Kingdom of the Kongo

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“clothed in silk and velvet (…) civilized to the bone marrow” Historian Leo Frobenius

The Kingdom of Congo was a medieval state in west-central Africa, located south of the Congo River (present-day Angola and Democratic Republic of the Congo). The name is due to the origin of the founders of the kingdom who spoke Kikongo. The c was used due to the adoption of Portuguese as a lingua-franca after European contact.

It originated as a loose federation of small polities but the kingdom expanded as conquered territories were integrated, as a royal patrimony. Soyo and Mbata were the two most powerful provinces of the original federation. The province of Soyo commanded power because of its strategic location on the Atlantic coast.

Other provinces included Nsundi, Mpangu, Mbamba, Mpemba and Mbasa Kongo, the capital city. In the early period before contact with Portugal, the economy was dependent on agriculture and metal working and trade. The economy was later dominated by slave trade after international relations with the Portuguese was established.

In the final centuries of its decline, infighting among the Kongo nobility and over-use of the Portuguese as mercenaries provided the opportunity for Portugal to seize power over the Kongo territories and monopolize the slave trade.


The Kongo Empire began as a peace treaty between two neighboring kingdoms of Mpemba Kasi and Mbata, around 1375, when Nima a Nzima was pledged to marry Luqueni Luansanze, the daughter of Nsa-cu-Clau the chief of the Mbata people. Luqueni gave birth to a child named Lukeni lua Nimi between 1375 and 1402 CE, who later became first Mutinu (“king”) of the united kingdoms.

These kingdoms were situated at the Kwilu valley, with Mpemba Kasi holding the valley ad Mbata holding the river front of the River Congo. Both these kingdoms were built up as trading centers by their respective dynasties of rulers. The people who lived in these kingdoms were mainly migrants who had migrated along the river Congo due to worsening weather conditions. Around the year 1375, the rulers of these kingdoms decided to merge their power and consolidate into a single empire. Thus the Kongo Empire was born.

After that point it took around 15 years for all the technicalities of the merger to take place and around the year 1390 the first king, or Manikongo of the Kongo Empire was crowned (the Portuguese version of the local title Mwene Kongo). His name was Lukeni lua Nimi. He was originally born in the Mbata royal family, and under the conditions of the merger, he was appointed the Manikongo of the Kongo Empire.


He was a very good statesman; and under him, and his descendants, the Kongo Empire rapidly grew to a very large size, encompassing 6 major provinces, namely Mbata, Soyo, Nsundi, Mpangu, Mbanmba and Mpemba. These 6 provinces were centered on Mbasa Kongo, their capital.

The kingdom was visited by the Portugal explorer Diogo Cao around 1483, who managed to impress the then manikongo Nzinga a Nkuwu with Portuguese culture. Both Nzinga a Nkuwu and his son, the crown prince, Mvemba a Nzinga (Afonso) were baptized and given Christian names. Thus, began a new era in the Kongo Empire. Although Joao later reverted to his traditional beliefs.


Diogo Cao left some of his Portuguese men with the manikongo to learn the local customs and language. In exchange Cao took Kongo nobles to Portugal to learn Portuguese customs and Portuguese, both speaking and writing it. He returned in 1485.

Soon Kongo saw a great influx of Portuguese priests, soldiers, traders and artists, and slowly the whole population started to convert to Christianity. The main source of income for the empire became slave trade, and often Kongo went to war with its neighbors just to capture and sell new slaves.

Afonso, who became manikongo c.1509, extended Kongo’s borders, centralized administration, and forged strong ties between Kongo and Portugal. He took a strong disliking to Portuguese community that settled in Kongo, mainly due to their handling of Atlantic trade—in particular, their establishment of a black market in the slave trade, trading with unauthorized sellers and non-compliance with Kongo law. As a result, in 1526 Afonso re-organized the administration of the slave trade, setting up a Special Committee, in an attempt to ensure that people were not illegally enslaved and exported. He was the strongest ruler Kongo Empire saw.

After his death the Empire spiraled into decline due to internal disputes about succession onto the throne.

Areas under rule and the administration of the Kongo Empire

Originally founded as a merger of the two kingdoms, Mbata and Mpemba, the Kongo Empire at its height covered a large region spanning from the shores of Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Kwango River in the east, and from the Congo River in the north to the Kwanza River in the south.

The original two regions were subdivided into 7 main provinces, all ruled from the capital Mbasa Kongo. The six regions added subsequently were each governed by a single governor, who was appointed personally by the manikongo. These regions were directly under the power of the Kongo Empire and its ruler.


Apart from these core 7 provinces, the Manikongo received tribute from 5 small vassal kingdoms around the main Empire, such as Ngoye (north of the N’Zari river), Kakongo, Loango, Ndongo (south of the Congo river) and Matamba. These provinces were not considered to be part of the Empire itself, and hence did not follow its policies, but were expected to contribute men and supplies in case the Empire demanded them.


