By the late 1800s, new sets of players appeared on the African scene, the Arabs in the east and the Europeans in the west, both deeply involved in slave-trading activities. The tactical alliance between the Luba king, Kasongo Kalombo, who ascended to the Luba throne in the 1860s, and Arab traders did little to prevent the disintegration of his kingdom. As elsewhere through the savannas, externally inspired local revolts accelerated the process of fragmentation instigated by competition for the monarchy, causing outlying provinces to break away and set themselves up as more or less independent political entities.
From the inception of Portuguese penetration into the old Kongo Kingdom in the late fifteenth century, and well into the beginning of the scramble for colonies in the nineteenth century, the Kongo monarchy was a major pawn in international struggles. These conflicts pitted the Vatican against the Portuguese crown for control of African souls, the Dutch (who began arriving on the west coast of Africa in the seventeenth century) against the Portuguese for control of the slave trade, and ultimately Spain against Portugal for sovereignty over the Portuguese Empire.
The Kongo Kingdom was the first state on the west coast of Central Africa to come into contact with Europeans. Portuguese sailors under Diogo Cao landed at the mouth of the Congo River in 1483. Cao traveled from Portugal to Kongo and back several times during the 1480s, bringing missionaries to the Kongo court and taking Kongo nobles to Portugal in 1485. In the 1490s, the king of Kongo asked Portugal for missionaries and technical assistance in exchange for ivory and other desirable items, such as slaves and copperwares—a relationship, ultimately detrimental to the Kongo, which continued for centuries.
Competition over the slave trade had repercussions far beyond the boundaries of Kongo society. Slave-trading activities created powerful vested interests among both Africans and foreigners — the Portuguese and later the Dutch, French, British, and Arabs. A new source of instability was thus introduced into the coastal areas of Central Africa and its hinterland, which greatly hastened the decline of the kingdoms. Nowhere is this more evident than in the history of the Kongo Kingdom, which was a centralized state system ruled by an absolute monarch.
In the late fourteenth century, a group of Kongo, led by the son of a chief from the area of present-day Boma, moved south of the Congo River into northern Angola, conquered the territory, and established Mbanza Kongo Dia Ntotila (Great City of the King) as the capital of their kingdom (the capital was later moved to Sao Salvador). By the middle of the fifteenth century, the Kongo king ruled the lands in northern Angola and the north bank of the Congo.
By the early sixteenth century, the kingdom was divided into six provinces, each under a subchief or governor, who also held a religious title and authority. The last really effective years of the Kongo monarchy were from 1641 to 1661, although the kingdom endured into the next century. By the eighteenth century, however, most of the kingdom's provinces (Mbamba, Mbata, Mpemba, and Soyo) had become self-governing principalities. The king, though claiming a divine right to the monarchy, had little authority beyond his capital, and internal bickerings that had surrounded his throne and further diminished his power also contributed to the weakening of the provincial chiefdoms.
The dynamics of internal fragmentation were directly linked to commercial activities. Just as the ownership of slaves became a major source of wealth and prestige, both in turn made it possible for the slave owners to challenge the authority of the king. Here, as elsewhere in the savannas, the competition for slaves introduced a major source of instability, creating a permanent state of social unrest and civil war. The history of the old Kongo Kingdom encapsulates many of the crises experienced by several other states of the savannas in their efforts to cope with the challenge of the new economic forces.
The area of the Congo was one of the principal sources of slaves for markets in Arabia, the Middle East, and the New World. The trade had devastating effects on both Kongo and non-Kongo communities for almost 400 years. By the late seventeenth century, up to 15,000 slaves a year were sent out of the lower Congo River area. The European slave traders were usually the final link in a chain of African and Arab merchants who brought slaves down to coastal trading posts. The slave trade in the eastern part of present-day Zaire was dominated by Arabs and continued until the late nineteenth century. All European nations had abolished the trade by the mid-nineteenth century, and the end of the American Civil War in 1865 finally extinguished another main market.
Besides the obvious depopulation, the slave trade in the Congo area had caused many local rebellions and increased ethnic warfare. On the eve of the Belgian conquest in the late nineteenth century, Congolese societies had reached a degree of internal dislocation that greatly lessened their capacity to resist a full-scale invasion.
Resistance to outside forces was further hampered by the devastating raids and civil wars that followed in the wake of the slave trade, by the subsequent improvement in the capacity of Africans to destroy each other through the use of firearms, and ultimately by the divisions between ''collaborators" and "resisters" and between the allies of the Arabs and the allies of the Europeans. In addition, a more enduring cleavage had emerged out of the varying exposure of Zairian societies to Western influences and early trade activities.
Long before the conquest of the vast hinterland, the coastal communities had had centuries of contact with Europeans; by the time the Conference of Berlin began in 1884, on the other hand, most of the societies of the interior had yet to experience the full impact of European rule. Out of these different historical experiences emerged different self-images and cultural dispositions.
That the Kongo peoples were the first Zairian people to challenge the legitimacy of the colonial state is perhaps not unrelated to their long and dramatic experience of European hegemony.
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