West Central Africa, 14th – 18th Centuries

West Central Africa, 14 th — 18 th Centuries

In the century before Portuguese exploration of West Africa, the Kongo was another Kingdom that developed in West Central Africa. In the three hundred years from the date Ne Lukeni Kia Nzinga founded the kingdom until the Portuguese destroyed it in 1665, Kongo was an organized, stable, and politically centralized society based on a subsistence economy. The Kongo is significant in exploring the historic contexts of African American heritage because the majority of all Africans enslaved in the Southern English colonies were from West Central Africa (Curtin 1969; Eltis et al 2001).

The Bakongo (the Kongo people), today several million strong, live in modern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, neighboring Cabinda, and Angola. The present division of their territory into modern political entities masks the fact that the area was once united under the suzerainty of the ancient Kingdom of Kongo, one of the most important civilizations ever to emerge in Africa, according to Robert Ferris Thompson. The Kings of the Kongo ruled over an area stretching from the Kwilu-Nyari River, just north of the port of Loango, to the river Loje in northern Angola, and from the Atlantic to the inland valley of the Kwango. (See Figure 1-4)

Thompson estimates the Kongo encompassed an area roughly equaling the miles between New York City and Richmond, Virginia, in terms of coastal distance and between Baltimore and Eire, Pennsylvania, in terms of inland breadth. Birmingham comments that by 1600, after a century of overseas contact with the Portuguese, the “complex Kongo kingdom…dominated a region more than half the size of England which stretched from the Atlantic to the Kwango (1981:29).”

Map showing where the Kingdom of Kongo was located in West Central Africa in 1711.
Figure 1-4 KingdomKongo1711 by Happenstance is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Genericlicense. The Kingdom of Kongo

The Bakongo shared a common culture with the people of eight adjoining regions, all of whom were either part of the Kongo Kingdom during the transatlantic slave trade or were part of the kingdoms formed by peoples fleeing from the advancing armies of Kongo chiefdoms. In their records slave traders called the Bakongo, as well as the people from the adjoining regions, “Congos” and “Angolas” although they may have been Mbembe, Mbanda, Nsundi, Mpangu, Mbata, Mbamba or Loango.

Ki-Kongo-speaking groups inhabited the West Central African region then known as the Loango Coast. The term Loango coast describes a historically significant area of West Central Africa extending from Cape Lopez or Cape Catherine in Gabon to Luanda in Angola. Within this region, Loango has been the name of a kingdom, a province, and a port. Once linked to the powerful Kongo Kingdom, the Loango Kingdom was dominated by the Villi, a Kongo people who migrated to the coastal region during the 1300s. Loango became an independent state probably in the late 1300s or early 1400s. With two other Kongo-related kingdoms, Kakongo, and Ngoyo (present day Cabinda), it became one of the most important trading states north of the Congo River.

A common social structure was shared by people in the coastal kingdoms of Loango, Kakongo, Ngoyo, Vungu, and the Yombe chiefdoms; the Teke federation in the east and the Nsundi societies on either side of the Zaire River from the Matadi/Vungu area in the west to Mapumbu of Malebo pool in the east. The provincial regions, districts, and villages each had chiefs and a hierarchical system through which tribute flowed upward to the King of the Kongo and rewards flowed downward. Each regional clan or group had a profession or craft, such as weaving, basket making, potting, iron working, and so on. Tribute and trade consisted of natural resources, agricultural products, textiles, other material cultural artifacts and cowries shells (Vansima 1962; Birmingham, 1981:28–30; Bentley, 1970:75).

The “Kongos” and “Angolas” shared a “ lingua franca ” or trade language that allowed them to communicate. They also shared other cultural characteristics such as matrilineal social organization and a cosmology expressed in their religious beliefs and practices.

Woman-and-child figures are visual metaphors for both individual and societal fertility among Kongo Peoples and reflect their matrilineal social organization, that is, tracing their kinship through their mother’s side of the family. (See Figure 1-5)

Cosmology is a body of collective representations of the world as a whole, ordered in space and time, and a human’s place in it.

Fu-Kiau, the renowned Kongo scholar, was the first writer to make Kongo cosmology explicit (Fu-Kiau 1969). According to Fu Kiau Bunseki,:

“The Kongo cosmogram is the foundation of Kongo society. The circle made by the sun’s movement is the first geometric picture given to human beings. We move the same way the sun moves: we wake up, are active, die, then come back. The horizon line is the kalunga line between the physical and spiritual world. It literally means ‘the line of God.’ When you have a circle of the Kongo cosmogram, the center is seen as the eternal flame. It is a way to come closer to the core of the community. If someone is suffering, they say ‘you are outside the circle, be closer to the fire.’ To stand on the cosmogram is to tie a social knot, bringing people together. Dikenga is from the verb kenga, which means ‘to take care, to protect,’ but also the flame or fire from inside the circle, to build and give life” (Fu-Kiau 2001).

Image of a stone mortuary featuring a female holding and nursing a child. She also wears a leopard claw hat indicating her role as regent in the Kingdom of Kongo.
Figure 1-5 KongoFemaleFigure by Cliff1066 is licensed under CC BY 2.0 Before the 1920s, male and female figures carved in stone served as Kongo funerary monuments commemorating the accomplishments of the deceased. The mother and child was a common theme representing a woman who has saved her family line from extinction. Kongo mortuary figures are noted for their seated postures, expressive gestures and details of jewelry and headwear that indicate the deceased’s status. The leopard claw hat is worn by male rulers and women acting as regents.

Matrilineal social organization and certain cosmological beliefs expressed in religious ceremonies and funerary practices continue to be evident in the culture of rural South Carolina and Florida African Americans who are descendants of enslaved Africans (Brown 1987, 1988, 1989, 1994, 2000, 2001; Thompson 1984; Thompson and Cornet 1981).

European slave trade led to internal wars, enslavement of multitudes, introduction of major political upheavals, migrations, and power shifts from greater to lesser-centralized authority of Kongo and other African societies. Most notably the slave trade destroyed old lineages and kinship ties upon which the basis of social order and organization was maintained in African societies (MacGaffey 1986).

The history and culture of West Central African peoples is important to the understanding of African American people in the present because of their high representation among enslaved peoples. It has been estimated that 69 % of all African people transported in the Transatlantic Slave Trade between 1517–1700 A.D. were from West Central Africa and, between 1701–1800, people from West Central Africa comprised about 38% of the all Africans brought to the West to be enslaved (Curtin 1969). In South Carolina, by 1730, the number of Africans or “salt-water negroes,” mostly from West Central Africa, and “native-born” African Americans, many descendant from West Central Africans, exceeded the white population. (3)