Valerio on Lingna Nafafé, 'Lourenco da Silva Mendonca and the Black Atlantic Abolitionist Movement in the Seventeenth Century'

José Lingna Nafafé
Miguel Valerio

José Lingna Nafafé. Lourenco da Silva Mendonca and the Black Atlantic Abolitionist Movement in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 377 pp. $59.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-83823-8.

Reviewed by Miguel Valerio (Washington University) Published on H-LatAm (January, 2023) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version:

José Lingna Nafafé's remarkable book studies the efforts of an Angolan prince, Lourenço da Silva Mendonça, to have slavery abolished by the Vatican’s Propaganda Fide tribunal in the Catholic world in the second half of the seventeenth century. Nafafé’s book then is a long-overdue analysis and recounting of Mendonça’s abolitionist efforts. As Nafafé emphasizes, not until the nineteenth century would we see so totalizing an effort to end slavery. This comprehensive study of Mendonça’s world, life, and antislavery campaign thus not only re-periodizes the history of abolitionism but, in tandem with recent scholarship (e.g., Adriana Chira’s Patchwork Freedoms and Chloe L. Ireton’s “Black Africans’ Freedom Litigation Suits”) centers Afrodescendants as self-emancipators and abolitionists.[1]

The book is made up of an introduction, six long chapters, a short conclusion, thirty illustrative figures, and eight useful tables. Nafafé lays out his principal claims in the introduction. These are manifold. One is that the study “reveals, for the first time, how legal debates [about slavery/abolition] were headed not by Europeans, but by Africans” (p. 6). This claim of novelty, like other in the books, needs to be assessed in light the works cited above and others. To be clear, however, the book’s numerous merits are not diminished by my critiques. Another assertion, which likewise is not as novel as Nafafé claims, is that Blacks’ freedom suits appealed to the freedom afforded Indigenous peoples and New Christians. Another is about the centrality of Mendonça’s experience with slavery as the child of African enslavers. In conjunction, these claims gesture to the fourth—that Mendonça lived as part of an entangled Atlantic network—and underscore the merits of the book in bringing to readers for the first time, and with an abundance of details, Mendonça’s remarkable life and even more astonishing attempt to end slavery in the Catholic world.

Chapter 1 focuses on Portuguese Luanda as the starting point of Mendonça’s life story. Here Mendonça first studied the methods used to enslave Angolans, which he later described for the Vatican dossier. Thus, Mendonça is presented from the start of Nafafé’s book as a person who abhorred slavery from the first, though his family was actively involved in the trade. We are indeed told that one major reason Mendonça fought for the end of slavery was to atone for his family sins and to cleanse their shame for their part in helping slavery prosper. Chapter 2 narrates the fall of Ndongo, which led to Mendonça’s and other Ndongo nobles’ exile to Brazil. In Nafafé’s own words, “the chapter is concerned with exploring the political environment of Angola and the wide region as the backdrop of Mendonça’s debate on freedom and the integration of enslaved Africans in the Atlantic” (p. 52). Chapter 3 discusses Mendonça’s and other Ndongo nobles’ sojourn in Brazil. This chapter concentrates on the Ndongo royals’ presence in Salvador and what it implied for local Portuguese authorities and for the free Black community of Palmares (1580-1694) further north in Pernambuco. Portuguese officials feared that the Ndongo royals’ presence in Salvador would further complicate the situation with Palmares—which the Portuguese had been trying to destroy from its beginnings—and therefore had the Ndongo royals sent south to Rio de Janeiro, lest their presence in the region lend legitimacy to Palmares. Nafafé argues that Palmares had a profound impact on Mendonça’s understanding of and fight for African freedom. Two other important notions of freedom Mendonça witnessed in Brazil were those of Native Brazilians and New Christians; the former legal, the latter religious.

Chapter 4, the book’s shortest, narrates Mendonça’s journey to Portugal and Spain. Mendonça went to Portugal as part of the Portuguese crown’s plan to disperse the Ndongo royals throughout the peninsula, “for fear of their possible political impact on other Africans and the general public” (p. 320). In Portugal, Mendonça joined a Black Rosary brotherhood, which he had first seen in Brazil, if not Angola. Nafafé rightfully reads this as another important step in Mendonça’s abolitionist education. Originating in Portugal in the late medieval period, Black Rosary brotherhoods gave Afrodescendants a space to gather, an institution to rely upon when in need or in death, and a haven for translating their cultural practices. As such, they were a very visible site of Black freedom. It was Mendonça’s role as “attorney” of this and several brotherhoods that took him to Spain. It was during this time that Mendonça built his Vatican case, which he argued in 1684. During this time, he also tried to get the kings of Portugal and Spain to abolish the trade. We learn that Mendonça almost succeeded, but the kings were advised against such measures. I think here Nafafé gives too much credit to both the monarchs and their advisers. The Iberian monarchs themselves were deeply invested in the trade. Mendonça did succeed in getting these sovereigns and their advisers to issue decrees that sought make the trade less inhumane.

Chapter 5 focuses on the case Mendonça argued before the Propaganda Fide tribunal. The chapter places Mendonça in a line of “African voices” that called for emancipation before him, such as Garcia II of the Kongo, who opposed the slave trade as an “alien trade imposed on West Central Africans” (p. 341). Then the chapter focuses on Mendonça’s arguments, which appealed to natural, human, divine, and civil law. Nafafé does a great job analyzing Mendonça’s last appeal to the tribunal but dedicates less attention to the theology, particularly Thomistic theology, underpinning Mendonça’s arguments. It is indeed unfortunate that Nafafé seems to have relied on a single secondary source for Aquinas’s theories, as he does not cite from the Angelic Doctor’s works. I think this is important because Mendonça appealed to an ecclesial tribunal, one ostensibly higher than kings but one governed by canon law. Such analysis would have underscored Mendonça’s learning. Mendonça’s arguments were effective and persuaded Pope Innocent XI to condemn the slave trade in 1586. The book’s last chapter discusses Mendonça’s “tussle” with Portuguese Oversea Council, which sought to nullify Innocent’s bull against slavery.

Nafafé has done us a great service by bringing Mendonça’s story to readers. He shows, as he argues, that Afrodescendants have been at the center of abolitionist debates from the start of modern African slavery. Mendonça was the most ambitious and daring of them all. I have pointed to the book’s limits above, but these do not diminish this important work of scholarship, exhaustively researched in Vatican, Portuguese, and Spanish archives, and—despite its length and scope—very well presented. Nafafé has written not only a great reference but an enjoyable read that illustrates how one man’s life was shaped by Atlantic entanglements and how he dealt with those entanglements. Mendonça was a pioneer of human rights, fighting to free enslaved Africans and to keep more Africans from being enslaved, and should be studied with the likes of Bartolomé de las Casas as a foundational theoretician of human rights.


[1]. Chira, Patchwork Freedoms: Law, Slavery, and Race beyond Cuba's Plantations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022); Ireton, “Black Africans’ Freedom Litigation Suits to Define Just War and Just Slavery in the Early Spanish Empire,” Renaissance Quarterly 73, no. 4 (Winter 2020): 1277-1319,

Citation: Miguel Valerio. Review of Lingna Nafafé, José, Lourenco da Silva Mendonca and the Black Atlantic Abolitionist Movement in the Seventeenth Century. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.