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Kingdom of Kongo

Kingdom of Kongo

Congo or Kongo? The answer depends on when and not where. The Kingdom of Kongo was established in 1390 and what began as a loose collection of city-states became one centralized kingdom under the King of Kongo. The spelling Congo was not used until later Portuguese influence on the language. The rich history of the Kingdom of Kongo spans from its time as an independent nation spanning 1390-1862 into its role as a vassal of the Kingdom of Portugal from 1862-1914.

Kingdom of Kongo: History

The kingdom of Kongo existed from 1390 to 1665 and was originally a loose collection of self-governing bodies, but early in its history, centralization was achieved. The area in the Kingdom of Kongo grew; the nation spanned from modern-day Angola to the Democratic Republic of the Congo south of the Congo river. The Kingdom of Kongo was established after a political marriage. This was a union of the Mpemba Kasi and their rival, the Mbata people, and led to Lukeni Lua Nimi, the first King of Kongo.

Kongo or kikongo is the language used within the Kingdom of Kongo. Its use has spread across the globe, accompanying trafficked Africans during the slave trade. The language is spoken today in the DRC, Angola, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo.

The Kingdom of Kongo power was centralized through establishing the capital city, Mbanza Kongo. The population density was centered on the capital city, Mbanza Kongo, with a much smaller population located within small villages and towns. The bulk of the population was close at hand to the mani Kongo, and this solidified their authority over the rest of the kingdom.


The term for the sovereign ruler or King of the Kingdom of Kongo.

Portuguese explorers reached the Kingdom of Kongo in 1483 and established trade relations with the natives. Soon thereafter, the king - the manikongo, Nzinga a Nkuwu, and his son Mvemba a Nzinga, were baptized into the Christian faith at the direction of the Portuguese. João I now ruled the kingdom with his son Alfonso I and had a profitable relationship with Portugal in the export of materials and the slave trade.In 1509 Alfonso I took the throne after defeating his half-brother and establishing his claim. Alfonso, I strengthened the kingdom's ties with Portugal and entered into agreements that supplied Portuguese traders with goods, passage, and slaves. He solidified the role of the Catholic Church in the kingdom as the leading religion; his son Henrique Kinu a Mvemba was consecrated as a Bishop in 1520.

In 1526 Alfonso I started monitoring the slave trade with the Europeans to ensure no people were enslaved and sold illegally. He had heard rumors of illegal trades and soon learned that Portuguese traders were selling and exporting illegally enslaved people.

Alfonso I died in 1542, resulting in a messy line of succession and civil war between rivals for the role of manikongo. The destabilization of the kingdom led to outside enemies seizing power in 1568, and Álvaro I Nimi a Lukeni (the manikongo) had to request assistance from the Portuguese to regain control. The Portuguese assisted the manikongo with the promise of an area to establish a colony that they named Luanda.

Kingdom of Congo, Map of Luanda circa 1641, studysmarterFig 1, Map of Luanda circa 1641.

The Portuguese colony of Luanda was established and is now known as Angola; the relationship between Angola and the Kingdom of Kongo was contentious. The conflict culminated in the Battle of Mbwila, which occurred on October 29, 1665. The manikongo, António I Nvita a Nkanga, was killed by the Portuguese, marking the end of the unified Kingdom of Kongo.

The Kingdom of Kongo ceased to exist as a unified nation and was plagued by civil war throughout the remaining 16th century and following into the 17th century. In 1913-1914 Álvaro Buta led the revolt against the manikongo. The Kingdom of Kongo was fully absorbed as Portuguese territory.

Kingdom of Kongo: Culture

  • The Kingdom of Kongo's cultural history reflects the reach of traditional culture across post-classical Africa.

  • In the Kingdom of Kongo, culture was a rich mix of local traditions and beliefs which accompanied the Christian missionaries. The traditional

  • In contradiction to other missionary efforts in North and South America, the missionaries did not push for immediate and complete desertion of traditional beliefs. This enabled a conversion effort that did not cause immediate pushback from the people of the Kingdom of Kongo.

Kingdom of Kongo: Social History

  • Before Portuguese missionaries arrived in the Kingdom of Kongo, the nation had a rich and developed society. The people existed in tribes but were not independent entities; these villages comprised a social hierarchy.

  • Both free people and those who had been captured and were used as slaves comprised these villages. In these villages were appointed headmen or district leaders, and these leaders directed the day-to-day life.

As an independent nation, the Kingdom of Kongo operated with a system of councils and a hierarchy of public officials. Often these positions were lifetime appointments that increased their power exponentially; however, the population center's proximity to the king enabled the government to stay centralized. Over time the temptation for local headsmen to bypass royal decrees to trade illegally with Portuguese merchants undermined the authority of the manikongo.