Population Estimates

The Kongo Empire was one of the biggest empire in its region. The highest population estimates for it place the amount at around 3.9 million people living inside the borders of the main kingdom. Most of these people were practicing Christians, owning to the heavy Portuguese influence on the kingdom.


The prevailing climate in the Kongo Empire was very hot and humid, as it was right in the center of the rainforest around the 3 major rivers the empire resided upon. The main concern for the housing was keeping the insides of the houses dry and warm. The Kongo architects achieved this by making the houses out of baked clay or mud bricks. Baking them before making the houses was an important step as it made sure that moisture wouldn’t seep in through the walls.

First a frame of wood was erected and then the bricks were placed against it. There was also a foundation layer of stones upon which these bricks were placed, to prevent moisture from climbing up through the ground.

The roofs of these houses were mainly sloped as a guard against the constant rainfall.

Often there would be a fireplace incorporated into the walls, which also aided in keeping the insides warm and dry.


The Kongo Empire was a huge empire, one of the biggest in Africa, and biggest by far in its region. The Kongo empire had a currency called nzimbu shells. The division of provinces and powers under a central authority figure was a politically mature structure and contradicts the image of Medieval African states as socialist pagan illiterate communities with a classless society.

Its success mainly came from the strong military that the Kongo Empire fielded. The kingdom’s army consisted of a mass levy of archers, drawn from the general male population, and a smaller corps of heavy infantry, who fought with swords and carried shields for protection. A large number, perhaps as many as 20,000, stayed in the capital. Smaller contingents lived in the major provinces under the command of the governors. Even more men remained unlisted and were drafted from the tributary provinces at times of war.

Another major achievement of the Kongo Empire was its dedication and encouragement of art. Despite the vast differences in culture across the empire, the art was surprisingly very similar and was given a lot of importance, with the most important art form being sculpting. The most talented sculptors were often felicitated in national festivals by the Manikongo.

The sculptures were mainly of animals and humans, with the musculature of face and body being carefully rendered, and great attention being paid to items of personal adornment and scarification. Much of the region’s art was produced for social and political leaders such as the Kongo king.

Sadly, the relationship with Portugal which had proved financially beneficial to the Kongo Kingdom also resulted in the enslavement of many people, commoditization of human lives. In certain cases, slaves were used as gifts to the Catholic church – as thanksgiving to bishops for performing baptisms and religious ceremonies.


Up until the rule of Afonso I, Kongo was a strong kingdom, completely self-reliant and a trade giant, trading in agriculture goods, metal works and slaves. Alfonso cleverly saw the Portuguese influence upon his kingdom and made sure to introduce policies and checks upon them to retain the integrity of his kingdom. However upon his death there was a huge power vacuum which led to a huge dispute between multiple factions for the next ruler. Among these factions, two were the major contenders, the Kimpanzu and the Kinlaza.

Due to these warring factions, around 1568 Kongo was temporary overrun by rival warriors from the east known as the Jagas. Álvaro I Nimi a Lukeni (1568–87) was able to restore Kongo only with Portuguese assistance. In exchange, he allowed them to settle in at Luanda (a Kongo territory) and create the Portuguese colony that became earliest region of Angola.

That was the beginning of the downfall of the Kongo Empire. Their relationship with Angola quickly soured due to the repeated invasion of Angolan forces to capture slaves. Kongo seized control of portions of Angola in retaliation and then levied heavy taxes upon the populace. The skirmishes eventually escalated to war, leading to the Battle of Mbwila on Oct. 29, 1665. The Portuguese were victorious and killed the reigning manikongo, António I Nvita a Nkanga, during the battle. Although Kongo continued to exist, from this point on it ceased to function as a unified kingdom.

After the Battle of Mbwila and the death of the manikongo, the Kimpanzu and Kinlaza—two rival factions that had formed earlier in Kongo’s history—disputed the kingship. Unresolved, the civil war dragged on for most of the remainder of the 17th century. Pedro IV Agua Rosada Nsamu a Mvemba of Kibangu (1696–1718) engineered an agreement that recognized the integrity of the territorial bases while rotating kingship among them.

This rotating system of kingship worked moderately well, but nowhere near as well as the 7 province approach of the past. It soon collapsed into small skirmishes again, which the Portuguese took advantage off.

Portugal intervened in the succession dispute and assisted Pedro V Agua Rosada Lelo (1859–91) in his installation. Eventually Pedro V ceded his territory to Portugal as a part of Angola under immense pressure. A revolt against Portuguese rule was suppressed but triggered the collapse of the Kongo kingdom, which was then fully integrated into the Portuguese colony of Angola.


Primary sources

Documentary collections

Brásio, António. Monumenta Missionaria Africana 15 volumes. Lisbon: Agência Geral das Colonias and others, 1952–1988.

Cuvelier, Jean and Louis Jadin. L’ancien Congo après les archives romaines Brussels, 1954.

Jadin, Louis. L’ancien Congo et l’Angola 1639–1655 d’après les archives romaines, Portugaises, Néerlandaises et Espagnoles 3 vols., Brussels: Institut historique belge de Rome, 1975.

Paiva Manso, Levy Jordão. História de Congo (Documentos) Lisbon, 1877.

