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Kongo people

Total population
10 million
Regions with significant populations
 Democratic Republic of the Congo
 Republic of the Congo
Kongo language, Lingala language, Portuguese, French
Christianity, African Traditional Religion
Related ethnic groups
other Bantu peoples

The Bakongo, or the Kongo people (Kongo: “hunters”[1]), also referred to as the Congolese, are a Bantu ethnic group who live along the Atlantic coast of Africa from Pointe-Noire (Republic of Congo) to Luanda, Angola. They are primarily defined by the speaking of Kikongo, a common language. They are the largest ethnic group in the Republic of Congo.

In the late 20th century, the Kongo population was about 10,220,000.[2]


  • Name 1
  • History 2
    • The Kingdom of Kongo 2.1
    • The Kingdom of Loango 2.2
    • Smaller kingdoms 2.3
    • North East Kongo 2.4
  • Bakongo Nationalism 3
  • Language 4
  • Agriculture 5
  • Religion 6
  • Traditions 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Bibliography 10


In the earliest documented ethnonyms of the 17th century, those residing in the Kingdom of Kongo called themselves Esikongo (singular Mwisikongo); those in the Kingdom of Loango called themselves Bavili (singular Muvili), and in other parts of the Kikongo-speaking world they had different names as well. Late nineteenth century missionaries sometimes applied the term Bafiote (singular M(a)fiote) to the group, though it is unclear whether the term was ever used by local people to describe their own identity.

Since the early twentieth century, Bakongo (singular M’Kongo or Mukongo) has become applied as an ethnonym for all members of the Kikongo-speaking community, or more broadly to speakers of the closely related Kongo languages (a subgroup of the Zone H Bantu languages). The group is identified largely by speaking a cluster of mutually intelligible dialects rather than by large continuities in their history or even in culture. The term “Congo” was more widely deployed to identify Kikongo-speaking people enslaved in the Americas.[3]


Kongo bowl in the National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC

It is most likely the Kongo people arrived in the region of the mouth of the Congo River before 500 BCE, as part of the larger Bantu migration.[4] They were already working iron in the region and practicing agriculture by that time. Social complexity had probably been achieved in some regions where Kikongo is spoken by second century CE.[5] By the late fifteenth century when European voyagers described them, they were living in a number of kingdoms, including the kingdoms of Kongo, Ngoyo, Vungu, Kakongo, and others, stretching on both sides of the Congo River. During the sixteenth century, yet another powerful Bakongo kingdom, Loango, developed and controlled much of the coast north of the Congo River.

The histories of the various branches of the Kikongo-speaking world are quite diverse, with large monarchies in Kongo and Loango, smaller monarchies in Ngoyo, Kakongo, and Vungu, and even less centralized entities in the Niari Valley and other places north of the Congo River. Because the best anthropological work on the Bakongo has been done in the parts of the region colonized by the French and Belgians (Loango, Vungu, and the Niari Valley), it is well described and often the cultural institutions of those regions are better represented than those of other parts of the larger Kikongo-speaking world. On the other hand, the abundant historical written records for the Kingdom of Kongo means that the history of that region is much better documented. One of the central problems of understanding the region is thus to marry historical records that relate to one region within the zone to anthropological research applicable to another part of the zone.

The Kingdom of Kongo

Ethnical map of Angola (Bakongo area marked dark green)

