4.1  First contacts (1445-1600)

Portuguese explorers reached Arguim Bay in 1442 and in 1445 they built a fort on Arguim island where, as mentioned in the Introduction, Mass was celebrated for the first time in this region of Africa.  In the same year the Senegal river was reached, where in 1488 the Portuguese befriended a Wolof ex-king named Bemoim whose brother had usurped his throne.  Bemoin was baptized in Portugal and was returning in 1489 with an armada of 25 ships full of soldiers to reinstate him.  Priests, especially Dominicans, also came along to preach to his people.  But the leader of the expedition, Vas da Cunha, suspected Bemoim’s loyalty and in a quarrel killed him before they ever reached Arguim.1

Other priests followed the Portuguese as they established settlements on the Cape Verde islands around 1460 and afterwards on the mainland at Cacheu and the town of Sierra Leone (Freetown), and up and down the Senegalese coast.  In 1514 the diocese of Funchal was established to care for this and all further regions of Africa.  The diocese of Santiago, with headquarters on the Cape Verde island of Santiago, was separated from the former diocese in 1533 and included the mainland territory from the Senegal river to Cape Palmas.  The first bishop, Braz Neto (d. 1538), was a Franciscan, but he never went there.  He was succeeded by a diocesan, João Pravi (to 1545), an Augustinian, Francisco da Cruz (to 1571), two Carmelites, Bartolomeu Leitão (to 1587) and Pedro Brandão (to 1608), another diocesan, Luiz Pereira de Miranda (1609) and a Dominican, Sebastião da Ascensão. (1610-14).2

The formerly empty Cape Verde islands, discovered around 1458, naturally acquired a Portuguese and Christian appearance, but throughout the 16th century priests, especially Franciscans, also worked in villages around Cacheu and at Sierra Leone, and in all counted a few hundred African Christians besides the Portuguese traders whom they served.

The Portuguese’ first commercial interest was in gold.  Towards the end of the 15th century they tried to intercept the traditional trans-Saharan routes by sending a messenger to “Mandi Mansa”, that is, the king of Mali.3  They also had a station at Wadan, far inland from Arguim, from 1487 to 1513.4  In 1565 Diogo Carreiro claims to have sailed up the Senegal river as far as Timbuktu.5  But penetration of the interior was abandoned when trade in slaves upset the trading patterns with the interior and when it was proved that Elmina and the other “gold coast” stations were more profitable because they were closer to the gold sources.

Although trade for gold, cotton cloth, hides and gum continued in Upper Guinea, the slave trade became the main Portuguese concern, with the Cape Verde islands serving as a clearing point for export.6  Bishop Pedro Brandão made a report to the King of Portugal upon his return therein 1594 protesting that of every 1,000 slaves 900 were enslaved unjustly, that is, they were not guilty of any crime.  He also protested against the way slaves were packed into the holds of ships bound for the Americas, and urged that at least baptized slaves should all be set free.7

4.2  The Jesuits (1604-42)

In 1585 João Pinto, a Wolof priest from Senegal educated with the Jesuits in Portugal and then made a canon for the diocese of São Tomé, asked for Jesuits to be sent to Sierra Leone, hoping to join their mission himself.8  The same year a Jesuit priest on his way to Brazil, Fernão Rebelo, stopped at the Cape Verde islands and learned of the situation on the continent.  His letter to the General of the Jesuits urged the beginning of a mission on the Guinea coast and the training of Africans for the priesthood.  He added that if attention were not given soon to this area it would shortly all become Muslim.9

The Jesuits did not immediately accept this project and negotiations were not renewed until 1596 when King Felipe asked them to open a school at Santiago and to work at evangelizing the mainland.10  Some Carmelite confrères of the bishop were already working near Cacheu and reported that the chief of Caió with 300 of his people asked for baptism.  They were happy the Jesuits would come, and also proposed to establish a Carmelite monastery.11  The Jesuit provincial of Portugal, however, was opposed to the project because of the bad climate and because the Portuguese in the area were Christian only in name and were only concerned with slave trading.12

The Portuguese stations on the Cape Verde islands and the mainland already had chaplains from the diocesan clergy, and only in 1604 did a group of four Jesuits arrive at Santiago.  Their intention was to open a school there, which would also serve as a seminary, and to work among the Africans of the Guinea coast.  Bishop Bartolomeu Leitão had constructed buildings for a seminary and in 1605 these were handed over to the Jesuits.13  The Jesuit group was led by Baltasar Barreira, who had been in Angola from 1580 to 1592.  A few weeks after their arrival one priest of the group died.  Fr. Baltasar nevertheless left Fr. Manuel de Barros in Santiago and went to Bissau with Bro. Pero Fernandes.

