January 27, 2004

A brief history of Bakongo

Once again, I'm going to take a short break from Grandpa's autobiography to expand on some of the background of the events around him. I did this early on with a brief discussion of Mennonite history, but this time the topic does not just place Grandpa in his historical context, it is also a little closer to current events. History is important to understanding things, and to make the history of Africa start with Grandpa's arrival would both make his circumstances harder to follow and the present-day Congo harder to understand. The last instalment is here and for any new readers, the whole series can be read from this page. I'm going to talk about the history, culture and linguistics of the Congo region in two or three (relatively) short posts before going back to Grandpa. I expect to do the whole thing in a week or so, so this won't be spread out over a couple months or anything like that.

The history of the Kingdom of Kongo - Bakongo in the Kikongo language - is, like much of African history, a tragic tale of a clash between local culture and external forces of change. It is a story with many parallels in the modern era when we are again reopening ancient debates about the consequences of intercultural contact.

Its early origins are obscured by the usual lack of records in an illiterate society, but the legends about the Kongo speak of a founder king named Ntinu Lukeni. He was reputedly a prince of the Kingdom of Vungu, located to the north of the Congo river, who moved south and took over. This is a very common founding myth in Africa - just about every Bantu people on the continent has its story of the king who crossed the river and founded a state - and therefore this story is greeted with some justified scepticism. A variety of speculation among Africanists has done little to enlighten anyone about its true origins or even the century when the kingdom was founded. Early Portuguese missionary sources list six Kongo kings before their arrival, but another text claims that the king who greeted the arrival of the Portuguese was the grandson of Lukeni. Estimates of the kingdom's founding date vary from the early 15th century to as much as half a millennium earlier.

Bakongo circa 1500

Kongo was structured as federal state. Organised into six provinces and composed of a variety of ethnic groups, Kongo was ruled through a complex system of division of powers, clan relationships and local chieftains who functioned at once as policy-makers and as judicial authorities. It had a state religion based on a relatively sophisticated notion of dualism which recognised the king as a spiritual and temporal authority. It also had a capital, Mbanza Kongo, to serve as a unifying centre, something that was not unheard of, but was still far from the norm among the Bantus. At its peak in the late 16th century, Kongo encompassed much of what is now northern Angola, Cabinda, western Congo-Kinshasa and southern Congo-Brazzaville.

In the late 15th century, the Portuguese state was at its technological and economic peak and began pursuing a program of exploration along the African coast in order to circumvent a Turkish-Arab monopoly on trade with the Far East. Navigation south of the 27th parallel had been previously impossible because of the turbulent and impossible to navigate waters around Cabo Bojador in what is now Western Sahara. Further from shore, the open sea was much calmer and easier to navigate, but with few navigational methods better than dead reckoning, no sailor was willing to get out of sight of land on the open ocean. New technology, particularly celestial navigation with astrolabes so that open sea travel was feasible and the "caravel" mast system, which made it possible to tack large ships against the wind, changed the situation and in 1433, a Portuguese ship crossed to the lands beyond Cabo Bojador. Europe was, for the first time, in direct contact with sub-Saharan Africa instead of knowing about it only through Arab intermediaries.

Cabo Bojador - In 1400, this was the final frontier

In 1483, Diogo Cão reached the mouth of the Congo river and made contact with the Kongolese state. Here, he found a nation modelled very much like states in Europe: a single throne, a nobility, a peasantry and a belief in the afterlife. Cão managed to get in touch with the king, Nzinga Nkuma (often known by the title Manikongo) and convinced him to trade with the Portuguese. Portugal, in essence, recognised Kongo as a state just like any other European nation and opened an embassy in Mbanza Kongo. By 1490, Portuguese ships were making regular stops in Kongo and bringing missionaries with them.

Nzinga Nkuma was, according to all accounts, quite well aware of the technological and economic power of the Portuguese and could see which way the wind was blowing. He was what you might think of as an early moderniser, prepared to adopt the ways of these new people rather than be left behind. So, he converted to Catholicism, taking the saint's name João. As spiritual head of the kingdom, his decision was tantamount to converting the entire state. He sent his son to study in Portugal, and his grandson became the first black bishop in the history of the Catholic Church (and the last one until the 20th century.)

