In theory the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) should be among the richest countries on earth. Its vast territory virtually brims with cobalt, copper, cadmium, oil, industrial and gem diamonds, coltan, DRC flaggold, silver, zinc, manganese, tin, germanium, uranium, radium, bauxite, iron ore, timber, coal, and hydroelectric potential. And yet the DRC consistently ranks in the bottom ten of the Human Development Index. In its northeastern region the deadliest conflict since WWII continues to claim about 1,000 lives a day. Not inappropriately then, the name of the capital Kinshasa, where nearly 80% dwell in slums or squatter settlements, comes from the word kinsasa, meaning “why are things happening this way?”

This series of entries on Congolese history seeks to shed some light on the reasons why. The first installment takes a look at how the advanced Kongo Kingdom fell prey to the slave trade that began in the 16th century, robbing the country of no less a resource than its population.

A rerun from dKos. This series will eventually have four parts.
On the ancient maps, regions marked terra incognita were not usually left blank but rather filled in by the imagination. And in the case of sub-Saharan Africa, European mapmakers would conjure up two-headed people, dragons, and the fabled Prester John. Thus the Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão must have been astounded when in 1482, arriving by chance at the Congo’s mouth, he found an organized society with a common language and a stratified political system – not at all unlike the fledgling nation-states of Europe.

Click the audio symbol to listen to Prof. Bethwell Ogot of Maseno University, Kenya, on the splendor of the Kongo.
From the BBC radio series ‘The Story of Africa.’ Real Player.

Cão and his crew were the first Europeans ever to hit upon a large-scale foreign civilization. This was the Kongo Kingdom, evolved in the late 14th century when a bundle of Iron Age chiefhoods joined into a federation governed by a king. At its height extending from present-day northwestern Angola to Gabon and from the river’s mouth to Malebo Pool, the Kongo enjoyed a number of satelite states; a powerful urban nobility; the cultivation of twelve kinds of vegetables with a different one becoming ripe each month of the year; a complex religion with belief in an afterlife; sophisticated crafts including copper metallurgy; a money economy; and trade routes stretching thousands of miles across the African continent. The king (Manikongo) could levy an 80,000 troop army if required and maintained an elaborate court in the capital, Mbanza Kongo.

Diogo CaoA representation of the first encounter between Portuguese and Bakongo. The latter initially thought the former to be water spirits.

Spurred by Cão’s discovery, a Portuguese expedition arrived at this capital in 1491 and was warmly welcomed by the king, Nzinga Nkuma. The travelers, impressed with the dignity and civilized mores of the Bakongo (people of the Kongo), were invited to build mission schools and churches. Indeed the Franciscan missionaries secured the prompt conversion of the king, who was baptized Dom João I – the name of his Portuguese counterpart. They also administered a decade of religious instruction to Nzinga Mbemba, the first-born son of his principal wife, who succeeded his father in 1506 (some sources say 1507). His seizure of the throne was a clear violation of tradition contingent upon the imported European notion of primogeniture and backed by Portuguese cavalry and rifles.

Better known as Afonso I, the new Manikongo was not only a zealous Christian but an aficionado of European culture, science and statecraft. On a 1514 visit to Portugal during which he amazed his hosts with his great piety, he plowed through five thick volumes of Portuguese law and remarked on its excessive harshness. He made Christianity the state religion, built churches and introduced an extensive program of education for the nobility.Kongo crucifix One of his sons became a professor in the humanities in Lisbon and another, Henrique, became the first black African Bishop in the Catholic Church – and the last until 1970.

Unfortunately, in keeping with the traditions of his society Afonso agreed with the Church that slavery was consistent with the faith. Little did he know that this stance and the Faustian bargain built upon it would spell the doom of his civilization.

There is little doubt that slavery was a long-established practice in the Kongo, and apparently slaves could be bought and sold. However, a majority of the population were free subjects, slaves being either convicts; debtors; members of other societies captured in war; or children given away in dowry settlements. Most were domestic servants in noble households and fairly benignly treated. They were status symbols more than means to profit – until Afonso unwisely sold the Portuguese a few.

The customers soon returned for more. Based farther north on the island of São Tomé, slave traders used a panoply of devious tactics to secure the supply. One such was inciting communities to revolt against Afonso so they could legally wage war upon them and enslave the resultant prisoners. Another was extorting the king to sell them slaves by threatening to provide his aristocratic enemies with arms and other commodities or refuse to ship his other wares like copper, silver, ivory and peppers. Eventually Afonso resorted to raiding neighboring inland peoples to meet their demands. Though the considerable revenues financed the hiring of priests, artisans and teachers as well as luxuries for the ever-wealthier nobility, and enabled the empire to expand until it was one of the mightiest on the continent, these gains would prove sadly ephemeral.

