The ancient kingdom of Kongo, which existed from the 14th to the 19th century, was situated along the western coast of central Africa in what is the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. Riding on the back of regional trading in copper, and ivory along the banks of the Congo River, the kingdom prospered in wealth. This was boosted with the arrival of the Portuguese around the late 15th century, who later expanded further trade within the either region.

Although the kings of Kongo were later converted to Christianity, their relations with the invading Europeans ebbed as each side engaged in supremacy tussle to dominate the other. The Kongo state later suffered series of conflicts and strife with neighboring kingdoms, leading to its collapse at the turn of the 18th century. Although the Portuguese were able to reinstall the monarchs, the state was already in great decline during the 19th century, due to disruptions by European interests.

Formation and Territory

The ancient Kongo Kingdom was formed before (or around) the late 14th century after an amalgamation of several local principalities that were already in existence way back in the later part of the first millennium.

Dominated by the Bantu-speaking people, the kingdom of Kongo had Mbanza Kongo, otherwise known to the Kongolese as Bnaza, as its capital. The capital city was located in a lush fertile plateau just at the western tip of the Congo River.

Through a gradual process of military conquest, the kingdom gained expansion, spreading further afield. At its zenith in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was in charge of the coasts from the Congo River up from the north to the Cuanza River in the south, spreading approximately 400 km into the hinterland of central Africa right to the Kwango River.

Trade and Government

With a population of over 2 million inhabitants at its height, the kingdom of Kongo saw riches and prosperity, thanks to its trade in ivory, copper, salt, and cattle hides. Furthermore, the kingdom, in addition to amassing goods from other places, also internally produced its own goods through well-specialized weavers, potters, and metal workers.

The volume of commerce that took place between the people of the forest and those of the grassland within west-central Africa can be found in the established use of shell as a means of currency. The spiral nzumbu shells, originating from Luanda, an offshore island situated some 240 km away, served as a means of legal tender. Although it was first used as a means of storing wealth, these spiral shells came to be used to make payments for goods and services, as well as serve as a means of wage-payment for labor.

In terms of government, the kingdom of Kongo had a much centralised system of government, ruled by a powerful monarch called nkani who in turn appointed regional governors throughout the land. These governors held enormous powers and in turn appointed local officials and collected tribute such as millet, palm wine, ivory, leopard skin, and lion skins from the local chiefs. These items were then passed on to the king at Mbanza Kongo.

At sumptuous annual ceremonies, tributes were paid where much feasting and beer-drinking was allowed. In exchange for their offerings, the local chiefs and other officials received favours, military protection, and some material reward from the king. Also, tribute payment was seen as a way to maintain divine favour as well as a favours from the monarch.’

Contact with Europeans

Europeans came in contact with the Kongo Kingdom around 1482 or 1483 CE, and this led to a boom in slave capture and export. In exchange for slaves, the Portuguese offered silk, glazed china, glass mirrors, knives, and glass beads to the Kongolese. Only the top elite with access to the king was allowed to consume these luxury items.

During this time too, some Kongolese were converted to Christianity, one of the first being King Affonso 1 (1506 – 1543 CE). The aura of glitz and exoticness of the new religion, plus its association with the wealthy white European traders, made it to gain a foothold among the people. Soon after, Catholicism was to become the official religion of the royal family. Also, the capital was soon renamed Sao Salvador and churches were erected, with King Affonso eventually inviting the pope to permit the appointment of a Kongo bishop.

Christianity was further entrenched within the kingdom when Italian Capuchin missionaries turned their attention on Kongo. Christianity later made its mark in the culture and art of the people of the kingdom, was reflected in such elements as the cross and European ways of life, combining with local indigenous passions for stylization and geometric decorations to produce exquisite statues, masks pottery, and relief carvings.

Apart from the Christian religion, the Portuguese also brought with them technical knowledge, which included masonry, carpentry, and stock-breeding, as well as crops from the Americas such as cassava, maize, and tobacco. This was part of a larger plan to westernize the kingdom and make it more of a lucrative trading partner and a base from which the Europeans could conquer the rest of central Africa.

In due course, relations between the Portuguese and the Kongolese soured, especially when the Portuguese, based on the island of Sao tome, began side-lining the kings in their quest to get more slaves to work in the plantations. They also sought to take control of more copper mines, imposing their own laws and forcefully converting the locals to Christianity. Soon after, a power tussle developed between the two sides due to distrust and the traditional rulers sensing the European encroachment was undermining their political, religious and economic authority of the kingdom.

Decline

The Kongo Kingdom began to disintegrate from the mid-16th century CE after the Portuguese were abhorred by the interference of the Kongo’s stifling regulation and decided to move their trade further south to the region known as Ndongo, a kingdom which had previously defeated the Kongo army in 1556 CE.

Furthermore, the Kongo kings were battling internal problems too, as the subjects became more and more inclined to revolt following rising taxes from the wealthy aristocracy which needed the money to fund their luxurious lifestyle. Even the king found it increasingly difficult to control the governors, since they were now dealing directly with the Europeans in matters of trade and commerce.

More ominous was when a strange group of warriors invaded the kingdom from the south (or east), gaining the support of the already disgruntled populace. Known as the Jaga, they forced the royal family to flee the kingdom, although the royals were able to mount a counterattack from an offshore islands after gaining support from the Portuguese, the kingdom was steadily in decline.

After series of battles with neighbouring kingdoms, the Kongo Kingdom was eventually merged into a Portuguese colony of Angola in the early 20th century, becoming what is today known as the state of Angola.

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