On the coast Baltasar Barreira spent the first six months of 1605 in the region of Bissau and then went on to Sierra Leone.  Baltasar’s first impressions of the Guinea coast were not good and in May he complained of his difficulties with the Africans and of the bad example of the Portuguese chaplains.  He thought the best way to improve the situation would be for the King of Portugal to conquer the coast and its islands.14  But he never expressed this opinion again after the extraordinary reception he later had from the African chiefs and kings where he visited.  On Christmas of the same year he baptized the King of Sierra Leone along with the one wife he kept and many members of his family.  Many of the chiefs round about also asked for baptism.  As Baltasar continued his ministry throughout 1606 he expressed concern over the enslavement of innocent people and the slave raids the people of the Bijago islands carried out on the mainland.  He asked for Portuguese protection against the Bijagos and the construction of a fort at Sierra Leone to keep out the Dutch, French and English who would not respect a Portuguese trade monopoly and often raided the Cape Verde islands.  A fort was begun at Sierra Leone but it was ineffective against the intruders.

Three more Jesuit priests arrived at Santiago in February 1607, two of whom died within a few months.  The third, Manuel Álvares, went to Bissau in March and worked among the chiefs in the area.  At his insistence the Portuguese decided to build a fort at Cacheu to guard against the Bijago marauders.  At the beginning of 1608 he moved to Sierra Leone, permitting Baltasar Barreira to return to Santiago.  Winds forced his ship to stop first at Joal.  There and at Porto d’Ale he spend almost three months preaching to the people who were to a large extent Muslim.  Yet they listened to him, joined his processions, and asked for baptism.15

At Santiago in January 1609 Baltasar Barreira found six Jesuits who had just arrived from Portugal.  He sent two priests and a brother to work in the region of Cacheu and two other priests to Sierra Leone.  Of those sent to Cacheu Fr. João Delgado died within six months, followed by Bro. João Fernandes.  Fr. António Dias returned sick to Santiago in 1611.  Of the two who went to Sierra Leone Fr. João Çelio died there and Fr. Sebastião Gomes returned to Santiago in 1611, where he took over as superior when Baltasar Barreira died in 1612.  Sebastião Gomes tried to get more Jesuits to come and praised the Dominican bishop Sebastião da Ascensão who gave the Jesuits every support and encouragement at a time when relations between the two orders were strained.16  The evangelization of the mainland was promising and prospering, but no more Jesuits came because of the tropical diseases and the lack of security, which they though could be had only through a strong Portuguese presence.  On the other hand the Jesuits complained that Portuguese oppression of the Africans was hindering the spread of the faith.17  The Jesuits were also discouraged because after the death of Bishop Sebastião da Ascensão they had trouble with the governor of Santiago and the diocesan canons.18  Manuel Álvares, the last Jesuit on the mainland, left Sierra Leone in 1617.  The school at Santiago hardly functioned any more and was closed in 1642 when the last few Jesuits departed.

4.3  The Capuchins (1634-1700)19

With the approval of Propaganda Fide two priests from the Capuchin province of Normandie, Alexis de Saint-Lô and Bernardin de Renouard, left on an exploratory mission to the west coast of Africa, arriving at Rufisque in October 1634.  They also visited Porto d’Ale and Sereno, and from Joal in January 1635 sent to the bishop of Santiago a list of children they had baptized.  In May they left for France.  In a report to Lisbon the bishop expressed his happiness ath the Capuchins’ visit to an area so long neglected.  But Lisbon was not happy at the Frenchmen’s intrusion into the territory of the Portuguese padroado, and ordered the bishop and governor to try to arrest the Capuchins.

The Capuchins’ report on the work they accomplished and the interest of the chief of Joal in becoming Christian encouraged Propaganda Fide to try again.  The same two priests and two others left in 1636 and returned to Joal.  Their coming was reported to Lisbon and orders went out to arrest them, but the Portuguese could do nothing because the Dutch and the French controlled the whole coast north of Cacheu.  Disease did what the Portuguese could not do, and after one of the priests died the others, who were all sick, returned to France in 1639.

Propaganda Fide negotiated for more Capuchins to go but only in 1646 succeeded in getting a group of twelve from the province of Andalusia to go.  On 23 December they arrived at Porto d’Ale where four of them took up residence.  The rest continued on to Sangurigu, from which place the vice-prefect Manuel de Granada and two other priests went on to Cacheu and presented their credentials to the diocesan vicar and the captain.  The Portuguese authorities were successful this time and sent the three of them as prisoners to Santiago, from where they were dispatched to Portugal.  The Andalusian Provincial advised all the priests working in areas occupied by the Portuguese to leave, and 1647 all but two did so.  Of these Antonio de Jimena worked in Gambia and even in Cacheu until his death in 1653.  The other, Serafín de León, worked in the Tumba (Tombo) area near Sierra leone until, near seventy, he moved to Cacheu and while deep in prayer, as he often was, he died in 1657.

Protracted negotiations resulted in the coming of two more Capuchins, Augustín de Ronda, who worked in the region of Tumba until his death in 1665, and Juan de Peralta, who worked in many places along the coast until his death before 1665.  Another group of Capuchins arrived at Tumba just before Agustín de Ronda’s death, but several of these died and two of the three surviving returned to Spain the next year.  The province of Andalusia wanted to give up this mission, but Propaganda Fide insisted that it be kept.  Pablo de Fregenal nevertheless was left alone in the country of Sierra Leone until he went home, half blind, in 1671.  At his recommendation and the continued encouragement of Propaganda Fide a final group of Capuchins was sent.