Royal genealogies preserved in traditions of the seventeenth century suggest that the kingdom originated around 1390. In 1483 the Portuguese arrived on the coast, the Bakongo of the Kingdom of Kongo began diplomatic relations which included sending Bakongo nobles to visit the royal court in Portugal in 1485. The king himself and much of the nobility were quickly converted by Christian missionaries and assumed Portuguese court manners, and after an initial confrontation between those who supported the new religion and those who rejected it, the party following King Afonso I triumphed and Kongo became a Christian kingdom. In 1568 Bakongo peoples were invaded by the Jagas (Yaka), and the Bakongo were forced to look to the Portuguese for help, which ultimately allowed the Portuguese to establish a colony in Angola on Kongo's territory, in 1575. While Kongo and Portugal entered in an alliance when the Kingdom of Ndongo attacked them, the alliance had soured by the late sixteenth century. A failed Portuguese invasion of Kongo in 1622 led Kongo to ally with the Dutch and assist them in attacking Portuguese Angola in 1641. When the Portuguese expelled the Dutch, the mutual hostility continued, culminating in the Battle of Mbwila, 1665, in which a Portuguese-led army from Angola defeated that of Kongo. Although Kongo was able to defeat a Portuguese invasion in 1670, a civil war broke out in Kongo that prevented it from being a regional power again.

Throughout the period following its contact with Europe Kongo maintained a regular trade in enslaved peoples, ivory, textiles and copper with various European partners on the coast. The important harbors were and Mpinda in Soyo, and in the eighteenth century Ambriz and Ambrizette on the southern coast of the province of Mbamba.

When the Kongo Kingdom was at its political apex in the 16th and 17th centuries, the King, who was elected from among a noble class of descendants of former kings, ana Kongo (plural of mwana Kongo), reigned supreme. These electors were usually the holders of important offices or governors of provinces. The activities of the court were supported by an extensive system of civil servants, and the court itself usually consisted of numerous relatives or clients of the king. The provinces, which were numerous, were often governed by lesser relatives of the king who were responsible to him. Subprovinces and villages were variously governed by royal appointees or locally dominant families. Frequently, members of government were invested with their power under the auspices of a ritual specialist, and frequently a Catholic priest.

The Kongo civil war, which was waged intermittently during the eighteenth century, typically revolved around claims on the throne made by one or another of the royal family, who had fortified themselves in different corners of the former kingdom. The primary focus of attention was to occupy the capital city, Sao Salvador (today's Mbanza Kongo) and claim the kingship. If possible a king in Sao Salvador would also be religiously crowned by a Catholic priest. One of the primary results of these wars was the enslavement and export of thousands of Bakongo to the Americas. In the middle of the nineteenth century, commercial changes led to the emergence of new forces. As the trade in ivory, honey, wax and rubber transformed the trade relations between Central Africa and Europe, new commercial organizations, organized as clans, emerged and gradually dissolved both the royal power in the center and even regional powers.

Portuguese ambitions to rule the country had some effect in the 1860s when forces from Angola helped to install Pedro V as king. Working through Pedro V and his successors, the Portuguese gradually established themselves as a military power and arbitrator between factions. As they used this power to extract forced labor, they ultimately forced the other power holders into revolt. In 1914, this revolt, led by Alvaro Buta, was defeated by the Portuguese forces and the kingdom was effectively abolished and integrated into Angola.

The Kingdom of Loango

The earliest visitors to the coast do not mention a kingdom of Loango, nor do the records and documents of Kongo rulers. It first appears as a breakaway province of Kongo in the late sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, Loango was divided into four large provinces and succession to royal office was rotational, so that the ruler of each province in turn became the ruler of the kingdom. This system broke down in the eighteenth century, and long interregna ensured, where no one ruled the country and the provinces drifted away. When kings did rule they often exercised less and less power.

Like Kongo, the revolution in trade of the mid nineteenth century led to the emergence of locally powerful traders and their associations. The population of Loango were known as the Vili (Muvili, singular Bavili). The Vili language was grouped as one of the Kongo languages (H.10) by Guthrie, but it is now considered part of the Sira clade of Zone B languages.[6]

The Muvili had been engaged in extensive long distance trade as far afield as Matamba in Angola since at least the mid-seventeenth century, and their trade in copper also reached far into the interior. Thus trading groups were able to usurp power in the center, making the Loango coast a vibrant export center, but also leading to the decentralization of power, not only in Loango but also in the regions of the deeper interior.

