After years of confusion, between elementary school teachings, popular folklore, online essays and articles, brief mentions, I’ve picked up Anne Hilton’s “The kingdom of Kongo”, a heavily cited and from my understanding important book on Kongo history. I’m quite glad I did since I was able to connect a few dots but as always, answers lead to more questions.
If you don’t know anything about the Kingdom of Kongo or if you don’t know what is the “common knowledge” I’m refering to, this and this are a good examples of rather complete, not far off but somehow flawed short descriptions.
One of the interesting questions is the relationship to christianity. Kongo, or at least its rulers, converted to christianity virtually as soon as they heard about it and without any resistance. In fact, they converted so early that, syncretism in Kimbisa or Palo Cristiano, one of the four branches of the mysterious afro-cuban Palo is believed to have originated in Africa, not Cuba.
There are as far as I know a few different theories which explain the phenomenon. One is cultural and fairly simple: The Kongo pre-christian religion had messianic elements, mainly they were awaiting for the return of the semi-mythical founder of the Kingdom and therefore Jesus being the messiah wasn’t too hard to swallow. Apart from making you wonder about John Brunner’s sources, this theory also helps to explain why exactly the BaKongo have that interesting but slightly annoying and desctructive tendency to produce those messianic religious and political movements that mix Kongo Power dreams with biblical craziness. (Kimpa Vita, André Matsoua, Simon Kimbangui, Fulbert Youlou, Bernard Kolelas (in french), Bundu Dia Kongo and the “good” reverend Ntoumi).
More cynically, the belgian anthropologist Luc De Heusch seems to propose that the ManiKongo was eager to stop sharing his power with the traditionnal “clergy”. That too would actually make sense. By most accounts, the religion predated the kingdom and while the king’s power and prestige was definetly linked to his spiritual powers, his spiritual legitimacy emanated from very demanding clergy. You’re free to make analogies with another african king.
The third, less popular at least among historians, suggests that Joao I, impressed by the portugese, decide to modernize and westernize his country, his culture, his people and conversion to christianity is to him, what the roman alphabet is to Attaturk.
Anne Hilton’s more detailed account seems to be a mix of first two. On one hand, white people land from the ocean somewhere near Kongo. Whiteness being an attribute of the dead in Kongo as in many other places in Africa, the ocean being the ultimate body of water in a place where crossing the river means “passing away”, one can only imagine how those protugese sailors were perceived. But it’s actually not all. The dead, the otherworld were actually the very precise part of the spitirual realm not under the King’s control. Joao seems to have been sharp enough to quickly realize that associating himself with the new spirits could benefit him, no matter if he really believed they were spirits. There’s also the possibility of bypassing or dominating what Hilton calls the Mwissikongo elite, that’s the elders/leaders of core ethnic kongo group that served as a powerful aristocracy in the kingdom. Although the tensions with the Mwissikongo seem unclear at the moment of the conversion, they become a major narative thread in the later series of events.
Another often debated, misunderstood, controversial and interesting aspect of Kongo history is Joao I’s succession and the impact that event had on Kongo’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
While Nigeria, Ghana or even Senegambia are often thought as the main sources for slaves exported to the new world, West Central Africa, the area around the mouth of the Congo River, actually exported a little less than half of the slaves and the Kingdom of Kongo, which dominated the area, played a huge role in that odious trade.
The popular narative sees Alfonso as the great judas of Kongo, presents Mpanza, his half-brother and strongest opposition in the succession, as a hardline nationalist who opposed the slave trade, christianity or any cooperation with the portugese either on humanist/moral grounds or because he’s a traditionnalist. Alfonso is then described as a puppet, put on the throne by a portugese coup to serve their interests against the will of the Kongo people who elected his brother.
This appears to be somewhere between false and inexact.
In Kongo, as in every elective monarchies, the vote was done by a small group of electors so the idea of the will of the people is misplaced in this context and it appears that the vote would have been very close, had it happened.
The line of events described by Hilton is far more complicated.
The portugese did support Alfonso and helped him win the crucial Mbanza Kongo battle. In fact, the portugese, mostly the missionaries, had been urging Joao to adopt monogamy and primogeniture ever since he converted to christianity. Joao was hesitant and in fact never formally took such a decision for a bunch of reasons. Polygamy, apart from being enjoyable, allowed every ManiKongo to build alliances and become related to all the different constutiencies of his kingdom. But more precisely, the portugese asked him to repudiate all his wives except for the first. And traditionally, the first wive was Nsaku Lau, part of the clan/family that was ruling the vassal kingdom/province of Mbata and had a good deal of the spiritual counter-power. And of course, Joao’s first son was a Nsaku Lau. In this matrilinear society, the Mwissikongo always made sure the ManiKongo was the son of one of his father’s Mwissikongo wives. And the prospect of a Nsaku Lau king wasn’t something they were looking up to.
With Mpanza being the Mwissikongo’s candidate. Alfonso’s support came from his maternal uncle (the Mbata ruler and one of the electors), the christians and portugese traders who became close to him during his 10 year governorship of the copper producing and slave trading (via the Tio/Teké) northern province of Nsundi. Alfonso seems to have been the origin of the rumour of his brother’s renouncement of christianity as he did use it to justify his coup in letters to the portugese.
This account makes Alfonso’s and Mpanza’s differences either inexistant or unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
With Alfonso not being a puppett, his letters complaining about the damage of the slave trade make more sense while his later demonization as the cruel “first christian king” in the local folkore is perfectly understandable, coming from an aristicracy that lost power.
Another way to understand the context in which Alfonso wrote those letters is to rethink the Kongo-Portugal relations. Calling for the help of a foreign king when his subjects commit abuses may seem naive and pathetic, however there seem to have been divergent portugese interests and views. The missionaries, especially the ones who lived in Mbanza Kongo appear to have suggested the letters and transported them while the portugese governors of the colonies of Sao-Tome and later Luanda seem to have done everything they could to make sure the flow of slaves didn’t stop.
São Tome, a sugar-producing portugese colony and an unavoidable stop for boats going to Portugal, actually forbid the export of any product from Kongo but slaves and actively intercepted letters and potentially interesting gifts (ivory, copper, cloth). They also frustrated Kongo attempts to get their own boats.
Later Luanda and independant portugese traders never stopped seeking ways to avoid the control (and the taxes) of ManiKongos, be it by looking for different roads, building alliances with rival kingdoms, groups or local chiefs, influencing the terms of trade, starting wars and getting involved in succession battles.
Luanda also endlessly tried to invade, subdue, isolate Kongo or some of his profitable vassals and provinces.
Priests and missionaries did more than relaying the messages, they actually diffused literacy and suggested administrative archive keeping and argued on the Kongo side when Luanda attempted to breach treaties.
One question at this point of course is: what happened to the litterate Kongo elites ?