This is a catechism – a summary of Christian teaching. It is in Portuguese and Kikongo, the language of the independent African kingdom of Kongo, which was located in what is now Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Doutrina Christãa and the kingdom of Kongo

This is the first printed book in a Bantu language (one of Africa’s four main language groups) known to have survived.

Kongo was a strong African kingdom when the Portuguese arrived there in 1483, remaining independent until well into the 19th century. Roman Catholic missionaries brought Christianity, and in 1491 King Nzinga a Nkuwu (thereafter João I) was baptised. His son, Afonso I (c. 1460–1542), was a particularly ardent scholar of the new faith.

This translation of the catechism was carried out by church leaders in Kongo, who drew some of the vocabulary from Kikongo words and concepts, and Mattheus Cardoso, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. It was an attempt to make Christianity understandable, at a time when the Catholic Church operated in Latin.

The unusual history of the Doutrina Christãa

For most of his working life, Cardoso was based in Angola, where there were no printing presses. But a twist of fate allowed him to take the book to Lisbon for printing. In 1623, he and two other priests were forcibly deported to Portugal by the Portuguese governor of Luanda, who thought they were allies of the king of Kongo. Cardoso returned to Angola, distributing copies of the catechism, in 1625. He died there in the same year.

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