The Rise and Fall of Central Africa’s Mighty Kingdom of Kongo
Nestled between the Congo River and the Atlantic Ocean lies a hidden gem of African history: the Kingdom of Kongo. Despite its vast territory spanning modern-day Angola, Congo and Gabon, this powerful state remains largely unknown outside of Africa. With a highly organized political system and sophisticated economy, the Kingdom of Kongo was a dominant force in Central Africa for centuries. In this article, we will delve into the captivating history of the Kingdom of Kongo, shedding light on its remarkable achievements and its impact on the region.
Origin of the Kingdom of Kongo
The Kingdom of Kongo arose in the late 14th century, along the western coast of Africa and south of the Zaire River, today known as the Congo River. Before this time, the region had been under the control of several minor kingdoms.
According to Kongo tradition, the origins of the Kingdom of Kongo’s roots lay in Vungu, a small kingdom north of the Congo River. Over time Vungu expanded its authority across the region until it reached Mpemba, one of the other kingdoms. Over the years the Vungu and Mpemba kingdoms, now united, continued to expand.
- Queen Nzinga: A Courageous Ruler who Set Her People Free
- Kunta Kinteh - The African Island at the Heart of the Slave Trade
Nzinga-a-Nkuwu João I of the Kingdom of Kongo, who ruled from 1470 to 1509. Source: Public domain
In 1375 Nimi a Nzime, the ruler of Vungu and Mpemba, forged an alliance through a political marriage with Nsaku Lau, the ruler of the neighboring Mbaba. While this started as a simple alliance guaranteeing the succession of each kingdom’s ruling lineage, over time it became more. Over the generations, the two families began expanding their territories outwards under the same umbrella.
This situation eventually led to the entire region being united under one name and one ruler, the Kingdom of Kongo. Its capital, Mbanza Kongo (or Banza as it was known to the locals), was located on a fertile plateau just below the western end of the Congo River.
From this rich starting point, Kongo began the process of expanding its territory through military conquest. This expansion peaked in the 15th and 16th centuries with the kingdom controlling over 240 kilometers (150 mi) of the coast, reaching from the Congo River in the north to the Cuanza River in the South.
The Kingdom of Kongo depended on the slave trade for its wealth. Representational image of African slave traders traveling to a slave market. (Internet Archive Book Images / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Wealth, Power, and Exploitation: The Slave Trade of the Kingdom of Kongo
With a population of over 2 million people, the kingdom faced the daunting task of feeding its citizens. However, the kingdom's fertile lands were abundant with valuable resources such as ivory, copper, salt and cattle hides, which enabled the Kongo people to sustain themselves through trade.
Unfortunately, the Kingdom of Kongo's early expansion was also driven by the dark trade of human trafficking. In fact, it is believed that much of the kingdom’s early expansion was driven by the search for slaves, captured during military conquests and traded with European merchants.
The Kingdom of Kongo's involvement in the slave trade was a significant source of wealth and power for the kingdom. One of the most profitable aspects of this trade were the rotating markets that visited different towns on fixed days of the week, selling slaves that were brought in from the northern stretches of the Congo River.
All this trade was carried out in a very special local currency known as the Nzimbu shell. These shells originally came from an offshore island called Luanda, around 240 km (149 mi) away from the capital. The shells had started out as a way of storing wealth and a way to measure the worth of goods. Over time, however, the shells started being used more like coins, and were used to pay for goods and services.
The shells could be used to buy anything and were stored in “money pots'' in increments of 40, 100, 250, 400 and 500. For larger amounts, the shells were measured in funda (1,000 big shells), lufuku (10,000), and kofo (20,000). A hen would set someone back around 100 shells, most tools cost around 300, while a goat would set you back around 2,000 shells. Slaves were the most expensive commodity, with an average female slave costing about 20,000 shells and a male 30,000 shells.
Don Alvaro, the King of the Kingdom of Kongo, gives an audience to the Dutch in 1642. (Public domain)
Leadership and Divine Favor in the Kingdom of Kongo
The Kingdom of Kongo was headed by a single ruler known as a nkani. It was divided into different regions, each of which was governed by a governor appointed by the nkani. Under the governor's authority were local officials responsible for collecting tributes, which were paid to the government in accordance with the size of each region's population.
