Kingdom of Kongo
The first large political entity in the area, known to history as the Kingdom of Kongo, appeared in the thirteenth century and stretched from Gabon in the north to the river Kwanza in the south, and from the Atlantic in the west to the river Cuango in the east. Mbanza Kongo, the capital, had a population of 50,000 people. South of this kingdom were various important states, of which the Kingdom of Ndongo, ruled by the ngola (king), was most significant. Modern Angola derives its name from the king of Ndongo.
Their wealth came mainly from agriculture. Power was in the hands of the Mani, aristocrats who occupied key positions in the kingdom and who answered only to the all-powerful King of the Kongo. Mbanza was the name given to a territorial unit administered and ruled by a Mani; Mbanza Kongo, the capital, had a population of over fifty thousand in the sixteenth century.
In the century before Portuguese exploration of West Africa, the Kongo Kingdom developed in West Central Africa. In the three hundred years from the date the kingdom was founded by Ne Lukeni Kia Nzinga until its destruction in 1665 by the Portuguese, Kongo was an organized stable, politically centralized society based upon a subsistence economy. The Kongo is significant in exploring the historic contexts of African American heritage because the majority of all Africans enslaved in the Southern English colonies were from West Central Africa.
The Kongo peoples were a part of the Kongo kingdom, the largest portion of which was located in the areas south of the Congo River, which later became part of the states of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Kinshasa). The Kongo began moving northward in the latter years of the fifteenth century. One Kongo subgroup migrated along the coast, another entered the Niari Valley, and several groups moved toward the northeast, forcing the Teke into the plateau region above Brazzaville.
The Kongo king played a primary role in the highly centralized political and social structures. He retained the right to appoint and remove officials, but his authority was checked by the council of elders and the traditional rights of clan chiefs. After the rule of Affonso I (1506 to about 1545), only his descendants could claim succession to the throne. Disputes between claimants to the throne were common. The position usually fell to the individual who gained the support of the royal court and the approval of the electoral college, whose responsibility it was to designate the new king.
The sophisticated political life of the kingdom was most intense at the village and district levels. The Kongo village, with a localized matrilineal group as its nucleus, had a headman chosen from the dominant lineage. The village social structure included slaves and free people, but there was no aristocratic class. Villages were divided into districts, each under the authority of an official appointed by the king or the provincial governor. The district headman had administrative and judicial duties and could be removed by the king. Most of the districts were grouped into provinces, directed by governors appointed by the king. The district and provincial authorities were usually relatives of the king.
Several factors disrupted the political stability of the kingdom and altered its social stratification. The Portuguese-dominated slave trade encouraged local chiefs to challenge the king's authority, fostered wars between neighboring peoples, and led to local uprisings within the Kongo state. The numerous struggles over kingly succession further weakened the kingdom and facilitated the Jagga invasion in the late sixteenth century.
The Bakongo (the Kongo people), today several million strong, live in modern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, neighboring Cabinda, and Angola. The present division of their territory into modern political entities masks the fact that the area was once united under the suzerainty of the ancient Kingdom of Kongo, one of the most important civilizations ever to emerge in Africa, according to Robert Ferris Thompson. The Kings of the Kongo ruled over an area stretching from the Kwilu-Nyari River, just north of the port of Loango, to the river Loje in northern Angola, and from the Atlantic to the inland valley of the Kwango.
Thompson estimates the Kongo encompassed an area roughly equaling the miles between New York City and Richmond, Virginia, in terms of coastal distance and between Baltimore and Eire, Pennsylvania, in terms of inland breadth. Birmingham comments that by 1600, after a century of overseas contact with the Portuguese, the “complex Kongo kingdom…dominated a region more than half the size of England which stretched from the Atlantic to the Kwango.”
The Bakongo shared a common culture with the people of eight adjoining regions, all of whom were either part of the Kongo Kingdom during the transatlantic slave trade, or were part of the kingdoms formed by peoples fleeing from the advancing armies of Kongo chiefdoms. In their records slave traders called the Bakongo, as well as the people from the adjoining regions, “Congos” and “Angolas” although they may have been Mbembe, Mbanda, Nsundi, Mpangu, Mbata, Mbamba or Loango.
Ki-Kongo-speaking groups inhabited the West Central African region then known as the Loango Coast. The term Loango coast describes a historically significant area of West Central Africa extending from Cape Lopez or Cape Catherine in Gabon to Luanda in Angola. Within this region, Loango has been the name of a kingdom, a province, and a port. Once linked to the powerful Kongo Kingdom, the Loango Kingdom was dominated by the Villi, a Kongo people who migrated to the coastal region during the 1300s. Loango became an independent state probably in the late 1300s or early 1400s. With two other Kongo-related kingdoms, Kakongo, and Ngoyo (present day Cabinda), it became one of the most important trading states north of the Congo River.
