According to legend, the foundations of the kingdom called Kongo lies in the troubles of the very large but not very rich tribal kingdom of Mpemba Kasi around the Kwilu Valley. These stories state that at some point weak Mpemba Kasi forged an alliance with its militaristic neighbor Mbata, eventually conquering the kingdom of Mwene Kabunga which lay upon a mountain plateau to the south. When the warrior Nimi a Lukeni merged all this territory he made M’banza Kongo, the village on the mountain, his capital. And so the Kingdom of Kongo was birthed c. 1390 AD – a kingdom that would at its peak control a territory that reached from Africa’s mid-Atlantic coast to the Kwango River, and from Pointe Noire in the north to the Loje River in the south.
The first Manikongo (“king”) was, not surprisingly, Nimi. When Nimi died, his brother Mbokani M’vinga took over; having two wives and nine children, his fertile kanda would rule in an unbroken line for the rest of independent Kongo’s existence. His rule saw the conquest of the neighboring kingdom of Loango and other odd bits lying about. Manikongo Mbokani also began the policy of giving the governorship of Kongo provinces to kin; over time, under this centralization, the provinces lost influence until their power was more symbolic than real. (Hence, by 1620, the once proud and independent kingdom of Mbata was known only as “Grandfather of the King of Kongo.”)
Through all this, the throne supported itself through taxes, forced labor, and royal levies; at times, to finance his military, the Manikongo traded slaves, copper and ivory with the Europeans starting to arrive on the coast. It was also supported by exhorting tribute from neighboring cities and kingdoms, making M’banza Kongo one of the wealthiest African cities in the late 1500s. The kingdom continued to grow steadily, thanks to the spears of the Bantu warriors. When the Europeans arrived, the Manikongo ruled six provinces – Mpemba, Mbata, Nsundi, Mpanga, Mbemba and Soyo – as well as four vassal kingdoms (Loango, Cacongo, Ngoye and Ndongo). According to the records, the king could put 300 thousand well-trained and well-disciplined warriors (male and female) into the field in a week.
The population of Kongo was concentrated around the capital of M’banza, with some 100 thousand people living there – or one out of every five Kongolese. While it may have been urban sprawl, this concentration did allow for the stockpiling of food, resources and manpower, ready when the Manikongo required. It also made the city the center of an extensive trading network (doesn’t it always come down to money in the end); besides exporting resources such as ivory and metal ore, the kingdom’s industrious families headed businesses that manufactured copperware, other metal goods, raffia cloth, and pottery.
In 1483 the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cao sailed up the “undiscovered” Congo River, in the process bumping into the Kingdom of Kongo. He left some of his men behind as “guests,” and took some Kongo officials back to Portugal, where the King of Portugal dubbed him cavaleiro (knight) for his troubles. True to his word – unique for Europeans dealing with natives – Cao returned with the nobles in 1485. It was around this time that Manikongo Nzinga a Nkuwu converted to Christianity. In 1491, Cao returned yet again, this time with a Catholic priest in tow, who formally baptized Nzinga and some of his nobles. The Manikongo took the Christian name “Joao” to honor the then-king of Portugal. Along with the priest and some others, Cao brought a Kongolese home, who opened a Portuguese-style school in M’banza. With all this, like a door-to-door salesman, once the Portuguese got their foot in the door...
Joao I, née Nzinga, was succeeded by his son Afonso I, née Mvemba a Nzinga. Whereas his father had lapsed in his conversion, by all accounts – including his own – Afonso was a devout Catholic, and dedicated to bringing his people to the light. Accepting advisors from both Portugal and the Church into his inner circle, he sought to create a synthesis between Christianity and the native faith. While he didn’t succeed with this, he did establish a viable Catholic infrastructure, using the royal treasury to fund the schools and churches – whether his subjects wanted them or not. Being short of ordained clergy, especially native speakers, a number of young nobles were sent to Europe to study religion; one of Afonso’s sons was named a bishop (of Utica, far to the north) and vicar-apostolic of the Kongo after seven years of learning the holy writ.
All this Christian charity and feel-goodness was, however, soon enough disrupted by the burgeoning slave trade in Kongo coupled with Portuguese avarice. In the decades following Cao’s arrival, the outer holdings of the Kingdom of Kongo became the major source for the Portuguese trade in human flesh. While slavery had certainly existed in Kongo long before the Europeans and Kongolese slave markets were already doing a booming business, the Portuguese engaged in a “slave rush,” with most of these bound for the Caribbean or for Brazil. Although immensely profitable, and a good way to dump prisoners taken in the kingdom’s endemic conflicts along the southern and eastern borders, successive rulers suspected that many of their own subjects were being “illegally” enslaved (when there weren’t a fresh batch of prisoners-of-war) The realm was, as a result, being destabilized. Thus, administration of the trade was organized, with royal committees established to insure that people were not illegally exported. And the legal slaves were baptized by Portuguese priests before being shipped out, so at least their souls were saved.