Dear royal brother

A significant portion of what is known about the early Kongo stems from the correspondence of Afonso I with the Portuguese King Manuel I and his successor João III, both of whom he would address as his ‘royal brother.’ The relations started off well but would cool as a conflict of interest emerged. Afonso wished to keep the slave trade under his control so it could be taxed, and not least, prevent the abduction of his own free subjects. The Portuguese just wanted a maximal supply of slaves by whichever means.

In 1512 Manuel I issued a regimento, a protocol for contact with the Kongo. In the first part he declares a ‘civilizing mission’ – a concept to echo down the centuries. The second part cuts to the chase, referring to the goal of ‘material gain’: “[T]his expedition has cost us much: it would be unreasonable to send it home with empty hands. Although our principal wish is to serve God and the pleasure of the King, he should… fill the ships with slaves, or copper, or ivory.”

When by 1526 the corrosive effects of the slave trade had begun to undermine Afonso’s position, he sent two letters to “the most powerful and excellent prince Dom João King, our Brother” asking for its restriction. The first one, dated July 6, actually calls for its abolition. Here it is in its entirety:

Sir, Your Highness should know how our Kingdom is being lost in so many ways that the necessary remedy must be applied, since this is caused by the excessive freedom given by your agents and officials to the men and merchants who are allowed to come to this Kingdom to set up shops with goods and many things which have been prohibited by us, and which they spread throughout our Kingdoms and Domains in such an abundance that many of our vassals, whom we had in obedience, do not comply because they have the things in greater abundance than we ourselves; and it was with these things that we had them content and subjected under our vassalage and jurisdiction, so it is doing a great harm not only to the service of God, but the security and peace of our Kingdoms and State as well.

And we cannot reckon how great the damage is, since the aforementioned merchants daily seize our subjects, sons of the land and the sons of our noblemen and vassals and our relatives. The thieves and men of bad conscience grab them wishing to have the things and wares of this Kingdom which they covet, they grab them and cause them to be sold; and so great, Sir, is the corruption and licentiousness that our country is being utterly depopulated, and Your Highness should not agree with this nor accept it as in your service. And to avoid this we need from those Kingdoms no more than some priests and a few people to teach in schools, and no other goods except wine and flour for the holy sacrament; that is why we beg of Your Highness to help and assist us in this matter, commanding your factors that they should send send here neither merchants nor wares, because it is our will that in these Kingdoms there should not be any trade of slaves nor outlet for them. Concerning the above mentioned, again we beg of Your Highness to agree with it, since otherwise we cannot remedy such a manifest damage. Praying Our Lord in His mercy to have Your Highness under His guard and let you do forever the things of His service, I kiss your hands many times.

The letter seems to have gone unanswered, possibly due to its being intercepted in São Tomé. Anyhow, in a follow-up dated October 18 the Manikongo had already changed his mind. Instead of seeking a ban he now announced that no slave would be sold without an official inquiry and that all exports must be authorized by him; traders in breach of these rules would have their cargo confiscated.

Click the audio symbol to listen to Paul Bakabinga reading an excerpt of the letter from King Afonso I to King João III of Portugal, October 18 1526.
From the BBC radio series ‘The Story of Africa.’ Real Player.

In 1529 João replied to another complaint by suggesting that refusing to trade was “contrary to the customs of all nations”: “It would be no honor to Afonso or to his kingdom… if it were said that the Kongo had nothing to trade and it were visited by only one ship per year. What glory, on the other hand, attended a kingdom capable of exporting 10,000 slaves annually!” Ending on a non-too-subtle note of extortion, João made this point: “If one of your nobles were to revolt against you, rich with merchandise from Portugal, what then would become of your glory and your power?”

While thus under pressure to keep the slave trade going, Afonso was hardly an unwilling accomplice, let alone the mythical hero of resistance dreamed up by contemporary pan-African nationalism. He may have done his best to shield his own free subjects from foreign enslavement. Yet those who believe he was fighting the slave trade as such must find it sobering to read his letter to João from 1540, the year the export broke the 7,000 barrier: “Put all the Guinea countries on one side and only Kongo on the other and you will find that Kongo renders more than all the others put together… no king in all these parts esteems Portuguese goods so much or treats the Portuguese so well as we do. We favor their trade, sustain it, and open markets and roads to Mpumbu where the slaves are traded.”