Loango gradually fell under French influence in the late nineteenth century, and was colonized in the 1870s and 80 through the expansion of France into the interior.

Smaller kingdoms

The Bakongo also include several coastal and riverine kingdoms that have a documented history since the sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries. These kingdoms are Ngoyo, north of the mouth of the Congo River, Kakongo located between Ngoyo and Loango, Nzari on the north bank of the Congo inland from Ngoyo and Vungu located north of present day Matadi. Although their names are known, first from citation in the royal titles of King Afonso I of Kongo in 1535, there is little in the way of description of them.

Vungu was held by tradition in Kongo in the seventeenth century as the root or original home of Lukeni lua Nimi, tradtiional founder of the Kingdom of Kongo. According to a letter of Kongo's king Pedro II in 1624, it was destroyed by Jaga invaders that year, and in any case, there is no further mention of the region until the late nineteenth century. The name and its district are still known today.

Nzari is only attested in seventeenth century sources, primarily of Dutch origin. It was held by the tradition of the seventeenth century in Loango to be the original home of its founder.

Ngoyo (ethnonym Woyo) was well known in the eighteenth century as a center of the slave trade, especially that driven by the French and English.

Kakongo, like Ngoyo is best known for its participation in the slave trade.

North East Kongo

The northern interior regions of the Kikongo speaking world are barely mentioned in early sources. European travelers to Loango in the seventeenth century knew of a place called "Bukkemeale" in the interior and the site of copper mines. The region was also alleged to be the home of several groups of Jagas (a generic term in the area for rootless, militant groups often reputed to be cannibals) who conducted a series of raids on Kongo beginning at least in 1624 and continuing through the seventeenth century. They played an important role as supporters of King João III of Lemba in the 1670s and were part of the invading force that destroyed São Salvador in 1678. They were active in wars around Soyo and Lemba at the end of the eighteenth century.[7]

The region, including primarily the Niari Valley, is home to people speaking the Bembe and Lari dialects of Kikongo. In the nineteenth century, the area was without any central authority, but instead was a large collection of small districts and notable insecurity. Clans united them to some degree as many of the regions clans had branches in several districts. In addition the Lemba association played an important role in settling disputes and keeping a tenuous peace.

Thanks to the penetration of Swedish missionaries into the area in the 1880s and 1890, the northeast section of Kongo was converted to Protestantism in the early twentieth century. The Swedish missionaries, notably Karl Laman, encouraged the local people to write their history and customs in notebooks, which then became the source for Laman's famous and widely cited ethnography and their dialect became well established thanks to Laman's dictionary of Kikongo.[8] In addition, a number of intellectuals raised in this missionary tradition began the writing of local ethnographies. Among this group are included Ndimansa Bahele, Fu-kiau Buseki, Raphaël Batsîkama Ba Mampuya Ma Ndâwala, and Simon Bockie, among others. In addition a number of Western anthropologists, including Jan Janzen. Robert Farris Thompson and Wyatt MacGaffey have made use of Laman's cahiers or have been influenced by ideas from the Kongo intellectuals. As a result, the northeast Kongo are often held as the normative culture for the whole diverse, Kikongo speaking world.

Bakongo Nationalism

The idea of a Bakongo unity, actually developed in the early twentieth century, primarily through the publication of newspapers in various dialects of the language. In 1910 Kavuna Kafwandani (Kavuna Simon) published an article in the Swedish mission society's Kikongo language newspaper Misanü Miayenge (Words of Peace) calling for all speakers of the Kikongo language to recognize their identity.[9] Bakongo activists quickly turned to recognition of the linguistic and cultural unity of the region and created their own versions of the past and its institutions. Political activism, particularly in the Belgian Congo, led eventually to the formation of ethnic parties. The Bakongo political party in the Belgian Congo Abako played an important part in national independence in 1960.

