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Congo-Brazzaville - Early History

Before the beginning of French colonial rule, the history of this region of equatorial Africa was dominated by three African kingdoms — the Kongo (Bakongo), the Loango, and the Teke (Bateke or Tyo). Descendants of the inhabitants of these early kingdoms have continued to play an important role in Congolese political affairs.

Information on the early history of the area is, in large measure, limited to what historians have been able to glean from oral traditions. For the ethnic groups within the country, the principal traditions focus upon three tribal kingdoms — the Kongo, the Loango, and the Teke — which are known to have been in existence at least as early as the fifteenth century.

Of the major ethnic groups composing the modern Congo, at least three were once a part of earlier kingdoms. These included the Kongo, Loango, and Teke kingdoms. The descendants of the inhabitants of these former kingdoms continue to form important groups in the Congo. Available information suggests that the social organization among the Mboshi was never highly centralized.

Slavery was commonly practiced by most Congolese societies before the arrival of the Europeans, but it differed greatly from the institution later served by European slave traders. African slaves included debtors, murderers, prisoners of war, social outcasts, and even individuals who voluntarily accepted enslavement.

The life of a slave was not unlike that of his master. He shared his owner's home, ate the same food, and did comparable work. He was allowed to participate in lineage affairs, and when no freeman was eagilLe a save migat become lineage head. Among the Kongo and Teke peoples the lineage headman might designate a trusted slave to succeed him rather than appoint one of his own kinsmen. On rare occasions, for example by repaying his debt, a slave could regain his freedom.

The Kongo kingdom, believed to have been established in the fourteenth century, was centered in the plateau region of northern Angola. Its capital later became known as San Salvador. At its height the kingdom spread from northern Angola over both banks of the lower Congo River and from the Atlantic eastward about 300 miles to the Kwango River.

When the Portuguese arrived in the 1480s they found a highly centralized kingdom holding sway over numerous vassal states. During the next twenty years the Portuguese, with the twin motivations of evangelism and commerce, developed a close relationship with the people of the Kongo and their king, the Mani Kongo.

With the development of the slave trade, the attention of the Portuguese turned away from the Kongo to the kingdom of Loango, which centered on the lower Kouilou River to the north of the present port of Pointe-Noire. In an earlier period Loango was one of the vassal states of the Mani Kongo, and its people, the Vili (Bavili), are considered a part of the Kongo ethnic group. In the present-day republic, the Vili and related tribes form the majority of the population of the commune of Pointe-Noire and the districts of Madingo-Kayes and Mvouti.

The kingdom of Loango, at its height, extended from the mouth of the Congo River to the estuary of the Gabon River and eastward as far as the plateau region north of Stanley Pool. Loango flourished as the intermediary for the slave trade, obtaining slaves from the interior tribes and selling them to the slave ships that frequented the coast. The prohibition of the slave traffic by the European powers signaled the decline of Loango, and by the 1880s the once powerful kingdom was reduced to a profusion of small independent groups.

The third kingdom, the Teke, was located in the plateau region north of Stanley Pool and extended across the Congo River, where it covered much of the area between the lower Kwango River and the point of confluence of the Congo and Nkeni rivers. The Teke king, the Makoko, ruled by virtue of his ritual functions rather than by political or military power. The kingdom was highly decentralized, with numerous chieftains ruling territories that were politically autonomous but ritually bound to the Makoko.

Active in the slave trade, the Teke passed their captives on to the Vili of the Loango kingdom for resale on the coast. Teke independence came to an end after the king agreed to conclude a treaty with the explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, a naturalized Frenchman of Italian birth, and placed his lands and peoples under the protection of France.

Social stratification varied with the type of village. In all villages, however, the village chief held a prominent position. The chief's mother, often a widow who returned to her son's village rather than live with her husband's brother, was an important member of the community. Other persons residing in the village were the wives, children, and relatives of the chief and lineage members as well as slaves and their children. Each person had certain rights and obliga¬tions according to local custom and practice.

The headman of the lineage or clan, depending on the organization of the village, usually became village chief. He wielded authority and influence in matters of religion, justice, war, commerce, and local customs. The council of elders commonly assisted the chief in making decisions and performing his duties. As a representative of the ancestors, the chief's main responsibility was seeing that local laws and traditions, theoretically handed down from the ancestors, were obeyed. He handled disputes, which could not be settled within the extended family or lineage, and had the right to enlist the villagers' services for public works or for his own private benefit.

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Page last modified: 14-06-2017 19:45:41 ZULU