Primary Source: Alamandini's “Blacksmithing"
“Blacksmithing,” engraving by Fortunato da Alemandini after a watercolor by Giovani Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo in Istorica Descrittione De’ Tre Regni Congo, Matamba, et Angola, 1687. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, JYF2002.20.
Standards and Skills
Virginia Standards of Learning: VS.3e, VUS.2b
Meets National Standards of Learning for Social Studies
Summary and Significance
This image demonstrates blacksmithing in West Central Africa. Beyond demonstrating the process for blacksmithing, the image hints at the importance of blacksmithing to culture and society in West Central African culture.
Historical Background and Image Analysis
The original version of this image was painted by Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo. Cavazzi was born in Montecuccolo, Italy, in 1621. When he was 11 years old, he entered the Capuchin order, which is a branch of Franciscan friars. Cavazzi was not a great student, but he was extremely devoted to his religion. Cavazzi travelled to West Central Africa as a missionary in 1654. When Cavazzi arrived in Africa, he was stepping into a region rife with political tensions that had been building since Europeans began to settle in Africa over 150 years prior.
Two of the major powers in West Central Africa were Kongo and its smaller southern neighbor, Ndongo. In 1483, the Portuguese landed in Kongo and developed a close relationship with the kingdom. The Portuguese had a more tenuous relationship with Ndongo’s leaders.
In 1575, the Portuguese invaded the kingdom of Ndongo. They renamed the conquered territory Angola after the word for a leader of Ndongo, “ngola.” Fierce resistance to the invasion meant that they did not conquer all of Ndongo, but did take the coast and about 200 miles into the interior.
The Portuguese used their military to invade Ndongo, but they also deployed Jesuit missionaries to spread Christianity throughout the region. Converting local African leaders to Christianity was a political strategy that would strengthen an alliance between leaders and the Portuguese, and weaken the ties between the leader and the king of Ndongo.
Over the next few decades, the Portuguese continued to grow in power even as they faced varying levels of resistance from Ndongo’s successive kings. The conflict led to a growing trade in enslaved people, as the Portuguese would enslave residents of areas they conquered. In 1619, a group of West Central Africans, probably from Ndongo, were enslaved by the Portuguese. While they were aboard a slave ship bound for Spanish America, they were captured by English privateers who brought them to Jamestown. They were the first known Africans in the English colonies in America. Although Cavazzi didn’t create his paintings for several decades after these events, he depicted the same culture of the first known Africans in America.
In later decades, the Portuguese faced renewed African resistance through both diplomacy and war during the long reign of Queen Njinga of Ndongo. In 1622, she was baptized as a Christian. It only was later in her life that she adopted Christian practices. Giovanni Cavazzi arrived in Ndongo in 1654 and became a Christian advisor to Queen Njinga by the late 1650s. While he was in Africa, he wrote extensively about history and religion in Africa, as well as about aspects of the culture he observed. He also created watercolor paintings based loosely on what he heard and saw. Engravings were made based on his writings and paintings by other Capuchins, Fortunato da Alamandini, Paolo da Lorena and an unknown engraver. Those engravings illustrated a book about Africa which was written by Cavazzi, heavily edited by Alamandini and first published in 1687.
Even though Cavazzi was an eyewitness to West Central African culture, his writings and images were filtered through his own biases. Cavazzi was, as historian John Thornton has put it, “essentially anti-African” and often called Africans “inhuman.” Cavazzi believed Africans to be inferior to Europeans, and some aspects of his writing and images reflect his worldview. He believed Africans to be inferior to Europeans. In addition, his writings and images were further filtered through Alamandini and the other engravers, who had never been to Africa. On the other hand, the Cavazzi/Alamandini text offers one of the very few sources available about politics, life and culture in West Central Africa in the early 1600s. Historians using these images have to decide which aspects portray the reality of West Central African life, and which parts are exaggerated or false renderings influenced by Cavazzi and/or Alamandini’s worldview.
Metal working was practiced in Ndongo well before the first Europeans arrived. The advent of metal tools revolutionized daily life, with tools like iron hoes and blades making agricultural production much more efficient. The existence of ore mines in Africa provided the raw materials for making metal, although the process for creating items from the raw material was complex and labor intensive.
Metalsmithing was considered a sacred art. Metalsmiths held elite positions in society because of their knowledge and because of the importance of metal tools in society. The image above depicts Angola Mussuri, who was the “blacksmith king” of Ndongo. According to tradition, Angola Mussuri was a blacksmith from Kongo to the North, who was elected to be the first king of Ndongo. The crown in the background of this image gives evidence that the blacksmith is royal. The hat he is wearing is likely a mpu, a hat made of raffia palm that shows his prestige in society.
In the image, the blacksmith is hammering out an iron axe head. The crescent shape of the ax head is traditional for Ndongo. The short rod protruding from the triangle is for insertion into a wooden handle. The man on the right operates traditional African bellows. He uses the sticks to alternately push down on the bags on each side of the bellows, which might have been made from goatskin. This action pushes air out of the bellows and onto the fire at their end, which here appears more like a small puff of smoke, but would have been a fire hot enough to keep the metal pliant enough to shape.
A Deeper Look
Watch this video to learn more about West Central African blacksmithing.
1. What do you think is happening in the image? What in the image makes you think that?
Two men are blacksmithing. You can tell because one man is creating heat through the bellows and the other man is hitting a metal object to form it as a tool.
2. Who do you think the crown belongs to? Why do you think that?
The crown belongs to the blacksmith. The king is wearing a mpu, a hat that shows he has prestige in Ndongan society even without wearing the crown. He is also sitting on the tallest block, meaning he probably has the most power.
3. What can we learn about the role of blacksmithing in West Central African society from this image?
Blacksmithing was an important role in society, which was usually inherited, and blacksmiths could hold positions of leadership.
Related Classroom Resources
- Teaching with Primary Sources Digital Library
- Essay: Angelo
- Essay: New Light on Virginia’s First Documented Africans
1483: The Portuguese arrive in West Central Africa and develop a diplomatic relationship with the largest kingdom in the region, Kongo.
1575: The Portuguese invade Ndongo, the second largest kingdom in the region. They name the conquered territory “Angola.”
1619: Africans most likely taken during Portuguese raids in Ndongo are forced into slavery. While aboard a slave ship bound for Spanish America, they are captured by English privateers who bring them to Jamestown. These around 30 people are the first documented Africans in the English colonies in America.
1622: Njinga, the sister of King Ngola Mbande of Ndongo, is baptized as part of a diplomatic mission to the Portuguese in Angola.
1624: Njinga becomes Queen of Ndongo.
1654: Giovanni Cavazzi arrives in Ndongo. By the late 1650s, he becomes a central figure in Queen Njinga’s court.
1663: Queen Njinga dies.
1687: A book containing Giovanni Cavazzi’s writings and engravings by Fortunato da Alamandini of Cavazzi’s watercolors is first printed.
- Linda M. Heywood, Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).
- John Thornton, Cavazzi, Missione Evangelica General Introduction, accessed November 1, 2021.