These tributes were not made in shells, however. Instead, resources like ivory, millet, palm wine, and animal skins were collected from local chiefs and presented before the king at the capital. This was done at massive annual ceremonies where the Kongo’s great and powerful enjoyed an extravagant ceremony full of eating and drinking.
The system of tribute was a two-way street. In return for their offerings, the local officials received the king’s favor, which essentially boiled down to military protection and nice gifts like fine food and clothing that didn’t trickle down to those who actually paid the taxes. If this doesn’t sound like much, there was also a divine aspect to the offerings. It was believed paying tribute was a way to maintain “divine favor,” since the king was supposedly appointed by the gods.
Kongo kings stood out primarily thanks to their symbols of office. They wore a special headdress, had a royal stool and drum and wore jewelry made from precious metals. Their rule was enforced through the use of their personal army, which was made up of slaves and numbered between 16,000 and 20,000 men in the 16th century.
Much like the kings of Europe, the king’s rule was believed to be divine in nature. Within the Kingdom of Kongo, the king was supposedly a direct link to the spirit world and was seen as a guardian who protected his people from natural disasters, diseases and famine. But, only if his people paid tribute.
This belief was reflected in one of the king’s titles, nzambi mpungu, which means “superior spirit.” To further tie themselves to the divine, and the Kongo’s religious heritage, kings tended to marry descendants of a beloved shrine guardian, the Mani Kabunga, whose history predated the Kingdom of Kongo.
Alongside the various local officials and governors, the government of the Kingdom of Kongo was made up of a council of a dozen elders who acted as the king’s advisors. These elders all came from the mwisikongo, the Kongo’s aristocracy, and belonged to the region's oldest and richest families.
Outside of this group, the Kingdom of Kongo was in many ways run like a modern government. Key positions in the government consisted of the prime tax officer and his staff, a chief of justice who headed up the police, and an official who ran what passed for a postal service.
Those who didn’t work for the government were divided into two groups. There were the free people (mainly craftsmen and farmers), known as the babuta, and the slaves, known as the babika. This slave class was mainly composed of prisoners of war and debtors who were unable to pay off their outstanding obligations.
Illustration from the memoirs of Bernardino d’Asti showing a Capuchin missionary being received by a local ruler in the Kingdom of Congo, circa 1740. (Public domain)
The Influence of European Christians in the Kingdom of Kongo
Initial encounters with European powers in Africa were often marked by violence and exploitation, as European powers sought to expand their territories and gain wealth through the brutal practice of enslaving local populations. However, for some groups within the Kingdom of Kongo, such as the babuta, first contact with Europeans was a more positive experience.
The Kingdom of Kongo first came into contact with the Portuguese after their colonization of the nearby island of Sao Tome and Principe in around 1470 AD. The Portuguese were big players in the slave trade and the kingdom’s slave markets saw a massive boom.
In return for their slaves, the Kongolese received luxuries such as cotton, clothing, silk, glazed china, glass mirrors and well-crafted tools. Fearing such luxuries would lead to social unrest, their consumption was tightly controlled by the king and only the aristocracy was allowed to access them.
With European traders came missionaries and some Kongo kings happily converted to Christianity. The first to do so was King Alfonso I, who reigned from 1506 to 1543. King Alfonso converted to Christianity after meeting with missionaries who had been in the country since 1491. The conversion wasn’t just a matter of faith. The Roman Catholicism that these missionaries touted came with glittering ceremonies and an association with wealthy Europeans.
This all helped increase the king's prestige in the eyes of his people and so Christianity was in essence a show of wealth. Following Alfonso’s conversion, Catholicism was made the royal household’s official religion and the capital was named Sao Salvador to reflect its newfound European influence. Alfonso then set up a Kongolese version of the Catholic Church, paying for the building of churches through royal assets and taxation.
Of course, converting deeply traditional people is always risky, as people tend to be tied to their cultural traditions. Alfonso got around this by creating his own syncretic version of Christianity with the help of religious advisers from Portugal. This meant that a special type of Christianity was taught in Kongo that blended Catholic teachings and traditions with local ones.
There was also a class element to the kingdom’s Christian conversion. Since Christianity was largely associated with European wealth, only the upper classes were encouraged to convert at first. This gave the ruling class another way to delineate between the kingdom’s classes.