As a Vassal of Portugal

The Kingdom of Kongo ceased to be a unified nation after the civil war had driven the King of Kongo to request Portuguese military support to regain control of his subjects. Pedro V gave up rights to his lands to the Portuguese in trade for military assistance. After the Kingdom of Kongo became a vassal of Portugal, the government hierarchy answered to the Portuguese King. The Portuguese provided protection, trading on a large scale, and stronger ties to other European powers.

Kingdom of Kongo: Ethnic Linkage

The term ethnic linkage refers to the shared links between people regardless of the national borders. This is a central theme in Africa due to the migratory nature of some African peoples and the close economic and social ties. National borders do not determine cultural practices within post-classical Africa.

Ethnic Linkage with Surrounding Kingdoms: Loango, Ndongo and Matamba

  • The language of the Kingdom of Kongo, kikongo, was the basis for dialects across central and West Africa. The language connected the kingdoms decisively and enabled a rich exchange of goods and knowledge between the two.

  • The political systems of these neighboring nations mirrored the Kingdom of Kongo; at the local level, headsmen led the villagers in a patriarchal society based on a matrilineal line of power.

  • The religious practices of the surrounding nations shared a common belief in divine intervention and sacred medicines. These shared beliefs are evident in the resemblance of their religious art across borders.

Ethnic Linkage between Kingdom of Kongo Demographics: Bantu, Beembe, Bwende, Yombe

Bantu tribes spread across Post-classical Africa, and as a result, the kingdoms comprising post-classical Africa shared demographic traits. The different ethnic groups all shared a basis in the kikongo language, but another link was the similarities in religion. The nkisi is used throughout the Kingdom of Kongo, and each tribe has incorporated its style of the nkisi.

Beembe nkisi figures share traits with the Kongolese nkisi but have their individuality. The Beembe nkisi figures use geometric patterns created to depict ancestral figures in an idealized form.

Kingdom of Congo, Beembe figure, studysmarterFig. 2 Beembe Figure

The Bwende were known for their funerary mannequins, carefully preserved and wrapped corpses. These shared features are shown in the nkisi figures in their facial features.

Kingdom of Congo, Bwende Mannequin, studysmarterFig 3. Bwende funeral mannequin

Yombe nkisi statues shared many traits with other post-classical African art and were used in tribal justice and governing.

Kingdom of Congo, Yombe power figure, studysmarterFig 4. Yombe Power Figure

Kingdom of Kongo: Sculptures

Materials used in sculptures in the Kingdom of Kongo included ivory, wood, and other decorative elements. Ivory was a prized material and local chiefs or the reigning monarch closely controlled the distribution of ivory. Art was a reflection of the cultural and religious beliefs of the artist.

These sculptures were forms of a nkisi; a nkisi is a container for sacred medicine. Different sacred medicines were explicitly used for their related condition or issue; these sacred medicines are encased within the artworks and became both art and religious talismans.

After the introduction of Catholicism to the mainstream society of the Kingdom of Kongo, art began to take inspiration from Christian iconography.

Iconography is sacred art designed to depict religious interpretation; in Catholicism, the central icon is the Virgin Mary in her blue robe.

Power Figure

A power figure is a collaborative effort between a ritual expert and an artist. These held great religious, cultural, and social significance. The ritual expert, or nganga, would begin work when the artist completed their design. These designs involved metalwork, nails, ceramic and other materials related to specific mystic properties. They are also in the form of people relaying their intent to intervene in human issues; these human-shaped power statues are nkisi nkondi.

The sacred medicine is usually located in the work's head or stomach. The sacred substances will be covered with a piece of reflective material, and the reflective piece represents the nkisi's ability to see into the spirit world. The most prominent feature of a nkisi nkindi is the numerous nails or pieces of metal, glass, or ceramic driven into the figure.

Kingdom of Congo, power figure, studysmarterFig. 5 Power Figure from the Kingdom of Kongo, nkisi nkondi

The role of the power figure was pivotal in daily life as they were consulted in the same way as a chief in disputes. Each nail or piece represented a conflict resolved with an oath; if this oath was broken, the sacred substances, nkisi nkondi, would activate. Then the figure would carry out its mission according to the oath made

Religious Art

Art took on a new motivation when the Kingdom of Kongo became tied to the Catholic Church. While Christian Iconography was the central inspiration, the local artistic style became a part of the country's religious art. Figures would have African traits in appearance and resemble the Power Figures' human features.