But it wasn’t Christianity or slavery that brought the kingdom to its demise; it was the bloody struggles over succession to the throne. Since cousins, uncles, brothers and sons of the Manikongo ruled the provinces and vassals as Mbokani had decreed, every time the king died there was the inevitable civil war as each claimant had his own little army. As a result, in 1568 the capital was taken by the Jagas, either invaders from the east or perhaps disgruntled subjects (the accounts vary); Nimi a Lukeni, or Álvaro I as the Catholics would have it, retook the town and was anointed king. But to do so he had to gain Portuguese weaponry and support, granting the Portuguese crown the site of Luanda as a colony (which eventually became Angola). A bad decision, for the Portuguese were soon meddling in internal Kongo affairs.
Álvaro, founder of the Kwilu dynasty, and his son Álvaro II – seeing the tidal wave of progress bearing down – sought to “Westernize” the kingdom. Perhaps they thought to make themselves more palatable to Europeans or merely to avoid the inevitable. In any case, most of this was superficial. Álvaro introduced European-style titles (so that Mwene Nsundi became the “Duke of Nsundi”) and his son renamed the capital Sao Salvador. In 1596, Kongolese emissaries persuaded the Pope to recognize the city as the center of a new diocese which included both Kongo and Angola; but the king of Portugal outmaneuvered Álvaro II by convincing the papacy (no doubt with appropriate “donations”) to give him the right to appoint the bishops to this new see.
Relations between Angola and Kongo soured, and then worsened (if that was possible) when the colonial governor of Angola invaded – albeit briefly – southern Kongo in 1622. Things declined ever more as factionalism set in in the kingdom, and some provincial ”dukes” made their own arrangements with the Portuguese, both military and trade (i.e., slavery). A couple decades later, Manikongo Nkanga a Lukeni (Garcia II) sided with the Dutch against the Portuguese when the former seized part of Angola in 1641. But the Dutch made a “strategic withdrawal” in 1648, leaving the Manikongo in the lurch. Border skirmishes between Kongo and Portugal over claims to the district of Mbwila (not a very large territory but neither side needed an excuse for a fight) led to the Battle of Mbwila (or Ambuila or Ulanga, depending on the historian writing the account) in October 1665.
There, a force of Portuguese musketeers and light cannon decisively defeated the Manikongo’s army; casualties among the native warriors were in excess of 5000, including the king. After the battle, the Kimpanza and the Kinlaza factions, two branches of the royal family, vied for the crown. Unresolved, the civil war dragged on into the next century, devastating the countryside while thousands of Kongolese captives were sold to slavers by both sides. The capital itself was sacked several times, and it was largely abandoned by 1696. Finally, Pedro IV of Kibangu engineered an agreement among the surviving nobles (not that many were left) rotating the kingship among them. Peace returned … sort of.
The abandoned capital of M’banza was re-occupied by the Portuguese-supported native Christian prophet Beatriz Kimpa Vita and her followers, the Antonians, in 1705 AD. The Antonian (named after St. Anthony) goal was the creation of a new, holy Christian Kingdom of Kongo directly under God’s protection. But that didn’t seem to be the case, as King Pedro IV (reigning 1696 through 1718) subsequently captured, tried and executed Beatriz as a heretic and then reoccupied the capital and restored Kongo to its rightful place as an “independent” kingdom in 1709.
Although the rotational system of kingship kept things relatively peaceful, there were still the occasional dynastic squabbles. Otherwise, things were looking up during the 18th and 19th centuries. Kongo artists began producing crucifixes depicting Christ as black, a notion that brought the last few skeptics over; so religion-ridden did the nation become that a popular story that the ruined cathedral in Sao Salvador was rebuilt by angels overnight went unquestioned. In 1836, the Portuguese – under intense British pressure – abolished the slave trade.
In the end, it was yet another dynastic squabble that spelled the end of the Kingdom of Kongo. In 1856 AD, two factions contested the kingship upon the death of Henrique II, both from the Kinlaza clan. Pedro Lelo proved victorious, although he had to resort to Portuguese troops to do so. But any deal with the devil has a price, and in 1857 Pedro V signed a treaty of vassalage to Portugal, swearing fealty to that throne. The next year, Portugal constructed a fort in Sao Salvador to house a garrison just to make sure there was no question as to who was running things. An independent state would not be seen again until 1960, in the guise of the Republic of Congo.