A common social structure was shared by people in the coastal kingdoms of Loango, Kakongo, Ngoyo, Vungu, and the Yombe chiefdoms; the Teke federation in the east and the Nsundi societies on either side of the Zaire River from the Matadi/Vungu area in the west to Mapumbu of Malebo pool in the east. The provincial regions, districts, and villages each had chiefs and a hierarchical system through which tribute flowed upward to the King of the Kongo and rewards flowed downward. Each regional clan or group had a profession or craft, such as weaving, basket making, potting, iron working, and so on. Tribute and trade consisted of natural resources, agricultural products, textiles, other material cultural artifacts and cowries shells.
The Kingdom of Kongo was divided into six provinces and included some dependent kingdoms, such as Ndongo to the south. Trade was the main activity, based on highly productive agriculture and increasing exploitation of mineral wealth. In 1482, Portuguese caravels commanded by Diogo Cão arrived in the Kongo. Other expeditions followed, and close relations were soon established between the two states. The Portuguese brought firearms and an interesting religion; in return, the King of the Kongo could offer slaves, ivory, and minerals.
The King of the Kongo was soon converted to Christianity, and adopted a similar political structure to the Europeans; he became a well-known figure in Europe, to the point of receiving missives from the Pope himself.
To the south of the Kingdom of the Kongo, around the river Kwanza, there were various important states, of which the Kingdom of Ndongo, ruled by the Ngola (King), was the most significant. At the time of the arrival of the Portuguese, Ngola Kiluange was in power, and by maintaining a policy of alliances with neighboring states, managed to hold out against the foreigners for several decades. Eventually he was beheaded in Luanda. Years later, the Ndongo rose to prominence again when Jinga Mbandi, known as Queen Jinga, took power. A wily politician, she kept the Portuguese in check with carefully-prepared agreements. After undertaking various journeys she succeeded in 1635 in forming a grand coalition with the states of Matamba and Ndongo, Kongo, Kassanje, Dembos and Kissamas. At the head of this formidable alliance, she forced the Portuguese to retreat.
Jinga’s coalition began to fall apart; the absence of their Dutch allies with their firearms, and the strong position of Correia de Sá, delivered a deadly blow to the morale of the native forces. Jinga died in 1663; two years later, the King of the Kongo committed all his forces to an attempt to capture the island of Luanda, occupied by Correia de Sá, but they were defeated and lost their independence. The Kingdom of Ndongo likewise submitted to the Portuguese Crown in 1671.
The Battle of Mbwila was the result of a conflict of mining rights between the Portuguese led by Governor André Vidal de Negreiros and the Kongolese King, António I. Due to the Kongolese refusal to give the Portuguese extra territorial rights, revolts between the parties often erupted. During the battle of October 25th, 1665, the Kongolese army fought against the Portuguese. The Portuguese won the battle. The revolt of Kimpa Vita (Congolese prophetess and leader of her own Christian movement) in the following years was another attempt of the Kongolese Kingdom to regain independence from the Portuguese.
Internal disorders continued during the next century, and by about 1700 a new social and political order was taking shape. The former unitary kingdom had been transformed into a group of independent chiefdoms. The chiefdoms accorded nominal recognition to the Kongo king, but he exercised little actual control over provincial affairs. Fragmented lineages appeared, and personal wealth and status depended on the number of slaves an individual owned. Political leadership and social position were closely related to the slave trade.
After the Kingdom of the Loango had gained independence, a new set of small kingdoms came into existence. The Teke Kingdom became the most important and the largest political entity. It encompassed all or part of present-day Republic of Congo, Gabon, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Portugal’s unilateral position in Europe suffered a major blow in 1580 when the Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal became united under King Philip. The alliance resulted in a decrease in Portugal’s omnipresence in Kongo. The Kingdom of Kongo was reduced to a small enclave in the north of Angola with King Pedro V in 1888 finally accepting to become a vassal of the Portuguese. The Portuguese abolished the kingdom after the revolt of the Kongolese in 1914.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, most Kongo villages, consisting of several hamlets — each being a segment of a dominant matrilineage — were independent entities controlled by the local lineage head.
The “Kongos” and “Angolas” shared a “lingua franca” or trade language that allowed them to communicate. They also shared other cultural characteristics such as matrilineal social organization and a cosmology expressed in their religious beliefs and practices. Woman-and-child figures are visual metaphors for both individual and societal fertility among Kongo Peoples and reflect their matrilineal social organization, that is, tracing their kinship through their mother’s side of the family. Cosmology is a body of collective representations of the world as a whole, ordered in space and time, and a human’s place in it. Matrilineal social organization and certain cosmological beliefs expressed in religious ceremonies and funerary practices continued to be evident in the culture of rural South Carolina and Florida African Americans who were descendants of enslaved Africans.
European slave trade led to internal wars, enslavement of multitudes, introduction of major political upheavals, migrations, and power shifts from greater to lesser-centralized authority of Kongo and other African societies. Most notably the slave trade destroyed old lineages and kinship ties upon which the basis of social order and organization was maintained in African societies.
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