In Angola, the Portuguese government recognized a king of Kongo informally, and in fact worked more and more through the royal family in the 1940s and 50s. Factions that opposed the collaboration of the king and particularly Queen Isabel after 1958 formed the FNLA) and continued the interests of the Bakongo in the civil war which followed independence. Many Bakongo fought with FNLA against MPLA the governing party, at times in alliance with UNITA, another party with roots in the south.

One of the principal goals and tenets of Bakongo nationalism has been the restoration of the Kingdom of Kongo, which is often held to have extended through the entire Kikongo speaking world, and indeed to include non-Kikongo speaking people to the south, east and north of the old kingdom, and to include those people whose ancestors were never a part of the Kingdom of Kongo. As the Bakongo live in three or more countries these ideas are often held to be dangerous by authorities in all the countries. This fear has played a significant role in the suppression of Kongo nationalist leaders or groups, such as Bundu dia Kongo, which have taken the intellectual ideas and attempted to put them in action, or have been perceived as attempting to create a separate region conforming to the borders of Kongo.

A significant representation of Bakongo nationalism is found in the history of football in the region. Originally brought to Brazzaville by the Europeans, football rapidly established an overwhelming presence in the Republic of Congo. The introduction of the sport was initially for purposes of providing discipline and military training to the “uncivilized” Africans, but it was quickly appropriated by the Africans. Football, instead, asserted African leadership and power against the Catholic Church and the French state, furthering the cause of independence and nationalism.[10]

For the Bakongo people, specifically, examples of nationalism and leadership were evident in the downfall of the Native Sports Federation.[11] Fighting the French decision to ban shoes for players in Brazzaville, the Bakongo joined the Catholic mission teams or organized their own personal football matches.

Very quickly, rival teams developed within Brazzaville, the biggest rivalry being between the Poto-Poto people and the Bakongo people. Though the players of the two teams were competitive in their own rights, a large portion of the rivalry stemmed from the fandoms of the two opposing sides. As time went on and football became more prevalent in society, the competition would often escalate to Poto-Poto fans bringing machetes and other weaponry to football games and Bakongo women and children arming themselves with huge pestles.[12]

Though some described the rivalry as one that transcended the sport and established itself as a regional rivalry, football still enabled the Bakongo people to unite with fellow Brazzaville citizens in the broader arena. When international football matches were held against a Brazzaville team, Bakongo people and Poto-Poto people united and upheld a sense of nationalism previously unseen. When the first football match between an African team and a white team resulted in a tie, both the Poto-Poto people and the Bakongo people joined together in celebration.

Later, as independence approached Brazzaville, players of all rival teams joined the national league to represent their country and their race as a whole. The sport of football thus contributed to nationalism for not only the Bakongo people, but for the Republic of Congo and the African race.[13]


The language of the Kongo people is called Kikongo, which is divided into many dialects which are sufficiently diverse that people from distant dialects, such as speakers of Kivili dialect (on the northern coast) and speakers of Kisansolo (the central dialect) would have trouble understanding each other. Many Bakongo also speak other African languages and European languages. In Angola, there are a few who did not learn to speak Kikongo because Portuguese rules of assimilation during the colonial period was directed against learning native languages, though most Bakongo held on to the language. Most Angolan Kongo also speak Portuguese and those near the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo also speak French. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo most also speak French and others speak either Lingala, a common lingua franca in Western Congo, Kikongo ya Leta (generally known as Kituba particularly in DR Congo), a creole form of Kikongo spoken widely in the Republic of the Congo, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Angola.


The Bakongo cultivate cassava, bananas, maize, sweet potatoes, peanuts (groundnuts), beans, and taro. Cash crops are coffee, cacao, urena, bananas, and palm oil. Fishing and hunting are still practiced by some groups, but many Bakongo live, work and trade in towns.


BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region

The religious history of the Kongo is complex, thanks to the long engagement of the Kingdom of Kongo with Christianity and the flexible nature of religious concepts in general in an area without a scriptural tradition. According to historian John K. Thornton "Central Africans have probably never agreed among themselves as to what their cosmology is" because of the presence of "continuous revelation" by which theological ideas were formed by a "constant stream of revelations that was not under the control of a priesthood who enforced orthodoxy, but instead was interpreted individually within a community of belief."[14]

Since the late nineteenth century, European and American missionaries, European, American and Kongo anthropologists and other Kongo thinkers and writers have increasingly solidified an idea of what are the foundations of what can be called traditional Kongo religion.[15] In this conception, believers stress the importance of ancestors, as most of the inhabitants of the other world are held to have once lived in this world.[16] Only Nzambi a Mpungu, the name for the high god, is usually held to have existed outside the world and to have created it. Other categories of the dead include bakulu or ancestors (the souls of the recently departed). In addition, there are more powerful beings who are considered as guardians of particular places, such as mountains, river courses, springs and districts, called simbi (pl. bisimbi). These beings are sometimes regarded as the souls of the long departed, the first inhabitant or eternal beings. Finally there are those who inhabit and are captured in minkisi (singular nkisi), or charms, whose operation is the closest to magic. The value of these supernatural operations is generally held to be in the intentions of the worker, rather than the other world having spirits or souls that are intrinsically good or bad.

However, some anthropologists studying modern Kikongo speaking people point out that there are sharp regional differences not only in terminology but even such important concepts as the role of ancestors. According to Dunja Hersak, for example, the Vili and Yombe do not believe in the power of ancestors in the same degree as to those living farther south. Furthermore, she points out, following the lead of another anthropologist, John Janzen, that religious ideas and emphasis in the same sector have changed over time.[17][18]

Following the conversion of Nzinga Nkuwu in 1491 most of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Kongo converted to Christianity, though they continued their older beliefs within its fold, through syncretic practices within the Roman Catholic Church in Kongo.[19] This syncretic form of Christianity was often contested by missionaries, and spawned one messianic movement, led by D Beatriz Kimpa Vita from 1704 to 1706. Many thousands of Kongo were transported across the Atlantic to the Americas, and especially to Brazil. The Afro-Brazilian Quimbanda religion is a new world manifestation of Bantu religion and spirituality, and Kongo Christianity played a role in the formation of Voudou in Haiti.[20]

Other Kongo living outside the Kingdom of Kongo were not converted and continued their traditional form of religion however, and it was not until the late nineteenth century that missionaries entered the areas north of the Kingdom of Kongo. Since the 1880s Protestant missionaries, and then renewed Catholic missionaries have claimed a large number of Kongo as converts. Following 1921, a new form of Christianity preached by Simon Kimbangu became extremely popular in spite of the attempts of both Belgian and Portuguese governments to suppress it. Kimbanguism is a very powerful religious spiritual force today, as is one of its modern spin-offs, the Dibundu dia Kongo led by Mwanda Nsemi.


Yombe-sculpture, 19th century

The Kongo week used to consist of four days: Konzo, Nkenge, Nsona and Nkandu. The third day, Nsona, was held sacred. The tradition has continued to the modern days so that among some Bakongo the third day of the week, Wednesday, is revered in the same way as Nsona.

Isabel Maria de Gama was the queen dowager of the Bakongo people, the last ruler of Kongo under the Portuguese colonial rule, and its last royal supporter. She succeeded her husband, Dom Antonio III upon his death in 1958 as regent for her son, Mansala. Following the establishment of an independent state of Angola, the role of the king was abolished by the new government.

