During the era of the Atlantic slave trade, Angola was the leading exporter of slaves. From the sixteenth through the middle of the nineteenth centuries, nearly 6 million captives were embarked for the Americas from West Central African ports including Luanda.
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. to Central Africa 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. In 1518 Ndongo sent embassies to Portugal. Prominent among early commercial transactions with the kingdom of Kongo were slaves, whom the Portuguese exported 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, as many as 5,000 slaves were shipped from the Central African port of Mpinda each year.
Securing access to Ndongo’s supply of slaves spurred the foundation of a Portuguese colony at Luanda in 1576. Though Luanda was located on a semiarid, sparsely-populated stretch of coast and relied upon America and Europe for much of its food supply during the era of the slave trade, it offered Atlantic Africa´s best natural harbor. Portuguese acquired slaves through trade, collecting tribute from vassals, and by launching 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 was 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 SSDA Luanda collection consists of late eighteenth and early 19th century baptismal records from the Igreja da Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, also known as the Sé Cathedral of Luanda. 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. While we do not yet have authorization to make this documentation available to the public via this website, researchers interested in consulting the Angolan materials are encouraged to contact SSDA and may consult the documentation on the Vanderbilt campus in Nashville, Tennessee.