Catholic Priest Burning Idol House, Sogno, Kingdom of Kongo, 1740s. (Public domain)
It wasn’t just their religion and wealth that the Portuguese brought to the Kingdom of Kongo. They also brought European technical knowledge such as masonry, carpentry and stockbreeding. Along with these skills they brought in American crops like maize, cassava and tobacco.
But this wasn’t done out of the goodness of Portugal’s heart. It was all an attempt at “westernizing” the Kingdom of Kongo so that it would become a more valuable trading partner. More importantly, Portugal wanted Kongo tied to it as closely as possible so that it could use the kingdom as a jumping-off point in its attempt to conquer large chunks of central Africa.
Unsurprisingly, this relationship was doomed to turn sour. The Portuguese were not particularly adept at hiding their true motivations and their constant political and religious interference would eventually lead to bloodshed.
The Kongo kings were happy to put up with the Europeans as long as the relationship was mutually beneficial. Things went wrong when the Portuguese grew greedy and began cutting the king out, carrying out their own slave raids, and sometimes even kidnapping Kongolese citizens.
At the same time, Portugal was trying to take control of the Kongo’s lucrative copper mines, bring in its own laws and convert the common people to Christianity (and not just the aristocracy – a fact which risked blurring the lines between social classes).
This made the Kongo kings realize that the Portuguese weren’t worth the effort. If they could build their own fleet, they could cut out the Portuguese and ship their goods directly to Europe. Neither side trusted the other anymore. The Portuguese realized Kongo was looking to cut them out and the Kongo kings realized that Portuguese influence was undermining their authority as the Kongo’s one true rulers.
The Bansa, or residence of the King of Kongo, and capital of the Kingdom of Kongo was called St. Salvador or Mbanza-Kongo, seen here in 1745. (Public domain)
The Decline of the Kingdom of Kongo
From the mid-16th century onwards, things went downhill rapidly for the Kingdom Kongo. The Portuguese, tired of the Kongo kings protecting their own interests, moved southward to the region of Ndongo. This falling out would later lead to several wars with the Portuguese in the region.
Without Portuguese income, the Kongo kings soon faced internal strife. The kingdom’s elite class had developed expensive foreign tastes and the lower classes were tired of the ever-increasing taxes they were having to pay to support these tastes. As the king’s power waned, his regional governors began to turn away.
Why should they remain loyal to the king and pay him tribute when they could deal directly with the ever-increasing number of European traders? The Portuguese might have moved south but there were still plenty of European merchants in the region.
Things unraveled for the kingdom in around 1568 when a group of warriors, known as the Jaga, attacked from the south and began invading the Kingdom of Kongo. Rather than fight back, the kingdom’s tired, disgruntled and over-taxed people rose up and joined them. The Kongo royal family only survived by escaping to an island off the coast.
From this point onwards the Kingdom of Kongo was torn apart by constant civil wars between different factions claiming the throne. With the once great kingdom on its knees, its neighbors began to stick the boot in. The Kingdom of Kongo was defeated by its southern neighbors at the Battle of Mbwila and the capital was sacked and abandoned in 1678.
By 1710, the Kingdom of Kongo had effectively collapsed, with the region being carved up among various groups of traders who established their own communities and alliances. Though there were several more kings, they held little to no real power, and the kingdom remained in a state of disarray for centuries. It was not until the early 20th century that the Portuguese, who had long sought to control the region, finally succeeded in absorbing it into their Angola colony.
The Kingdom of Kongo was a truly remarkable civilization that deserves to be recognized and remembered for its significant contributions to African history and culture. Its powerful rulers, innovative economic system and unique blend of traditional beliefs and Christianity made it a force to be reckoned with in Central Africa for centuries.
Although the Kingdom eventually fell to outside pressures, its legacy lives on in the cultures and societies of modern-day Angola, Congo and Gabon. By studying the history of the Kingdom of Kongo, we can gain a better understanding of the complexity and richness of African civilizations and the damage so often caused by western colonization.
Top image: African warrior. Source: patrick / Adobe Stock.
Cartwright. M. 2 May 2019. “Kingdom of Kongo” in World History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/Kingdom_of_Kongo/
Curtin, P. 1995. African History. Pearson.
McEvedy, C. 1996. The Penguin Atlas of African History. Penguin Books.
Oliver, R. 2001. The Cambridge History of Africa, Vol. 3. Cambridge University Press,
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. 20 July 1998. “Kongo” in Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Kongo-historical-kingdom-Africa