The Kingdom of Kongo was one of the most powerful states in Central Africa. Kongo was founded in around 1390, and by 1490 it had grown to rule three million subjects. It had a powerful army and a sophisticated political structure. The Kingdom only ended in the early twentieth century.
The Kingdom of Kongo was spread across three modern-day countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and the Republic of Congo. The Kongo Kingdom was extremely ethnically diverse. This was because Bantu-speaking peoples from West Africa had migrated into Central Africa in the first millennium BC, and they had mixed with other immigrants to produce a massive range of ethnic groups. Each ethnic group made up a chiefdom, and the Kingdom was formed when several chiefdoms were united under a single ruler.
We do not know where exactly the Kingdom began, but probably it started with an alliance between the Mpemba Kasi and Mbata peoples. By 1490, they had conquered Mpangu and Npundi in the south and had a population of three million.
SOCIETY AND ECONOMY
Kongolese society was organised into villages. Each village was made up of big families called ‘kanda’, united by a common ancestor. Social status and wealth was passed on through women, not men. Property and royal status were dependent on the mother, not the father. Usually, the head of the kanda was male, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was also common for women to be in charge.
In the villages, women worked in the fields and men gathered materials from trees, producing cloth, palm wine and other goods. There were also towns, like the capital of the Kingdom, Mbanza Kongo. This is where the king (Mani Kongo) and his elite lived, up in the mountains two thousand feet above sea level. The city was well-designed and impressive to look at: Portuguese visitors in the 1490s commented on how advanced it was.
The Kongo Kingdom had six main provinces. Each province was commanded by a governor, sent by the king, who had direct control over the land and its people. The governors collected taxes, raised soldiers, organised the local justice system and maintained roads. This system made the king very powerful. In 1500, he could raise an army of 80,000 men through his provincial governors.
As well as the core six provinces, there were many tribute states, which sent money or goods to the Mani Kongo in exchange for protection or independence. The tribute states paid the king in cloth, ivory, hides, slaves and food, as well as money. People in the Kingdom used mollusc shells (nzimbu) as currency. This arrangement was more common in the early days of the Kongo Kingdom, but as time went on the kings tended to rule new lands directly through governors.
In 1490, the king of Kongo converted to Christianity. Many of his elites did the same. We do not know why this happened, but we do know that most of his subjects did not follow the king immediately. For most people, Christianity was just one religion among many, and traditional African beliefs persisted. This shows how strong traditional religions were at the end of the fifteenth century.
WHY DOES RELIGION MATTER?
The Kongo Kingdom is an example of a wealthy and advanced state in Central Africa. Often, historians focus on empires in other parts of Africa, like Mali and Ethiopia – but the Kongo shows that sophisticated societies could be found all over the continent.