Unsung History of the Kingdom of Kongo

By Rebecca Bayeck,Ph.D, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for African American and African Studies
November 2, 2021

The kingdom of Kongo is one of the oldest and one of the most well-documented African kingdoms. Historians explain that at its height, the kingdom covered parts of present-day Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of Congo. Yet, history told by locals also includes parts of present-day Gabon, Namibia, and even Zambia. Cultural similarities tend to support this argument. Nevertheless, the history of the kingdom is one that shows the sophistication, political, military, technological, and economical advancement and structure of this African kingdom.

Birth of the Kingdom of Kongo

The kingdom may have resulted from the disintegration of an ancient kingdom called Bangu, situated on the north bank of the Congo River.  Mbanza Kongo was the capital of the kingdom, renamed San Salvador by Portuguese at their arrival to the kingdom shores.  Mbanza means capital, or town, making Mbanza Kongo, capital of Kongo, or town of Kongo.           

 Figure 1. European ambassadors in the presence of the King of the Kongo, Musée Royale de l’Afrique Centrale, Belgium

Figure 1. European ambassadors in the presence of the King of the Kongo, Musée Royale de l’Afrique Centrale, Belgium

History states that the kingdom was founded by Nimi a Lukeni, also known as Lukeni Lua Nimi. The kingdom developed through multiple migrations from the 7th to the 15th century until the arrival of Portuguese. Prior to the Portuguese arrival, Kongo was developed with a large commercial network. The kingdom melted copper and gold and traded it with products such as raffia cloth and pottery. The kingdom was a superpower and center of trade routes for ivory, copper, raffia cloth, and pottery. Yet, 1483 marked the beginning of the kingdom's decline with the arrival of Diogo Cão who sailed the coast of Africa to claim the divine right of Portugal on African lands.  However, in 14521, it is said that a prophet in the kingdom may have predicated Portuguese arrival, and the physical and spiritual enslavement of the Bakongo2. Nevertheless, Diogo met a prosperous and powerful kingdom as shown in Figure 1.

The kingdom of Kongo and its glory

Social and educational training: The Bakongo engaged in agriculture, hunting, and breeding. Bakongo also learned a trade of their choice by enrolling into one of the prestigious schools, among which the most famous included Kimpasi, Kinkimba, Buelo, and Lemba. These schools were designed to train elites in the kingdom, and although enrollment was opened to any Bakongo, students had to go through initiation ceremonies with strict criteria of selection. Portuguese and other European explorers, who did not understand anything about the culture or the kingdom, labeled these schools secret societies.

Political and administrative organization: Kongo had a king who ruled surrounded by a council of 12 wise advisers nominated for life in the royal court. The king could be deposed by the 12 advisers in cases of misconduct or inability to lead the people. Lukoki Mavoko, about the king’s role, wrote that he was the servant of the people. The king ensured equity among the Bakongo, maintained cosmic and social order, and helped pompous members of the community to live humbly. The king was respected and represented in provinces by governors.

Kingship was not hereditary among the Bakongo, which means that any citizen of the kingdom of Kongo, that is any Mukongo, could be elected king. The kingdom had 12 provinces, headed by 12 governors nominated by the king. These provinces were Soyo, Ngoyo, Kakono, Loango, Mpumbu, Matamba, Ndongo, Nsundi, Mbamba, Mpemba, Mpangu, and Mbata.3

Election of the king. When a king died, the eldest of the 12 wise counsellors, after confirming the king’s death, gathered the council to prepare the king’s succession. The king’s death was then announced across the kingdom provinces for these to prepare their candidates. Months and years could pass between the death of the king and the installation of a new one. The council of the 12 wise men led the kingdom until the election of the new king. Candidates to the position of king were to submit their candidature to the council of wise men in their provinces. Each council, after an oral examination, selected the best candidate to present to the 12 wise men on a day chosen for all candidates to go to Mbanza Kongo the capital. The oral examination of the selected candidates in Mbanza Kongo was done before a large council made of the king’s 12 wise counsellors and the 12 governors of the provinces. Two candidates were selected, and in agreement with the 12 governors, the wise elders chose an election day. On the agreed day, the king was elected only by the wise counsellors by the raising of hands. Once the king was elected, citizens of Mbanza Kongo were invited, and the eldest of the counsellors went on the podium to present the new king.  Once the king was elected, all the 12 governors resigned and waited on the king to reappoint or replace them.

