Primary Source: Alamandini's “Woman Hoeing”
“Woman Hoeing,” 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 a woman hoeing a field in West Central Africa. While the image was drawn in the mid 1600s, the image depicts the culture of West Central Africa, which is the homeland of the first Africans who were brought to Jamestown in 1619 originated. By examining this image, we can learn about the cultural practices and gender roles of the first recorded Africans at Jamestown.
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.
This image has a lot to reveal about West Central African culture and the Ndongo environment. While Ndongo contained large cities, many residents of Ndongo lived in rural cities like the one depicted in the background of the image. The environment varied in Ndongo, but this particular area has mountains and sparse vegetation.
In rural cities like the one shown, agriculture was the main economic activity. Women were in charge of farming, as this image shows. They would grow millet grain, sorghum, yams, beans, peas and tobacco. While not shown here, rural city dwellers also raised animals like cattle, goats, chicken and guinea fowl.
The woman in this image is preparing a field for agriculture, although the image does not show what will be grown. She uses a hoe made with a metal blade and wooden handle. African metalsmithing was practiced before Europeans arrived in the area, making the metal hoe a common item that the woman may have been able to purchase at a local market. She appears to wear a palm cloth tied around her waist. This is commonly how Alamandini’s engravings of Cavazzi’s watercolors portrayed African attire. In West Central Africa, cloth was made locally from tree bark and cotton, or sometimes brought from other areas like Kongo. Palm cloth was more high-end than the bark and cotton cloth that was most commonly worn. We can surmise that a West Central Africa woman hoeing probably would not have worn palm cloth while performing her task, and Alamandini’s portrayal of her clothing may be inaccurate.
One of the most curious aspects of the image is the snake. Is the mother using the hoe to strike the snake and protect her child? Or is she simply going about her work and considering the snake as just one of several animals nearby? Without knowing what Alamandini was thinking when creating it, historians can only speculate.
A Deeper Look
What more can we learn about West Central African life from this image?
- Hoe: The metal used to make this hoe might have been made nearby. Blacksmithing and the production of iron was done in this region for thousands of years prior to European arrival.
- Woman: In Ndongo, women were responsible for agriculture. Women grew millet grain, sorghum, yams, beans and peas.
- Baby: Women also took care of their children. Here, a woman both keeps her child close by and prepares the field for planting at the same time.
- Cloth: This woman appears to wear a piece of palm cloth tied around her waist. The most commonly worn cloth was made with a combination of bark or cotton, or was imported from other regions like Kongo to the north. Palm cloth was more of a high-end type of cloth. The geometric design shown was a traditional design included on pottery, wooden objects and basketry in West Central Africa.
- City: It was common for people in Ndongo to live in rural cities, where they had enough room to grow their own food.
1. What do you see in the image?
There are mountains, a woman, a baby, a snake, a town, a tree, etc.
2. What can we learn from this image about women’s roles in West Central African society?
Women were in charge of growing food. They were also in charge of caring for children.
3. What elements in the image make you think that?
The woman is hoeing, so she is beginning the process of growing food. She has a baby with her, so she also is taking care of her baby.
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.