Of course, a discussion of early Kongo-Portugal relations would not be complete without discussing exactly what it is that Portugal wanted to buy from Kongo. Their motivations for exploring Africa were numerous and overlapping. First, there were the temptations of the Far Eastern trade. They hoped to do an end-run around Islamic control of the Bosporus, which was raising spice prices enormously. Since spices were the only effective way to make rotten food edible in the era before canning or refrigeration, the market for spices was large enough to bet whole national fortunes on and fund a century of wars and exploratory missions, even though success was still decades in the future. Second, there was the simmering "Cold War" climate of political competition between the nations of Iberia and the Islamic world. Iberia was the heir of a long period of technological and economic progress under Arab rule, now overturned by a revolution as fundamentalist and narrow minded as the Taliban. The Portuguese state was burning through this accumulated capital at a ferocious rate in irregular conflicts with the Arabs of north Africa, and high-tech prestige projects like African exploration fit the state's needs quite well. Thirdly, there were stories - largely of Arab origin - of vast quantities of gold and other valuables in the half-real, half-legendary African kingdoms of Mali and Songhai.

There was a significant trade in ivory and copper - both in demand in Europe - but what paid the bills was the slave trade. Sugar plantations in the Canary and Madeiras Islands were quick money, and raising cane sugar was an enormously labour intensive activity. So, where 20th century moderisers hope to build their nations on the backs of cheap, unregulated labour markets, the moderniser João Manikongo was determined to raise his nation up on the back of slavery. It was what he had that the Portuguese wanted.

Over the course of the next century and a half, Kongo would behave in a manner that the modern evangelist of neoliberalism would recognise instantly. They adopted foreign crops like cassava, sugar cane and pineapples, technology like horses as draught animals, and it became fashionable for the Kongolese nobility to send their offspring to missionary schools to learn to read or even to Europe itself for an advanced education. Portuguese theories of government accompanied European religion, a situation which in turn consolidated the increasingly powerful central rule of the royal family. Kongo was fast becoming the most European nation in Africa.

Yet, less than two centuries after João Manikongo's baptism, Kongo was utterly destroyed. A visitor to Mbanza Kongo in 1678 reported that it was an abandoned ruin where elephants had the run of the city. Were one to be snide, and somewhat anachronistic, one might call Kongo the very first failure of neoliberalism. But, that wouldn't be entirely fair. There are historical parallels, but they are nothing more than that. As a lesson in the dangers of modernisation at all costs, the history of the Kongo stands as a valid cautionary tale. The details, however, are unique to the circumstances.

What destroyed the Kongo state was ultimately slavery and the moral hazards - in the economic as well as ethical sense of the term - that slavery created. Slavery was not introduced to Africa by the Europeans - it was there long before them - but it was the Europeans who turned slavery into big business. Although Kongo was willing to sell slaves to the Portuguese, there were rules about who could be sold. Following existing conventions in central Africa, slavery was limited to criminals, rebels and prisoners of war. This produced a slow but regular flow of human chattel from out of Kongo to Portuguese plantations in the Atlantic.

But this wasn't enough.

In the early 16th century, João's son Afonso was able to seize the Kongolese throne, violating local traditions forbidding the first-born son of the king from taking power. He had used European notions of primogeniture and the royal monopoly on European trade, cemented by his own fluency in Portuguese and knowledge of Europe, to establish a more directly hereditary monarchy. Nowadays, he is alternately viewed as the Judas Iscariot of the African diaspora narrative, or as the first African leader to genuinely resist the slave trade. In all likelihood, neither is true. However, it is true that Afonso's reign saw an explosion in the slave trade, and it's true that he profited from this, and it's true that these events were not entirely of his own making or choosing.

The Portuguese state and Portuguese merchant slavers essentially engineered an increase in the number of slaves sold. First, by encouraging crimes and rebellions along the coast, they created criminals and rebels eligible for sale. This unique moral hazard ultimately drastically weakened the state. Because the slavers prospered from crime and rebellion, they encouraged it.

Second, the Portuguese government extorted Afonso by threatening to take their commerce to his many enemies among the local nobility, endangering his throne. In the end, he conceded. Mbanza Kongo initially prospered under the slave trade, which saw it export some four to five thousand slaves annually to various Portuguese colonies in Africa and the Americas. The state actually grew through the reign of Afonso, financed by taxation on the slave trade, and expanded its borders in all directions. But from the end of Afonso's reign, it is all downhill.

The slave trade's constant demand for new flesh not only exceeded Kongo's supply, but created incentives for new suppliers. By the end of the 16th century, other people along the coast were able to sell slaves for less, accepting a lower tax rate than Kongo. Before long, the constituent provinces of Kongo were themselves engaging in a separate slave trade, raising the menace of separatism. Unable to compete, Kongo tried to modernise its economy by entering the weaving trade, but in two generations they had lost their competitive advantage in this area as well. They suffered a monetary crisis when Portugal began importing nzimbu shells from Brazil, which was the commodity backing the Kongolese currency. In this weakened state, rebellions became more and more frequent, and finally much of Kongo's southern territory fell to the Portuguese-supported Ndongo state to the south, which proceeded to export the captured population to Brazil. An unending civil war fed the slave trade with an unending supply of new victims, which in turn financed the continuing civil war.