By 1516 the Kongo was exporting 4,000 slaves annually. By the 1520s big equitorial areas were becoming depopulated. By the 1530s the slave trade had become so profitable that some Bakongo were selling off their family members; the Milky Way, which traced the axis of slaves from the inland to the coast, was nicknamed Nzila Bazombo – ‘the Road of the Slavers.’ In several parts of Portugal more than half the population were slaves, and as the market was being saturated there increasing numbers were shipped across the Atlantic to work the mines and plantations of Brazil.

Upon Afonso’s death in the 1540s, which tellingly enough went unnoticed by his ‘royal brother,’ the devil would at last exact his due. The depopulation and social disruption wrought by the slave trade led to political disintegration as the country was thrown into turmoil, culminating in a 1568 foreign invasion from which it never recovered. Civil strife yielded ever new fodder to the slave trade, the proceeds from which financed ever more civil strife. Eight kings ruled between 1614 and 1641. In 1678, following a crushing defeat of the Bakongo by a Portuguese army, a visitor to the capital described it as an abandoned ruin where flocks of elephants roamed. The Kongo persisted for two further centuries as a nominal entity encompassing hundreds of tiny chiefdoms dependent on the slave trade. Today the Bakongo remains as an ethnic group of more than ten million, yet its political disintegration is complete: villages being fully independent, the ancient kingdom is but legend.


‘Der König im Congo’, from Allain Manesson Mallet: Beschreibung des Gantzen Welt, vol. II. Frankfürt am Main 1685.

There is perhaps some poetic justice in the fact that Portugal too was ultimately ruined by the slave trade. Soaking in the cash flow and neglecting to reinvest, it lost control of the trade routes during the late 17th century as British, Spanish, French and Dutch traders appeared on the scene.

When effectively terminated by the end of the Napoleonic Wars following the British ban in 1807, the European slave trade had destroyed traditional ways of life through much of the Congo. In 1816 a British scientific expedition sailed up to the town of Boma, the farthest navigable point; its leader Captain James Tuckey found the locals to be “sulky looking vagabonds, dirty, swarming with lice.” He noted that they had been given only gunpowder, muskets and liquor in exchange for slaves.

As the European slave trade waned, other sharks began plying the waters. Though the Arab slave trade had long traditions on the continent, a major slave revolt near Basra in present-day Iraq significantly cut back its scale in the 9th century. However, by the late 18th century it had resurged with a vengeance – 50-70,000 slaves were now taken annually to the Middle East, some winding up in India or even China. By the 1880s it had accomplished what even the European slave trade did not: unraveling the highly advanced Luba states in the Kasai province of present-day DRC.

Based on Zanzibar, Afro-Arab slavers and their local allies would conduct savage raids on villages, marching off their captives to East Africa in massive caravans the routes of which were lined with the corpses of the fallen.


Above: ‘Slaves abandoned’; engraving based upon a sketch by David Livingstone. Originally in Horace Waller (ed): The Last Journals of David Livingstone, London 1874, p.62.

On June 27 1866, David Livingstone recorded in his diary: “To-day we came upon a man dead from starvation… One of our men wandered and found a number of slaves with slave-sticks on, abandoned by their master from want of food; they were too weak to be able to speak or say where they had come from; some were quite young.”

Like the European equivalent that it supplemented and replaced, the Arab slave trade did much to depopulate the Congo and grind down its social structure. In his classic Dick Sand, Jules Verne observes on the effect of the slavers’ raids:

After these dreadful butcheries the devastated fields are deserted, the burnt villages are without inhabitants, the rivers carry down dead bodies, deer occupy the country. Livingstone, the day after one of these men-hunts, no longer recognized the provinces he had visited a few months before. All the other travelers – Grant, Speke, Burton, Cameron, and Stanley – do not speak otherwise of this wooded plateau of Central Africa, the principal theater of the wars between the chiefs.

The Arab slave trade would prove a brutal interlude between rounds of European exploitation. In 1878, the very year Verne’s book was published, the latter of the said explorers was hired by a scheming European king to establish a state on the wooded plateau. Authorized at the 1884-85 Berlin Conference where the heart of Africa was carved up by the Europeans, this project ostensibly aimed to end the Arab slave trade in the Congo Basin. And so it did, but only to get rid of competition. For as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle later remarked, King LĂ©opold II of Belgium had a new idea in the name of progress: he would enslave the natives in their home to extract other riches. In the next installment of this series we shall move upstream to see the rain forest becoming a vast genocidal gulag designed for stealing rubber – the Congo Free State.

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