This final group, comprising fourteen men from the provinces of Castile, Navarre and Aragon and led by Antonio de Trujillo, went to Tumba in 1678.  Two of the fourteen died soon after arrival, while seven shortly went to work in the region of Cacheu.  In 1684 the Capuchins submitted two reports to Propaganda Fide strenuously and categorically condemning the slave trade and asking for sanctions against the slave traders both from the Church and the king of Portugal. Just before 1687 another report, probably drawn up by Fr. Francisco de Mota, reiterated the previous protests, pointing out that if punishment for crime was the only possible justification for slavery, hardly one in 100 slaves were guilty of a crime and a large proportion of them were only children; moreover slavery was too severe a penalty for ordinary crimes.  Propaganda Fide discussed these reports at a meeting on 17 February 1687 and, to give stronger backing to the Capuchins, handed their report over to the holy Office for an official pronouncement on the question of slavery.  The Holy Office issued an eleven point reply condemning every aspect of the slave trade as raised in the Capuchins’ report.20

Armed with this quite thorough bill of rights, the Capuchins applied Church sanctions against the slave traders and denied them the sacraments.  In retaliation the Portuguese expelled all the Capuchins but the prefect.  The only effect this latest of many Roman pronouncements had on the Portuguese was that the Angolan traders restricted their sale of slaves to other Catholic countries, i.e. France.  By 1688 most of the Capuchins on the Guinea coast had returned to Spain, although a few may have remained even up to 1700.21

4.4  The Franciscans (1657 to mid-18th century)

The Franciscans were pioneers of Christianity in the diocese of Santiago, but abandoned the area towards the end of the 16th century.  In 1657 a group of seven Portuguese Franciscans came to revive their mission.  Four more joined them later and in 1660 Frs. Paulo Lordelo and Sebastião de São Vicente went to Cacheu and Sierra Leone.  Paulo died at Cacheu in 1664, but in 1662 twelve more Franciscans had come to work on the Cape Verde islands and the mainland.  In 1674 ten Franciscans came.  In 1694 the Franciscan Vitoriano do Porto was the first bishop of Santiago to visit the mainland part of the diocese.  On this and following visits he found abundant results of the Capuchins’ work in the area and administered confirmation to thousands.  The bishop died at Bissau in 1705 when his house burned down.


The Franciscans together with the Capuchins assured a continuous effort of evangelization on the Guinea coast from Cacheu to Sierra Leone throughout the second part of the 17th century.  Although there were no large or important states, many minor kings or chiefs together with masses of the people embraced Christianity at this time.

This prosperous beginning unfortunately withered in the 18th century.  The reason was partly the decline in the number of priests, while the few remaining generally limited themselves to serving the inhabitants of the coastal trading stations.  A report of 1707 says of the Franciscans in Guinea: “These religious bear little fruit, since they don’t go to the pagans but stay with the Portuguese.”22  The few who devoted themselves to evangelizing the African people were limited by isolation and, from today’s point of view, lack of vision regarding the development of a local church.

The slave trade was another major factor in the decline of Christianity, since from the Portuguese side it tore down anything the preachers built up, and from the side of the Mande and Fulani slave suppliers it opened the coast to Muslim pressure and radiation from the interior.  The Muslims could take advantage of the internal convulsions and wars among the mini-states of the region, so that eventually Islam became preponderant where once Christianity had prevailed.23

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1MMA2, I, 436, 453.

2Gams (1957), 472.  Brásio (1962), 18, n. 6, speaks of a West African Dominican named Francisco de Faria, from Cabo de Gué, who founded the College of St. Thomas in Goa in 1593.  Cabo de Gué, however, is in Morocco and the man must have been of Portuguese parentage.  I thank Fr. António do Rosário, archivist of the Portuguese Dominican Province, for this information.

3MMA2, I, 560.

4Fage (1963), 27.

5MMA2, II, 524.

6Rodney (1968), 285.

7MMA2, III, 442.

8MMA2, III, 142; Jadin, 416.

9MMA2, III, 128.

10MMA2, III, 385.

11MMA2, III, 390; IV, 21.

12MMA2, III, 395, 398, 400, 404.

13MMA2, IV, 75.

14MMA2, IV, 67.

15MMA2, IV, 363.

16MMA2, IV, 511.

17MMA2, IV, 666.

18MMA2, IV, 599, 611; V, 231, 239, 258, 266 etc.

19MMA2, V, 263 ff.; Jadin, 447 ff., 421-2; Clemente da Terzorio, 340 ff.

20The decree is translated in Wiltgen, 93-105.

21Salvadorini, 195; Rocco da Cesinale, III, 511, 513.

22Fortiguerri, 13.

23Fyfe (1964), chs. 1 & 4; on the slave supply cf. Rodney (1968).