The Kingdom of Kongo was founded by Bantu-speaking peoples in the western portion of central Africa. Established in 1390, the kingdom soon gained supremacy by conquering neighboring states. The rulers of the Kingdom of Kongo were among the earliest African Christian converts after the arrival of Portuguese explorers and missionaries in the late 15th century. The Kongo was also one of the most prolific suppliers of captives to the Portuguese slave trade. Although initially lucrative, the trans-Atlantic slave trade eventually brought the kingdom’s demise. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History during that time.
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Bantu-speaking peoples from the Benue River area migrated into the Uele and Bas-Congo (Kongo Central) regions around 1000 BC. They were the first known migrants in the area once occupied by the Kingdom of Kongo. They were followed by waves of Nilotic-speaking migrants from the southern and central regions of Sudan, as well as groups (mainly cattle herders) from East Africa who eventually settled around the Great Lakes area.
These migrants occupied an area that is now within the borders of northern Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, and (to a certain extent) southern Gabon. The Bantu-speaking peoples brought with them their knowledge of metallurgy and agriculture. The mighty Congo River and its tributaries run through this fertile area, allowing the new settlers to grow yams, sorghum, millet, oil palms, and vegetables. Their ability in making iron tools allowed them to grow more crops. With an abundance of food, it was not long before their population increased.
As years passed, most of the people who lived in the area spoke a Bantu language called Kikongo. What made the ancient Kongolese society unique was their matrilineal descent system (children inherited their ranks and properties through their mothers). Their simple villages and towns soon turned into mini-states (wene) ruled by chieftains or clan heads.
The Kingdom of Kongo and the Atlantic Slave Trade
During the 1380s, Lukeni lua Nimi (the king of the Mpemba Kasi wene) and Mpuku a Nsuku (the king of Mbata wene) agreed to form an alliance. Other petty states soon joined this alliance, and by 1390, Lukeni lua Nimi was able to consolidate power to establish the Kingdom of Kongo. He established the kingdom’s capital at Mbanza-Kongo (renamed Sao Salvador by the Portuguese) in present-day Angola. He continued to expand the kingdom by conquering neighboring petty states. Once incorporated into the kingdom, the manikongo (king) would appoint and send governors into the kingdom’s provinces.
The Kongo way of life changed after the arrival of Portuguese explorer Diogo Cao and his sailors in 1482. In 1491, King John II of Portugal sent the first missionary expedition to Kongo led by Dominican and Franciscan priests. These missionaries were accompanied by tradesmen, artisans, soldiers, and several women. They were successful in converting King Nzinga a Nkuwu and a number of his courtiers into Christianity. Nzinga a Nkuwu and his queen were baptized, and later adopted the names Joao I and Eleanor in honor of the Portuguese monarchs.
Nzinga a Mbemba, the governor of the province of Nsundi, seized the throne when King Joao I Nzinga a Nkuwu died in 1506. He was baptized in the same year as the previous king and adopted the name Alfonso I when he took the throne. Portuguese missionaries flocked to Kongo during his reign. The king made Catholicism the state religion and even sent his own son to Rome to study theology. After establishing diplomatic relations with the king of Portugal, he sent Kongolese students to study in Europe. He also encouraged the establishment of Portuguese schools in his kingdom. Portuguese merchants used the island of Sao Tome as their base in trading with the Kingdom of Kongo. The Kongo people traded products such as honey, animal hides, copper, ivory, and raffia cloth for Portuguese guns, cannons, ammunition, and luxury goods. However, it was not long before the Portuguese found a more valuable Kongo commodity to trade: slaves.
Slavery had long been a part of Kongolese society, but it was the Portuguese who took it to new lows. The Portuguese bought or kidnapped thousands of captives from the Kongo, and took them to their base in Sao Tome. The captives would then take the notorious Middle Passage across the Atlantic and would be offloaded in Brazil. By the early 1500s, the business of slavery began to tear the kingdom apart and King Alfonso I pleaded with his Portuguese counterpart to stop the slave trade. The appeal fell on deaf ears as the majority of Portugal’s trade and wealth largely depended on the slave trade and the cheap labor the slaves provided. King Alfonso I attempted to ban the slave trade, but this only angered the Portuguese merchants who then tried to have him assassinated in 1540. The king’s death in 1545 was the beginning of the end of the Kingdom of Kongo.
The kingdom was beset with civil wars during the reign of King Diogo I (1545-1561). The Portuguese took advantage of the situation by intervening in the war and pitting one faction against the other. The kingdom declined further when Jaga warriors from the east attacked Mbanza-Kongo in 1568. King Alvaro I (1566-1587) fled to an island on the Congo River to escape the destruction. He later sent emissaries to the Portuguese stationed in Sao Tome to appeal for their support in driving the Jaga warriors out of the kingdom. The Portuguese sent 600 soldiers to help repulse the Jaga warriors and restore Mbanza-Kongo to Alvaro I.
Alvaro I and the succeeding kings became puppets of the Portuguese thereafter. By the early 17th century, the Portuguese trade shifted to Luanda, leaving the king in Mbanza-Kongo without a dependable source of revenue. The resentment of the Kongo rulers against the Portuguese finally came to a head when a war between the two parties exploded on October 29, 1665. The Kongo king Antonio I died in battle, and the kingdom soon fell apart. By the late 17th century, Mbanza-Kongo (renamed Sao Salvador) was only a shadow of what it once was.
Appiah, Anthony, and Henry Louis Gates, eds. Encyclopedia of Africa. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Gondola, Didier. The History of Congo. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Heywood, Linda M., and John K. Thornton. Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
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