Primary Source: Alamandini's “Portuguese Priests Baptizing Africans"

In this engraving, three missionaries are in the process of baptizing Africans. The scene is organized with three groupings of individuals. On the left, a priest sits on a box and speaks to three Africans who stand in front of him. In the center of the image, a priest stands facing an African who kneels in front of him. The African kneels with one knee on the ground and his arms are crossed in front of his chest. The priest has one hand on his head and the other hand reaches toward his mouth. On the right hand side of the image, a third priest faces a group of four Africans. The priest stands and holds a cross lifted toward the group. One African man kneels in front of him while another man squats behind. The other two men stand and hold their arms in front of them slightly. In the background, small mountains rise from otherwise barren ground that slopes upward. To the back right, the top of a turret and a few other structures appear rising from the hills.

Primary Source

Image Citation

“Portuguese Priests Baptizing Africans,” 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 depicts the effort by European Christian missionaries to spread Christianity amongst West Central Africans. While missionaries did find success in converting Africans to their religion, this image only tells one part of the story. African leaders, like Queen Njinga of Ndongo, converted to Christianity as part of a diplomatic effort to maintain her power. Even when she urged a cultural shift toward converting and adopting Christian practices in her kingdom, many maintained their traditional religion.

Historical Background and Image Analysis

Image/Author Background
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.

Image Analysis

This image depicts three steps in the process of converting Africans to Christianity. On the left, the priest sitting down preaches to Africans about Christianity. In the middle, a priest (perhaps the same priest, even), baptizes an African man. Then, the priest continues to preach to converted Africans about Christianity. The European assumption of African inferiority subtly shows through in the image. All of the Africans are shown as docile and eager to listen. The priests wear sandals and the Africans wear no shoes at all. With a barren landscape and no place for shelter but a European-style structure in the background, the image implies that the Africans have no option but to follow the priest’s teachings. In fact, a European-style fort in the background was Alamandini’s creation and probably would not have been present.

The scene is very optimistic, showing the ideal scenario for a missionary, rather than the reality in West Central Africa. In reality, religion was used as a weapon and tool in the Portuguese invasion of Ndongo. 

The Portuguese used Christianity to their advantage in their quest to conquer Ndongo. In Ndongo, the king derived much of his power from his connection to religion. When the Portuguese conquered new territory, they would convert its local rulers to Catholicism. This weakened those rulers’ connection to the king, which made it harder for the king to bring those territories back into his control. 

On the other hand, Christianity was used for diplomatic reasons by African rulers. The leader of Kongo, the large kingdom to the north of Ndongo, converted to Christianity, and urged his kingdom to follow, when the Portuguese first arrived in 1575. When the Portuguese arrived in Ndongo and faced resistance from its leader, they decided to conquer Ndongo instead. When Ndongo’s next king, Mbande a Ngola, struggled to keep the Portuguese invasion at bay, he turned to Christianity as a form of diplomacy. He offered to convert to Christianity and stop attacking the Portuguese while allowing them to keep the territory they already controlled. 

Queen Njinga of Ndongo also used Christianity as a form of diplomacy. Before she became queen, she decided to be baptized when negotiating with the Portuguese because she believed it would strengthen her bargaining position. Later in Queen Njinga’s life, she worked to convert the people in her kingdom to Christianity, perhaps still as a diplomatic effort to protect the kingdom. While many did, they resisted adopting Christian practices like monogamy. Even when people did convert to Christianity, they also continued to practice elements of their traditional religion.

Baptism also had a darker role in the history of Portuguese colonization. The Portuguese mandated that all enslaved Africans bound for the Americas had to be baptized, and thus become Christian, before they reached the Americas. Therefore, the men, women and children captured during the Portuguese wars against Ndongo were baptized before being forced to endure the Middle Passage, including the around 30 Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619.

Classroom Inquiry

1. What do you think the man on the right is doing? The middle? The right?
The man on the left is teaching the group about Christianity. The man in the middle is baptizing a man. The man on the right is preaching to a group of Africans.
2. Who made this image?
Giovanni Cavazzi, who was a Capuchin friar, a religious order of Franciscan friars.
3. Do you think that this image tells the whole story? Why or why not?
The image does not tell the whole story. Since the image’s creator was a Capuchin friar, he showed examples of success. The image doesn’t show whether these people adopted Christian principles, or why they decided to be baptized in the first place.

Related Classroom Resources


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.

Additional Reading