Kingdom of Congo, Cross, studysmarterFig. 6 A piece of Christian art used in worship depicting the inclusion of local artistic style.

Kingdom of Kongo, detail photo of power figure, studysmarterFig. 7 Detail on cross depicting Kongolese features.

Kingdom of Kongo, christ figure on cross, studysmarterFig. 8 The features and expression on the face of the Christ figure on the cross closely resemble the human features used in Power Figures.

The success of the Christian conversion in the Kingdom of Kongo relied upon the inclusion of traditional art and beliefs.

Kingdom of Kongo: Summary

An important part to recognize about post-classical African history is that the records are almost exclusively from European sources; the perception of culture from outsiders can only be accurate and unbiased to a limited extent. While the missionaries or explorers who wrote about Post-Classical Africa might not have intended to be biased in their records, it is inaccurate to assume their inner bias did not affect their perception.

Kingdom of Kongo - Key takeaways

  • The Kingdom of Kongo existed from 1390-1862 as an independent nation and from 1862-1914 as a vassal of Portugal.
  • The Kingdom of Kongo spanned across central and western post-classical Africa.
  • The surrounding nations of Loango, Ndongo, and Matamba shared many cultural and ethnic traits; national borders did not dictate cultural and societal separations.
  • The first official catholic convert's King of Kongo was Nzinga a Nkuwu, baptized as Joan I. His son Mvemba a Nzinga, baptized as Alfonso I, became the first Catholic manikongo.
  • The Kingdom of Kongo ended as a unified nation after an extended civil war over the succession to the throne resulted in the manikongo requesting Portuguese assistance.


    1. Fig 1. Map of Luanda ( by Rijksmuseum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
    2. Fig. 2- Beembe Power Figure ( by Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
    3. Fig. 3 Bwende Funeral Mannequin,,_Museum_of_World_Culture,_1938.27.0001.tif Makoza of Kingoyi (niombo), Museum of World Culture (photo), CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
    4. Fig. 4. Yombe Power Figure ( by Kathykpham, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons Fig. 5 Power Figure from Kingdom of Kongo( by Metropolitan Museum of Art, API. Creative Commons Zero (CC0)
    5. Fig. 5 Power Figure from Kingdom of Kongo( by Metropolitan Museum of Art, API. Creative Commons Zero (CC0)
    6. Fig. 6 Christian art from Kongo( by Metropolitan Museum of Art API. Creative Commons Zero (CC0).
    7. Fig. 7 Detail on Cross ( by Metropolitan Museum of Art API. Creative Commons Zero (CC0)
    8. Fig. 8 Face Detail ( by Metropolitan Museum of Art API. Creative Commons Zero (CC0)

Frequently Asked Questions about Kingdom of Kongo

The slave trade enabled diplomatic ties with European nations and enabled the 

Raffia cloth, ivory, copper and pottery. 

Alvaro XIII resisted Portuguese rule in 1913-1914 and was replaced with the vassal Pedro V. This effectively ended the Kingdom of Kongo's existence as an independent nation.

As a loose collection of city states and was centralized to become the Kingdom of Kongo in 1390.


Final Kingdom of Kongo Quiz


What is the difference between the use of Kongo versus Congo?

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Kongo refers to the post classical kingdom of kongo, Congo is the modern Portuguese term used today.

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How did the Kingdom of Kongo come into being?

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A political marriage formed an alliance between rival kingdoms which resulted in the birth of the first King of Kongo, Lukeni lua Nimi. 

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What is a power figure?

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A figure that contains sacred medicine.

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Who was the first Catholic manikongo of the Kingdom of Kongo?

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Alfonso I

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What did the Portugese traders do to tempt local headsmen to bypass royal authority?

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They offered lucrative trade agreements to the local headsmen directly.

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Why is the Kingdom of the Kongo and it's surrounding nations so similar?

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The tribal people of central and western Africa adhere to cultural traditions that are not separated by borders. 

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When was the Kingdom of Kongo absorbed into Portugal?

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How did the population center empower the manikongo?

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The manikongo was located in the same location as the population center.

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What did the people of the Kongo do to incorporate traditional art into the newly introduced Catholicism?

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Christian icons like the crucifix would have African appearances. 

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Why were the conversion efforts of the Portuguese missionaries' more collaborative than those in North and South America?

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The missionaries did not ban traditional practices, and instead incorporated familiar traits into conventional Christian iconography. 

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What is a manikongo?

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The King of the Kingdom of Kongo

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What is kikongo?

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Kikongo is the language of the Kingdom of Kongo.

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