The kingdom of Kongo was a large kingdom in the Western part of Central Africa. The name comes from the fact that the founders of the kingdom were Kikongo speaking people. The name of Congo with C comes from the Portuguese translation (Africanhistory.com)
The Kingdom was founded around 1390 CE through the political marriage. The marriage was between Nima a Nzima of the Mpemba Kasi and Luqueni Luansanze of the Mbata (Africanhistory.com). This intermarriage cemented the alliance between the two Kikongo speaking peoples.
The kingdom was centered on the great city of Mbanza Kongo, located in what is now northern Angola (Location: 6° 16’04’’s 14°14’53’’E) (Africanhistory.com). The kingdom reached its peak in the mid-1600s. In 1888, what was left of the kingdom of Kongo was made a vassal state to Portugal. And in the early 1900s it was formally integrated into the Portuguese colony in Angola.
Formation of the Kingdom of Kongo
Understanding the early history of the Kingdom of Kongo is complicated by the lack of written sources from the time. It is also due to the problematic fact that almost all of the later accounts were produced by Europeans. This means that there is a need to be critical about European accounts, as they were writing from the perspective of the conquerors and outsiders.
A further issue is on the local chroniclers (those writing from an insider’s perspective). These, such as the Congolese historian Petelo Boka, made assumptions based on the organization of clans in more recent history (Africanhistory.com).
However, the establishment of the Kingdom of Kongo came about through both the voluntary and involuntary inclusion of neighboring states. These united around a central core state. Therefore, the early territorial expansion of the kingdom of Kongo came through various voluntary agreements with smaller neighboring states.
Some historians prefer to call state entities similar to the kingdom of Kongo as ‘common wealths’ rather than kingdoms. This is because they were built in part on mutual agreement, marriage alliance and cooperation rather than conquest. Later, territorial expansion in the kingdom came to a larger degree from conquest (Africanhistory.com).
Myths in the formation of Kongo Kingdom
The founding Myth of the Kingdom of Kongo begins with the marriage of Nima a Nzima to Luqueni Luansanze. This was the daughter of Nsa-Cu-Clau, the chief of the Mbata people. Their marriage would solidify the alliance between the Mpemba Kasi and the neighboring Mbata people. This alliance became the foundation of the kingdom of Kongo.
Nima a Nzima and Luqueni Luansanze had a child named Lukeni lua Nimi. Lukeni lua Nimi became the first person to take the title of Mutinù (king).
Lukeni lua Nimi is presumed to have been born between 1367 and 1402 CE. Historians therefore also date the founding of the kingdom of Kongo to sometime around 1390 CE (Africanhistory.com).
It is estimated that the core of the kingdom began in the province of Mpemba Kasi in the South of Kongo. It is also said that Lukeni lua Nimi built the capital city of Mbanza Kongo. There is speculation, however, that earlier rulers controlled a larger territory before Lukeni lua Nimi became King. Lukeni simply moved the capital city to that area.
This was also in this period that the neighboring province of Mbata came under the protection of Kongo. It is presumed that the Kingdom of Kongo had similar protection treaties with other smaller neighboring states.
The expansion of Kongo Kingdom
The early kingdom was to some degree founded on conquest, but was largely made up of voluntary protection arrangements. With help from the Mbete and other allied provinces, the kingdom of Kongo got other territories. This is when Kongo conquered Mpangu and Npundi to the South. These provinces would be governed by governors who received their orders from the King.
Npundi and Mbata later expanded their own territories. The expansions, in turn extended the boundaries of the Kingdom of Kongo. And by 1490, the kingdom of Kongo was estimated to have around 3 million subjects in total. The Kingdom of Kongo is believed to have had six kings (including Nima, despite never taking the title of King). This was before 1490 (Africanhistory.com).
Slave trade in the Kingdom of Kongo
Little is known of slavery in the kingdom of Kongo before contact with the Portuguese in 1482. A number of sources state that there was an established tradition of making slaves out of people displaced by conquest.
This is explained by the fact that the export of slaves was core in the relationship between Kongo and Portugal. Therefore, the supply of slaves was central to the ability of Kongo to maintain its relationship with Portugal (Africanhistory.com). It meant that Kongo needed to have a constant supply of slaves.
The usage of slaves would, during this early period of slave trade, become more common within the kingdom as well. However, the export of slaves to Europe and the Americas was later the cause of much instability in the kingdom.
Did the King of Kongo sell off his subjects as slaves?
The Portuguese began trading in Kongolese slaves very quickly after their contact with the kingdom of Kongo. The Kongolese King would protect his own subjects called gentle or ‘freeborn’ Kongolese, from slavery.