See also


  1. ^ Bentley, Wm. Holman. Pioneering on the Congo. Fleming H. Revell Co., 1900.
  2. ^ See José Redinha, Etnias e culturas de Angola, Luanda: Instituto de Investigação Científica de Angola, 1975.
  3. ^ John Thornton, "La nation angolaise en Amérique, son identité en Afrique et en Amérique," Les anneaux de la Memoire2 (2000) 235-49.[1]"
  4. ^ Jan Vansina, Paths in the Rainforest Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa (Madison, 1990)
  5. ^ James Denbow, "Congo to Kalahari: Data and Hypotheses about the Political Economy of the Early Western Stream of the Bantu Expansion" African Archaeology Review 8 (1990): 139-75.
  6. ^ Nurse & Philippson (2003), The Bantu Languages.
  7. ^ John Thornton, The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641–1718 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), pp.
  8. ^ Karl Laman, The Kongo (4 volumes, Stockholm, Uppsala, and Lund, 1953–1968).
  9. ^ Wyatt MacGaffey, "The Eyes of Understanding: Kongo Minkisi," in Michael Harris, eds. Astonishment and Power (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), pp. 22-23.
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ John Thornton, "Religious and Ceremonial Life in the Kongo and Mbundu Areas," in Linda M. Heywood (ed) Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Disapora (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 73-74.
  15. ^ Thornton, "Religious and Ceremonial Life," pp. 72-73.
  16. ^ Wyatt MacGaffey, Religion and Society in Central Africa: The Bakongo of Lower Zaire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986)
  17. ^
  18. ^ John Janzen, Lemba, 1650–1930 : a drum of affliction in Africa and the New World (New York, Garland, 1982)
  19. ^
  20. ^ Hein Vanhee, "Central African Popular Christianity and the Development of Voudou Religion in Haiti," in Heywood, Central Africans, pp. 243-64.


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  • Batsîkama Ba Mampuya Ma Ndâwala, Raphaël (1966/1998). Voici les Jaga. Paris: L'Harmattan.
  • Bockie, Simon (1993). Death and the Invisible Powers: The World of Kongo Belief Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  • Eckholm-Friedman, Kajsa (1991). Catastrophe and Creation: The Transformation of an African Culture Reading and Amsterdam: Harwood
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  • Hilton, Anne (1982). The Kingdom of Kongo. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Heusch, Luc de (2000). Le roi de Kongo et les monstres sacrės. Paris: Gallimard.
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  • Laman, Karl (1953–1968). The Kongo Uppsala: Alqvist and Wilsells.
  • MacGaffey, Wyatt (1970). Custom and Government in the Lower Congo. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • MacGaffey, Wyatt (1977). "Fetishism Revisited: Kongo nkisi in sociological perspective," Africa 47/2, pp. 140–52.
  • MacGaffey, Wyatt (1983). Modern Kongo Prophets: Religion in a Plural Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • MacGaffey, Wyatt (1986). Religion and Society in Central Africa: The BaKongo of Lower Zaire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • MacGaffey, Wyatt (1991),ed. and trans. Art and Healing of the Bakongo commented upon by themselves: Minkisi from the Laman Collection. Bloomington: Indiana University Press and Stockholm: Folkens-museum etnografiska.
  • MacGaffey, Wyatt (1994). "The Eye of Understanding: Kongo minkisi" in Astonishment and Power (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 21–103.
  • MacGaffey, Wyatt (2000) Kongo Political Culture: The Conceptual Challenge of the Particular Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Nsondė, Jean de Dieu (1995). Langues, histoire, et culture Koongo aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles Paris: L'Harmattan.
  • Randles, William G. L. (1968). L'ancien royaume du Congo des origines à la fin du XIX e siècle. Paris: Mouton
  • Thompson, Robert Farris (1983). Flash of the Spirit New York: Random House.
  • Thompson, Robert Farris and Jean Cornet (1981) Four Moments of the Sun. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press
  • Thornton, John (1983). The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641–1718. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Thornton, John (1998). The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684–1706 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Volavka, Zdenka (1998). Crown and Ritual: The Royal Insignia of Ngoyo ed. Wendy A Thomas. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
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