Angola was the leading exporter of slaves during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. From the sixteenth through the middle of the nineteenth centuries, nearly 6 million captives were embarked for the Americas from West Central African ports, chiefly Luanda and Benguela (Africa’s first and third most important slave ports, respectively).
The search for gold, spices, Prester John, and a sea route to India led the Portuguese Crown to sponsor the exploration of the West African coast in the late fifteenth century. In 1483, a Portuguese expedition led by Diogo Cão landed on the estuary of the Zaire River and established diplomatic and commercial relations with the king of Kongo, Nzinga a Nkuwu, who adopted Christianity and was baptized as João I on 3 May 1491. The Portuguese exported enslaved Africans to the Iberian Peninsula, American colonies (after 1492), and to work on sugar plantations on the newly-settled islands of São Tomé and Principe. By the 1530s, the Portuguese shipped nearly 5,000 slaves from the Kongolese port of Mpinda each year, many of whom were obtained through Kongo's trade with Ndongo.
In an attempt to secure access to Ndongo’s supply of slaves, the Portuguese founded a colony at Luanda in 1576. Though Luanda was located on a semiarid, sparsely-populated stretch of coast and relied upon the Americas and Europe for much of its food supply during the era of the slave trade, it offered Atlantic Africa’s best natural harbor. The Portuguese established a second settlement at Benguela in 1617. The Portuguese acquired slaves through trade, tribute, and punitive campaigns against Mbundu populations.
By the 18th century, Luanda counted some 50,000 inhabitants, including 40,000 Africans, 6,000 Luso-Africans (individuals of mixed African and Portuguese descent), and 4,000 Europeans, comprised mainly of slave traders, crown officials, soldiers, and clergy. Most of the city’s African population were enslaved. Though many of the enslaved were in transit to slaving vessels, a number resided permanently in the city, where they worked on estates outside of Luanda growing provisions for the Atlantic slave trade; as itinerant traders; as dockworkers; and soldiers. Although Portugal abolished slavery in Angola in 1878, forced labor within Angola continued well into the twentieth century.
The Catholic Church has a long history in Angola. Iberian legislation mandated the baptism of slaves prior to their embarkation on ships, during which time many captives were also given Christian names. The Diocese de Angola e Congo (Diocese of Angola and Congo) was founded in 1596 by Pope Clemente VIII and was subordinate to the Archdiocese of Lisbon. Initially, the diocese was headquartered in São Salvador do Congo, but moved to Luanda in 1716, reflecting the city’s political and commercial importance. Luanda was elevated to the status of Archdiocese in 1940.
The Angola collection consists of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century ecclesiastical records from Luanda's Igreja da Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, also known as the Sé Cathedral, and the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Conceição. These documents were digitized by Dr. Roquinaldo Ferreira, Vasco da Gama Associate Professor of Early Modern Portuguese History at Brown University, and he generously shared these records with the Slave Societies Digital Archive to ensure their preservation. A thirty-year civil war that began in the wake of Angola’s 1975 independence from Portugal destroyed and endangered many documents from the era of the slave trade, making this collection invaluable to researchers.
While we do not yet have authorization to make this documentation available to the public via our website, researchers interested in consulting the Angolan materials are encouraged to contact SSDA.