In the 1500s, this was not a problem as the territorial expansion through various conquests, provided a steady supply of foreign-born slaves. Most of these slaves came from wars waged against the neighboring Mbundu kingdom of Ndongo in around 1512.
While most slaves were exported to Portugal, King Afonso of Kongo retained many slaves for himself. Both King Afonso and later kings would keep slaves, particularly enslaved criminals. These slaves were freeborn Kongolese and therefore could not be sold to other parties.
Effect of slave trade on the leadership of the Kingdom of Kongo
In 1526, correspondence between the Portuguese King Joao III, and the Kongolese King Afonso, showed something shocking. It revealed that the Portuguese would kidnap many freeborn Kongolese to sell into slavery (including the children of nobles).
Various Kongolese nobles were sometimes implicated in the trade of freeborn Kongolese.
However, much of this unsanctioned slave trade is attributed to Portuguese merchants who kidnapped people off the streets and from their homes (Africanhistory.com). Inability to protect his subjects became an issue on the domestic front for king Afonso. It caused him to lose legitimacy in the eyes of his people.
The Jaga invasion
From 1568 – 1570, during the reign of king Alvaro 1; the kingdom of Kongo experienced a large scale conflict called the Jaga invasion. The source of the Jaga invasion is hotly debated by historians. However, it is assumed that the Jaga were in some way related to the Yaka ethnic group (Africanhistory.com).
During the invasion, they managed to capture the capital city of Mbanza Kongo. The conflict caused an economic crisis in the Kingdom. The severity of this was seen when fathers began to sell their sons, and brothers sold their brothers into slavery as a means of survival.
An unprecedented amount of freeborn Kongolese was sold to the Portuguese during this time. These involved princes and nobles.
Reaction of King Alvaro towards slave trade
The Kings of Kongo proclaimed upon their coronation their duty to protect all of their subjects, rich and poor. As such, they swore to protect even their enslaved subjects, and the Kings who reigned during the 1500s were mostly successful in preventing their subjects from being transported across the Atlantic as slaves.
Following the widespread selling of slaves during the Jaga invasion, king Alvaro became incensed by the sale of his subjects. He thus sent an envoy to Sao Tome. Sao Tome is where the slaves were held prior to transportation across the Atlantic to ransom them.
Most of the people enslaved during the aftermath of the Jaga invasion were allowed to return home. The nobles were integrated into administration of the Kingdom.
This indicates that when the central authority of the king was strong, he was in fact able to protect his subjects.
Weakening of the King’s powers in Kongo
However, after 1590 several civil wars and rebellions weakened the king’s authority. Such happenings caused an increasing amount of Kongolese subjects to be enslaved. A major obstacle for the Kingdom of Kongo was that slaves were the only commodity which foreign powers were willing to trade for.
This meant that Kongolese kings had no international currency other than people!
Slaves became the tool through which Kongo developed. Slaves were also used to sustain the Kingdom’s material, cultural and diplomatic ties with the European powers. Kongolese nobles could buy slaves with the local currency.
The kingdom’s local currency was the nzimbu shells. The slaves could in turn be traded for international currency (Africanhistory.com).
Kongo and the foreign powers
There needed to be a constant source of slaves for kings to sell in exchange with foreign powers such as Portugal and the Dutch. Kongolese kings would desperately need this influence to garner support from European powers.
The kings could take advantage of this support to suppress internal rebellions in the kingdom. This support also helped them against other colonial empires.
To illustrate, in 1641 king Garcia of Kongo required the help of the Dutch military (Africanhistory.com). He paid them in slaves for their assistance in defeating the counts of Soyo. Soyo was a growing city in the northern part of the Kingdom.
How did all Kongolese become potential slaves?
Since the kingdom of Kongo had stopped conquests in the early 1600s, the supply of foreign slaves was drying up. Rebellions like the Soyo rebellion became the kingdom’s new way of supplying slaves. During the mid-1600s, it became a common practice for freeborn Kongos to become slaves through a variety of infractions.
These included; disrespecting nobles, stealing from gardens and rebelling against the central authorities. It was also done to discipline seditious nobles. In fact, if several villagers were deemed guilty of a crime, the whole village was sometimes enslaved.
The internal conflicts of the late 1600s and 1700s would mean the end of the King’s protection of his subjects from slavery. In this period every Kongolese person was in danger of being enslaved, and this caused further instability within the Kingdom.
During this period of conflict, a large amount of captives of war, refugees, and conquered peoples were captured by Europeans. These Europeans were the British, Portuguese and Dutch slave traders. They shipped the slaves across the Atlantic.