Reference Entry

Kongo Largest ethnic group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and one of the largest in southern Republic of the Congo and northern Angola.

Elizabeth Heath

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Kongo Largest ethnic group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and one of the largest in southern Republic of the Congo and northern Angola.

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Now dispersed throughout three countries in western Central Africa, the Kongo were once a highly centralized kingdom extending from the Congo River to the Kwango and Kwanza Rivers. The ancestors of the Kongo began settling small farming communities in the area sometime before the twelfth century. These communities became part of a semicohesive kingdom ruled during the fourteenth century from Mbanza Kongo, a prosperous farming village near the mouth of the Congo River. The Mbanza Kongo kings organized the surrounding communities into provinces, collected taxes and tributes, and instituted a monetary system based on shells, called nzimbu, which were farmed at the royal fisheries on the island of Luanda. The kings in turn performed religious rituals and were responsible for protecting the kingdom and its people.The first documented contact between the Kongo and Europeans occurred in 1483, when Portuguese explorer Diogo Cam (also spelled Cão), sailed into the mouth of the Congo River and encountered Kongo villages. He later took a group of Kongo emissaries back to Portugal, returned to Africa in 1491 with priests, soldiers, and European goods, and had the Kongo king, Nzinga a Nkuwu, baptized. Although Nzinga a Nkuwu later abandoned Catholicism, his son Nzinga Mbembe—later Afonso—made Roman Catholicism the state religion, invited missionaries to educate and Christianize his people, and renamed the capital São Salvador.In addition, Afonso maintained strong trade relations with Portugal, carrying on a slave and Ivory trade with the Portuguese for European luxury goods and guns. The slave trade, however, eventually took its toll on the Kongo kingdom. Kongolese rulers met the Portuguese traders’ huge demand for slaves by raiding neighboring peoples, such as the Téké and Kuba, who often retaliated. Embroiled in constant conflict, the Kongo became increasingly dependent upon Portuguese assistance. By the time of the Jaga Wars (1568–1569) the Kongo managed to defeat the Jagas only with the help of the Portuguese mercenaries.Weakened but intact, the Kongo kingdom continued to do business with European slave traders, including the newly arrived Dutch traders. But Portuguese colonization of neighboring Angola led again to regional conflict, culminating in the 1665 attack at Ambuila. The Kongo kingdom later broke into factions, whose ongoing mutual raids generated a steady supply of slaves for Portuguese traders. Pedro IV, a member of the Kimbangu clan, won the support of Catholic missionaries by proclaiming Dona Beatrice a false saint and sentencing her to death. In 1709, after considerable fighting, Pedro IV assumed control of São Salvador. He reunited the scattered kingdom, which held together until the late nineteenth century. Even today, it has not regained its former size or power.Nevertheless, the Kongolese have remained fairly influential. During the colonial period, the Kongo formed numerous churches—such as the Kimbanguist church founded by Simon Kimbangu—and social groups, many of which acted as early resistance organizations and later became political parties. Many Kongo attended either Catholic or Protestant mission schools and later became one of the most highly educated ethnic groups in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Angola and generally one of the most active in the decolonization of both countries. In the Belgian Congo, Joseph Kasavubu, the head of the popular Association des Bakongo (Abako), became the first president after independence. In Angola, the Kongo group called the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) played an instrumental role in the liberation struggle between 1961 and 1974. Today the Kongo, whose population is about ten million, occupy a significant number of administrative, political, and commercial positions in the lower Zaire region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. See also Slavery in Africa.

Reference Entry.  667 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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