The kingdom also had an interesting practice/custom which was to give a position to all the selected 12 candidates for kingship. Hence, the two finalists were made citizens of Mbanza Kongo, and never returned to their provinces. All the 12 candidates were guaranteed a title of nobility such as Mani, a title used to designate a king or someone holding authority; and Ne which is another title. The title Mani or Ne was either followed by the name of the candidate’s district, province, or function for those who held positions in the royal court.  For instance, Ne Mampandu was the Ne of Mampandu.

Kingdom of Kongo strategy of expansion

As previously mentioned, Kongo was one of the largest kingdoms in Africa. Yet, its expansion was not a result of military conquests. The kingdom had no army in the proper sense of the term. There were royal guards who protected the court and executed the king’s decisions; there were strong men who were chosen by a clan to protect women, children, and the elderly; and individuals who watched over the kingdom’s borders. The chief of police, Mani Saba, was among the leaders in the royal court. The royal guards were not mercenaries or slaves as translated and reported by European ethnologists. They were "Bana ba Nzo," that is "les enfants de la maison/children of the house" who have, since their childhood, been taken care of by the royal court because they were either orphans or taken from their families. With no army, the kingdom expanded through voluntary adhesion to the kingdom by surrounding kingdoms. Thus, kingdoms were free to become part of the kingdom and convert into provinces as long as they agreed/committed to respect/follow the established laws. Likewise, these provinces were free to leave the kingdom without any opposition from the central government. This model of governance may explain why in the height of Portuguese, French, British, and Dutch invasions of the kingdom, historians explain that they found little to no resistance. The lack of resistance was even more evident when provinces one after the other separated from the central government in Mbanza Kongo.

Kongo’s Fashion/Style and Technological Advancement

Writings on the kingdom of Kongo often point to the artistic abilities of the Bakongo. However, the focus on the artistic skills overshadows the technological advancement, design, and fashion style displayed in these art works.

For instance, Figure 2 shows a prestigious cap made of raphia4 or pineapple fiber, which indicates the authority invested in an individual elected to a sacred leadership office.

Prestige cap (Mpu) of the Bakongo made of raphia or pineapple fiber with leopard claws

Figure 2. Prestige cap (Mpu) of the Bakongo. 19th–early 20th century inventoried 1938, made of Rafia or pineapple fiber, leopard claws. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium.

Yet, to transform raphia and pineapple fibers into textile formats and structures requires ingenuity, techniques, and technologies. Bakongo had surely invented technologies that allowed them to work on this material (see Figures 2, 3 and 4). 

Mat with geometric motifs.

Figure 3. Mat with geometric motifs. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium

Mat with motifs.

Figure 4.  Mat with motifs. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium

Figure 5 and Figure 6 represent two females seated. Yet, a close look at these works of art reveals that the artists also represented the garment these Bakongo women wore. Probably made of pineapple fiber, the design gives insights into the fashion style and taste of Bakongo and particularly Bakongo women.

Figure 5 Seated female with a baby. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium

Figure 5 . Seated female with a baby. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium

The design on the shoulders and back of this woman reflect designs on her raphia or pineapple fiber cloth. The artist also sculpted her head wrap style which is probably made of the same material.

Figure 6. Seated female. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium

Figure 6. Seated female with a baby. Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium

The design on the shoulders and back of this woman are different from the one above. She is also wearing a cut pile hat, and a necklace. Both figures are a demonstration of Bakongo women's fashion, taste, and style.

Much has been written and is still to be written about the kingdom of Kongo. This article captures a few facts that shed light on this kingdom's might and power. For example, the political organization reveals the sophistication and the political advancement of the Bakongo. The kingdom’s organization shows that a lot of thinking and research was given to generate a political thought or philosophy that underpinned and guided the kingdom. The Bakongo created a system that worked for them and aligned with their culture and values. The king’s election was certainly not based on the Greek democratic system, but on a philosophical approach of living together. According to Bakabadio5 (2003), a basic principle of living together is captured in this saying: "N’sand’a6 a Kôngo, musotuka lukaya, ka musotuka diambu ko" "du N’sand’a Kongo ne tombent que des feuilles, mais jamais un membre ou un secret [only leaves fall from the N’sand’a of Kongo and never a member/citizen or a secret]”"

References and Notes

[1] Grand-père, parle-nous du peuple Koongo, 2012, by Antoine-Ganga, Dieudonné. Find a copy at the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division

[2] Citizens of Kongo

[3] In The art of conversation Christian visual culture in the kingdom of Kongo, 2014, by  Cécile, Fromont, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

[4] Raphia is a tropical African palm tree growing in swamp forest and around human

[5] Leçons d'économie politique dans la poésie parabolique kôngo, 2003, by Louis Bakabadio. Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

[6] Term that could refer to family community, kingdom. It captures the interconnectedness of people of the kingdom.