In 1641, Garcia Manikongo II - Kongo's last meaningful king - allied his kingdom with the Dutch, Europe's new rising superpower, against the Portuguese who had brought Kongo so much grief. In 1665, the Portuguese finally defeated Kongolese forces, and after that Kongo is nothing more than a border on a map. As a civilisation, it had simply ceased to exist. In its place were hundreds of tiny chiefdoms, alternately allied or belligerent, dominated by aloof and greedy Portuguese slave traders up until the Napoleonic wars effectively ended the trade.

Kongo from an 1829 French map

Ironically, as a border on a map, the purely nominal Kingdom of Kongo was to survive for another two centuries after its political failure. Neglected by the Portuguese who could easily have annexed it, and unwanted by any other European power because it lacked any resources worth taking, Kongo's ambiguous legal status remained unchanged until 1885, when there was no longer any European slave trade at all. After all the damage slavery had done to Kongo, one might expect that its passing as an institution would mark a turning point for the region. Perhaps, the beginning of better days. However, one would be wrong.

Posted 2004/01/27 16:20 (Tue) | TrackBack

Fascinating! Do you have any references on this, btw? It's nice to know where to go if you've a desire to learn more about something as obscure in the west as this.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at January 27, 2004 17:54

Some of it I remember from classes and readings years ago. The story of how slavery worked in west Africa is pretty well known. The bizarre cartological netherworld of the Kingdom of Kongo is part of the history of the 1885 Berlin Conference, which is a very key event in African history, since it abolished the slave trade once and for all in west Africa, as well as setting the ground for a shameful episode in Belgian history that has seen some recent rehashing.

For the rest, I did some web searches. In a more ideal world, I'd have hit a good university library too to see how others have treated this part of African history. A search for "bakongo" or "kingdom of kongo" or "manikongo" will get you most of it.

Posted by: Scott Martens at January 28, 2004 11:27

I particularly liked this characterization of the Reconquista:
> Iberia was the heir of a long period of technological and
> economic progress under Arab rule, now overturned by a
> revolution as fundamentalist and narrow minded as the
> Taliban.
It reminds me that I know much too little of the
economic history of Islamic Iberia.

Posted by: Cosma at January 30, 2004 16:59

I find this interesting as it is an account of my direct descendamts the the Baluba Kings. I am a Baluba from one of the the Kazumba Chieftain princes of the Lunda. I am in the process of gathering as much information on the Baluba Kings as possible for my children. Do you haveany further docs you can refereme to?
Would be grateful

Posted by: Mukendi Kakesu Kazumba at February 16, 2004 15:43

I am amazed that the very short history of the Bakongo civilization written above has not been challenged. It is common practice I notice that Africans and African Americans in their search for identity look to Europeans to tell them who they are. For example, the writer noted that the Bakongo did not possess their own written language and the Kingdom essentially ended to Portuguese in the late 17th Century, thus one must recognize that the history of the Bakongo is told primarily from Portuguese people. Sure some oral history traditions may last but influence by 300 years of occupation by the Portuguese in the region. The story of the Bakongo can only be told by the Bakongo. In the 22 letters King Affonso wrote to the Portuguese King, all unaswered, are the only significant story we have from the Bakongo themselves. It was clear that Affonso plead with the Portuguese to cease coming to his Kingdom for slaves. He plead for them to send scholars and medicine. He knew what was right. To belittle the grandeur of his rule as a protagonist for African people is a Eurocentric conspiracy to justify what they did to Africa. Believe me, the Bakongo was not the only Kingdom wishing to escape from European domination.

I myself am a white Englishman and I am married to a Caribbean black woman, and I feel sorry for the black race because they are so lost in their own identity that they accept whatever white people tell them of who they are. It is a said thing. On visiting Africa 5 years ago I met a black girl who was infatuated with my blue eyes and blond hair. At first i took it as a compliment until she claimed to have white ancestors and was only now black because of the sun. Thus I realized that she was plagued by the residue of Eurocentric imperialism. I cannot be ashamed to be related to the men who demolished not only the African civilizations, but the African mind, for I have no choice of what race I am. However, it saddens me more to realize that things will not return to the way they were before the damaged was caused because the Africans themselves are unaware of the extent of the damage caused. The victor always tells the story. Napoleon once quoted," History is nothing but a tale agreed upon by the men in power". Hopefully Africa will wake up to this and claim their own history.

Posted by: All_Things_Considered at April 23, 2004 19:09



Posted by: FREE SAHARA at December 3, 2004 4:22
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