Books and documents

Anguiano, Juan Mateo d’. Missiones Capuchinas en Africa. ed. Buenaventura de Carrocera, 2 vols., Madrid, 1950).

Atri, Marcellino d’. mod ed. Carlo Toso, L’anarchia congolese nel sec. XVII. La relazione inedita di Marcellino d’Atri. Genoa: Bozzi, 1984.

W.Holman Bentley, Pioneering on the Congo, London, 1900.

Cadornega, António de Oliveira de. História geral das guerras angolanas (1680–81). ed. José Matias Delgado and Manuel Alves da Cunha. 3 vols. Lisbon, 1942–44 (reprinted, 1972).

Carli, Dionigio da Piacenza. Il Moro transportado nell’inclita città di Venezia. Bassano, 1687.

Carli, Dionigio da Piacenza. Viaggio del Padre Michael Angelo de Guattini da Reggio et del P. Dionigi de Carli da Piacensa…Regno del Congo. (Bologna, 1674). Mod. ed.Francesco Surdich, Milan, 1997. French translation, Michel Chandeigne, Paris, 2006.

[Cardoso, Mateus] História do reino de Congo ed. António Brásio, Lisbon, 1969. French translation François Bontinck, 1972.

Cavazzi da Montecuccolo, Giovanni Antonio. Istorica Descrizione de tre regni Congo, Matamba ed Angola (Bologna, 1687). Portuguese translation by Graziano Saccardo da Luggazano, 2 vols., Lisbon, 1965.

Dapper, Olfried. Naukeurige beschrijvinge der Africa gewesten. (Amsterdam, 1668) English translation, John Ogilby, London, 1670.

Franco, António. Synopsis Annalium societatis Jesu in Lusitania ab anno 1540 usque ad annum 1725. Augsburg, 1726.

Gallo, Bernardo da. “Conto delle Villacazione Missionale…” pub in Carlo Toso, ed. Una pagina poco nota di storia congolese Rome: Edizioni pro Sanctitate, 1999.

Lucca, Lorenzo da. Letters, mod. trans. Jean Cuvelier, Relations sur le Congo du Père Laurent de Lucques. Brussels, 1954.

Merolla da Sorrento, Girolamo. Breve e succinta relatione del viaggio nel Congo. Naples, 1692, 2nd ed. 1726.

Montesarchio, Girolamo da. “Viaggio al Gongho (1669).” mod. ed. Calogero Piazza, La prefetura apostolica del Congo alla metà del XVII secolo. La Relazione inedita di Girolamo da Montesarchio. Milan, 1976.

Pavia, Andrea da. “Viaggio Apostolico” pub. in Carlo Toso, ed. “Viaggio apostolico in Africa de Andrea da Pavia (inedito del sec. XVII). Rome, 2000.

Pigafetta, Filippo. Relatione del Regno di Congo et delle circonvince contrade tratta dalli scritti e ragionamenti di Oduarte Lopez Portuguese. Rome, 1591. English translation, Abraham Hartwell, 1594; Ann Hutchinson, 1888.

Roma, Giovanni Francesco da. Breve relatione del successo della missione de’ frati minori cappuccini del serafico P. S. Francesco al regno del Congo. Rome, 1648 (2nd ed. 1649). French translation, François Bontinck, 1964.

Zucchelli, Antonio da Gradisca. Relatione del viaggio e missione di Congo nell’Ethipia inferiore occidentale Venice, 1712.

Secondary sources

Thornton, John. 2001. “The Origins and Early History of the Kingdom of Kongo, c. 1350-1550” in The International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 34, No. 1 (2001)

Thornton, John. The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641–1718.

Thornton, John. The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1683–1706 Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Thronton, John. 2000. “Mbanza Kongo/Sao Salvador: Kongo’s Holy City” in Africa’s Urban Past (eds.) David Anderson and Richard Rathbone. Oxford: James Currey Ltd.

Birmingham, David. Trade and Conquest in Angola. Oxford and London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Fromont, Cecile. The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Gondola, Ch. Didier. 2002. The History of Congo. Greenwood Press, London.

Heywood, Linda M. 2009. “Slavery and Its Transformation in the Kingdom of Kongo: 1491-1800” in The Journal of African History, Vol. 50, No. 1 (2009), pp. 1-22. Cambridge University Press.

Hilton, Ann. The Kingdom of Kongo Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Laman, Karl Edvard. The Kongo. 4 vols.

MacGaffey, Wyatt. 2003. “Crossing the River: Myth and Movement in Central Africa” From International symposium Angola on the Move: Transport Routes, Communication, and History,Berlin, 24-26 September 2003.

MacGaffey, Wyatt. 2003. “Crossing the River: Myth and Movement in Central Africa” From International symposium Angola on the Move: Transport Routes, Communication, and History,Berlin, 24-26 September 2003.

Vansina, Jan. Kingdoms of the Savanna, Madison, WI, University of Wisconsin Press, 1966.

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Kingdom of the Kongo

by Editorial Team time to read: 10 min