why it was made, what it meant for those who made it, what it meant for those who saw it in the 15th century and later. What was its purpose? Who made it?
As a symbol, the pillar illustrates the first contact between different peoples and yet its meaning could be interpreted differently depending on whether one was Portuguese or one was Kongolese. In any case it implies that this beginning was to be a special encounter for those who “found” the area. Have students consider the pluses for each side and the challenges and predict its later developments. What are signs of equality? Inequality? Tensions?
One way of showing this ambiguity would be to develop a role play about possible encounter around it and that it would have immediately be understood differently depending on whether one was an explorer or one was an indigenous to the area.
Source #2: Excerpt from letter, 1526: Have students discuss the following questions with a partner: What had Afonso expected from Joao? What happened instead? What was the role of the Kongolese in the evolution of the slave trade? Why was Afonso unable to control the Kongolese and instead wrote to his counterpart in Portugal? What does this indicate about the evolving relationships between different Kongolese and the Portuguese? Why does he evoke God? Were they equals? Or was it equal – on whose terms and in what language was it written?
The letter shows that Afonso expected to be able to persuade Joao to do the morally correct thing and that as a king he would be treated equally by his counterpart in Portugal. Instead the system became an integral part of the contact between the two kingdoms and led to enormous conflict within Kongolese society.
The next two sources have been added for this module to expand the context with online sources.
Source #3: Male Nkisi: Questions for partner or group analysis: What does this figure represent? What could it mean? How would it be seen? What does it show about values of leaders and of people who made the art? What could be the relationship between this art and Christian symbols?
This figure – traditional art work from the Kongo Kingdom – illustrates the connection between traditional crafts, roles, and nature.
Source #4: Image of Crucifix (Nkangi Kiditu): Questions for partner or group analysis: What are the details of this crucifix? In what ways does it represent traditional Christian imagery? In what does it represent something else that is indigenous to the Kongo? In what ways does it combine traditional thinking with Christian imagery?
This figure – a cosmogram – shows an intriguing way to combine traditional matrilineal thinking with the newer influences of Christianity.

Reading the Source(s)

Once students have worked with all 4 sources, ask students to answer the following questions to analyze the changing situation in the Kongo from 1483-1526:

  1. At the time of the initial encounter in the 1480s, what appeared to be the interests of the Portuguese? The Kongolese? Can it be characterized as an equal encounter?
  2. In what ways had these interests evolved during the next 40 years? Why?
  3. Who appeared to have made decisions in either kingdom?
  4. Once the slave trade was becoming more prevalent by the 1520s, what could well-placed Kongolese have done to have limited its development? Why did they not occur?
  5. In what ways did the Kongolese try to maintain some control over their culture?
  6. Concluding Question #1: Or should the Kongolese – and other chiefs/leaders – not have trusted the Portuguese at all and not have traded at all? Do you agree with the decision of many chiefs from western Africa to trade gold with Portuguese traders in the 15th century? Why or why not?
  7. #2: Do you agree with King Afonso’s method of trying to end the slave trade; that is trying to persuade the Portuguese king to be a “Christian” King? Why or why not?
  8. #3: Do you agree that by 1526 Kongo is “divided against itself”? Keep?

These questions can be answered individually, with a partner, as part of a jigsaw, or even in a Socratic seminar. Extension activities could be a debate or a trial. See below under Reflections

Sample Images and Themes

These case studies address central of key themes in world history – the role of slavery in the world economy, the relationships between Europeans and Africans, questions of identity, the investigation of place and geography, the questions of power and how it is used, issues of survival and cultural legacies, the role of action. What makes this case study so fascinating is the ability to connect it to many different themes that are part of world history courses; such themes then resonate beyond the specific courses.
In addition, other resources can easily be added – maps, (Kongo, Portugal, and Caribbean), people (Kongolese, Portuguese), religious symbols, come to mind to help students grapple with place, perspective, and bias.


The word “encounter” conjures up particular meanings, doesn’t it? Think about it: you go on a trip and take a statue to show that you were there and then you persuade some of the indigenous people to learn your language and to accept your spiritual beliefs and your way of doing and thinking.
First, students could investigate the perspectives of Portuguese explorers, the ships that they use, the interests and perspectives of explorers from other European countries and how these perspectives changed or failed to change over the centuries.
Second, students could also investigate further the situation in Kongo and further developments both before the arrival of the Portuguese and afterwards.
While primary source analysis is clearly an important skill to teach students, it needs to be coupled with student voice so that the student-centered activities are crucial, as well as to modify the more difficult document from the 16th century for students who need to assistance in reading such material.

Additional Resources:

Kat Cendana, “Kingdom of Kongo, 1390 – 1678” December 21, 2017, Accessed June 6, 2020.

Basil Davidson, The African Past, (London: Curtis Brown Ltd.), 1964

Shawnya Harris and Peri Klemm, “Power Figure, Nkisi Nkondi, Kongo Peoples” in Smart History, August 9, 2015, Accessed June 12, 2020, https://smarthistory.org/nkisi-nkondi-kongo-people/

Kwekudee, Trip Down Memory Lane, May 13, 2013 Accessed June 6, 2020.

Ernest O’Rourk & Eileen E. Wood, Kongo: A Kingdom Divided (Los Angeles: NCHS, 2000)

Mario Pereira and Kristen Windmuller-Luna, “Kongo Christian Art: Cross-Cultural Interaction in the Atlantic World” October 30, 2015 Accessed June 6, 2020 https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2015/kongo/blog/posts/kon...

John Thornton, The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641-1718 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983)

John Thornton, “Early Kongo-Portuguese Relations: A New Interpretation,” (Cambridge University Press, originally 1981, republished 2014) accessed June 6, 2020.

Primary Sources

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In 1526, the king of the Kongo, Nzinga Mbemba (who by this time had adopted the Christian name of Afonso I) began writing a series of 24 letters to the Portuguese King Joao III appealing for an end to the slave trade. While a trading relationship had been in place between Portugal and Kongo since the 1480s, Afonso was increasingly unhappy that the relationship between both countries had degenerated into one in which the slave trade had become increasingly important. While he may exaggerate the extent of the slave trade and downplay the role of the Kongolese in this trading relationship, it is important to assess Afonso’s tone and what he says and fails to say.


James A. Diskant, Ph.D, a historian of modern German History, is a retired high school history and government teacher. From 2001 to 2017 he taught at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Boston, Massachusetts, where he taught courses in world and big history, as well as in government and in research methods. As the author of student-based curricula, he had been an active member of history and pedagogical associations, including the World History Association and the National Council for the Studies, where he led workshops for teachers. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany and is an active member of EuroClio’s History and Learning Team.

How to Cite This Source
James Diskant Short Teaching Module: The Kongolese and the Portuguese, 1482 – 1526 in World History Commons,