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Portuguese interest in the central African kingdom of Kongo began in 1493 with copper, and soon turned to slave trade. The Kongo achieved wealth and power by participating in this rising global economy, but declining local communities were exposed to French and Belgian colonization in the late 1800s. Sudden decolonization in 1960 and an unusual wealth of natural resources have resulted in the long-term destabilization of the region.
- The Kingdom of Kongo and the Portuguese
- The Decline of Kongo
Comparatively little is known of the history of the kingdom of Kongo in central Africa before contact with the Portuguese in 1483. Sometime between the ninth and fourteenth centuries political centralization began, based on the control of intersecting regional trade routes and commodities such as salt, iron, and copper, as well as nzimbu shells, which served locally as currency. Taxation provided the necessary revenue for state building, and the redistribution of resources and performance of a royal cult generated loyalty to the king.
With the arrival of the Portuguese, the region’s history became inextricably linked with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Kongo kingdom rose to unprecedented wealth and power through its participation in the newly arising global economy. But it was this overseas connection that devastated local communities, and, in the second half of the seventeenth century, caused its decline, fragmentation, and eventual replacement by trade networks that operated through localized power centers.
Kongo is a name derived from the local language Kikongo after which the capital city of the kingdom, Mbanza Kongo, located above the banks of the largest river in the region, the Congo River, was named. When the Belgian king acquired a colony in the region in 1879, it was called the Congo Free State and, from 1908, the Belgian Congo. With political independence in 1960, the former Belgian colony and the neighboring French territory both named themselves after the kingdom.
The Kingdom of Kongo and the Portuguese
In the second half of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese explored the African coast mainly in order to find a sea route to Asia. They also hoped to gain direct access to the gold imported to Europe from Africa, a trade at the time under Italian hegemony. With limited knowledge of central Africa, the Portuguese identified the Kingdom of Kongo as a potential region of gold deposits and avidly pursued this mistaken notion throughout the sixteenth century.
The first contact was made in 1483, when a Portuguese ship’s crew kidnapped Africans and brought them to Europe to gain the information that might facilitate their interaction with the kingdom. Two years later, a second expedition was sent to central Africa. This time the Portuguese ventured to offer the king of Kongo what they considered to represent civilization: a shipload of cloth, clothes, tools, horses, Portuguese men engaged in professions ranging from priests to craftsmen, and Portuguese women who were intended to teach the Kongolese the virtues of Christian housekeeping. The king, when presented with the gifts, recognized in these visitors an opportunity to advance his own power and that of his political elite. He carefully weighed the means of furthering this ambition and settled on Western-style education and Christianity in addition to the import of luxury goods in exchange for copper and, beginning in the sixteenth century, slaves. From this point an ambiguous relationship between Portugal and Kongo began to unfold.
Kongolese society was socially organized in three strata: the court, the villagers, and the slaves. The court was centered on the king, who ruled by delegating power to provincial governors. The latter were responsible for local administration, which involved taxation, the capture of slaves, and mobilizing a standing army that in the sixteenth century consisted of sixteen thousand to twenty thousand slaves. A royal council, with both men and women as members, assisted the king. Once the Portuguese had established their presence in the kingdom, they frequently became members of Kongolese society through marrying women of the nobility or serving as mercenaries. There is even a case, that of Duarte Lopez, in which a Portuguese man became a gentleman of the court and eventually the king’s ambassador to Europe.
Initially, the Portuguese focused on the trade in copper, but the trafficking in human beings played an ever more important role. First slaves were exported to the Atlantic sugar islands of Sao Tome and Principe just off the African coast. Then, from the early sixteenth century, they were taken to the Caribbean and the Americas. By 1530 Kongo annually exported four thousand to five thousand slaves. The increase in numbers contributed to an expanding cycle of violence, with more and more random trade interactions and military raiding campaigns. This was only aggravated when the Portuguese attempted to bypass royal control of the slave trade. They intended to increase their profit margin in part by avoiding paying trade taxes.
The Decline of Kongo
Several factors contributed to the decline of Kongo. The king had exercised a monopoly on the import of luxury goods, which he redistributed to the elite in order to ensure loyalty. But Portuguese traders began to deal directly with local communities, something about which the Kongolese king Afonso I (reigned 1506–1543) complained bitterly in letters to the Portuguese monarch as early as 1526. In this early period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade many of the women, men, and children were enslaved within the kingdom, but the Portuguese indiscriminately bought and branded slaves who were followers of the king and often stood under his protection. By the 1560s the slave trade was causing such severe tension within the kingdom that in 1568 Kongolese villagers joined warriors, probably from the southeast of the kingdom, known as Jaga, who, it appears, initially invaded the kingdom in order to raid for slaves and food, but who proceeded to attempt to destroy the kingdom and to control the slave trade. The king and his followers finally defeated the Jaga with Portuguese assistance in 1569. After that war, in 1575, the Portuguese founded the colony of Angola just south of Kongo, which deprived the kingdom of its regional hegemony over the trade routes. Although it did recover politically for a short time, the arrival of Capuchin missionaries in the second half of the seventeenth century undermined another source of royal power when the king lost control over Christianity as a royal cult. Power gradually shifted from the kingdom’s administration and political structure to local trading houses. In 1665 Angolan military forces defeated the kingdom militarily. After the death of King Antonio I that same year, a series of succession struggles ensued.
An unlikely figure mounted a final attempt to politically unify the kingdom: a young Kongolese woman, Dona Beatrice (1684–1706), who in 1704 had a vision of Saint Anthony. Afterward, as a prophetess, she founded an independent church and political movement with an emphasis on Africanization and political unification. Dona Beatrice assembled thousands of followers in the ruins of the former capital city. After she gave birth to a son, the result, she claimed, of immaculate conception, political opponents and the Catholic Church pursued her. In 1706 the latter burnt her at the stake as a heretic.
The Congo region provides both a historical example of African state building and of the devastating results of African societies’ involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The long-lasting effects of political decentralization and fragmentation in the entire region in the seventeenth century are partly responsible for the lack of resistance to Belgian and French colonization efforts in the late nineteenth century. The outstanding brutality especially of early Belgian colonialism and the suddenness of decolonization in 1960, together with an unusual wealth of environmental resources— including uranium, diamonds, and copper—have resulted in the long-term destabilization of the region, sadly continuing into the twenty-first century.
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