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Forum LockedKongo and the Rise of Modern Slavery

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Decebal View Drop Down
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    Posted: 13-Mar-2007 at 13:12

This is part of my own initiative to open up more topics on areas that are under-represented in the forum, in this case the history of Africa.

This topic's introduction, along with the other ones, is pulled from the webiste of one of our members, Berosus, who has this site below. I find his entries on Middle-Eastern history somewhat arguable (since he's writing from a Bibilical viewpoint), but his articles on the history of the rest of the world are quite good.


And now, the feature article:

Kongo and the Rise of Modern Slavery

Due to the lack of neighbors who could write, the origins of the states in central Africa are poorly documented. The tribes that founded them came with the Bantu migration in Chapter 4. By the ninth century they were firmly established in the savanna south of the equatorial jungles, living by farming and by trading copper and ivory with the Swahili on the east coast.
Kongo, the first important kingdom in the region, was founded in the fourteenth century by the Bakongo tribe, when it migrated across the Congo River and assimilated the indigenous tribes already living there. The ruler of the kingdom was called the manikongo, and he was elected by a council of six members. At its height, Kongo had six provinces that stretched from the Congo River in the north, to the Loge River in the south, and to the Kwango River in the east. Beyond this were several vassal states, so Kongo controlled the western parts of both modern-day Congos and northern Angola.

This was the situation in 1483 when Diogo Co, the Portuguese explorer, made contact with the kingdom. The current manikongo, Nzinga Nkuwu, was favorably impressed with the visitors, and sent an embassy to Portugal in 1489. The Portuguese returned the favor with an embassy of their own, sending missionaries, soldiers and artisans to Mbanza, Kongo's capital. Shortly after that, the king accepted baptism, becoming Africa's first Catholic king and taking for himself the name Joao I.

Because of this favorable start, the next manikongo, Joao's son, had two names, Nzinga Mvemba and Alfonso I (1506-43). He also got along well with the Portuguese, and in the letters exchanged between him and Portugal's King Manuel, they addressed each other as equals. Consequently, Alfonso wanted to convert his kingdom to Christianity and raise it to the same technological level as Europe, but attempts to impose the new religion on his people met violent resistance. In the end, Kongo Christianity fell victim to syncretism; African converts modified it so it could coexist with the old animism, in the same way that Caribbean nations like Cuba and Haiti combine Catholic and Voodoo symbolism on holy days; the cross, for example, came to represent royal power and good luck. We saw a similar situation with Islam in the previous chapter, where the form of Islam practiced south of the Sahara was questionable in the eyes of theologians from Mecca and Medina.

At any rate, the Portuguese were more interested in making fortunes for themselves than they were in giving Alfonso a hand, and now the quickest source of wealth came from the slave trade. This was the result of changing economic conditions, caused by the fifteenth century's voyages of discovery. In ancient times the institution of slavery had powered empires like Rome's, but with the introduction of feudalism, Europe seemed to outgrow it. By the end of the Middle Ages, there were still laws regulating slavery, but very few slaves in Europe; feudal lords had found that obligations could keep serfs on the land nearly as effectively as chains could hold down slaves. Consequently, when the first slave ships returned to Portugal, the slavers couldn't find customers for their human cargo and ended up reselling most of them in Morocco.

That changed when Europeans found a use for slaves on the sugar plantations they set up, first in the Canary and Azores Islands in the fifteenth century, then in the New World after 1500.(11) Plantation owners had trouble getting workers through the usual channels; Europeans didn't want to do such backbreaking labor, and when Indians were made to do it, they either died of overwork and the white man's diseases, or simply ran away. African slaves were seen as the solution to this problem; indeed, some humanitarians at the time thought that bringing over slaves was a blessing, because it meant the Indians would now be left alone. By 1500 Portugal was shipping 600 to 800 slaves from Africa every year, about the same amount as the Arabs had been buying for centuries; by 1600 the demand had increased to 5,000 slaves a year, with several nations competing with the Portuguese to transport their share. Most of the slaves went across the Atlantic on the dreaded "Middle Passage," with more than 3/4 going to Brazil or the Caribbean islands, and the rest going to Spanish colonies on the American mainland (and the English colonies in North America after 1618).

Unlike colonial America, slavery in Africa and the Middle East did not mean locking the slave and his descendants to the bottom of the social ladder, which is probably why Africans were willing to sell their neighbors at this stage. For a start, the children of slaves were automatically free. The Koran prohibited the enslaving of Moslems, so in the Islamic world a slave who converted to Islam was technically a free man. Caliphs and sultans enlisted armies of slaves, the most recent examples being the Mamelukes in Egypt and the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire, and there were no restrictions on how high they could rise in the ranks, so eventually they became kingmakers. A slave woman taken as a concubine could not be sold if she and her master had a child, and she automatically became free with her master's death.(12) In Africa there was no clear distinction as to who was a slave and who wasn't; convicted criminals and prisoners of war were simply classified as "wageless labor." A slave was considered a member of whichever tribe owned him, though because he wasn't related to the other members, his status was lower. On a positive note, the slave in African society had several ways to improve his situation: he could buy his freedom, he could inherit goods or be promoted to an important position without being set free, or he could marry his master's daughter.


An Arab slave caravan, crossing the Sahara Desert. Ibn Battuta (see Chapter 5) traveled with such a party when he came home from Mali in 1353; his group had 600 female slaves.
Kongo was conveniently suited for the slave trade, being at the same latitude as Brazil and readily accessible to ships crossing the south Atlantic. Alfonso cooperated in slave raiding at first, but eventually the greed of his partners got to him. In 1526 he wrote a letter of complaint to Manuel's successor, King John III, deploring the "excessive freedom given by your agents and officials to the men and merchants who are allowed to come here." He went on to note that every day the merchants "seize upon our subjects, sons of the land and sons of our noblemen and vassals and relatives . . . and cause them to be sold; and so great, Sir, is their corruption and licentiousness that our country is being utterly depopulated."

The Portuguese did not heed this letter, and their constant slave raids played a major part in weakening Kongo and reducing the hold of the capital (renamed So Salvador) over the provinces. In 1568 the kingdom fell victim to a devastating invasion by the Jaga, a fierce group of nomads from the Lunda tribe in the east. The Portuguese helped the manikongo drive the invaders out, but after that, the Lunda kingdom made sure that Kongo would not recover. To the south, Portuguese began subverting Kongo when they seized and occupied the lands of the Ngola tribe. They founded Luanda, the future capital of Angola, in Ngola territory (1575), and Benguela farther south, in the land of the Ovimbundu tribe (1587). The purpose of these footholds was to guarantee the continuation of the slave trade, as Kongo was not the only kingdom that had become hostile to this business.

As the colony of Angola expanded it came into direct conflict with Kongo over cultivable land, and a series of conflicts and border wars occurred. In 1641, Manikongo Garcia II allied himself with the Dutch against the Portuguese, but in 1665 a Portuguese force decisively defeated the army of Kongo, and from that time onward the manikongo was little more than a vassal of Portugal. His kingdom disintegrated into several smaller states, all controlled to varying degrees by the Portuguese. A Bakongo chief continued to hold the title of manikongo until the twentieth century, but it was largely a ceremonial affair, with most of Kongo's land now incorporated in the Portuguese colony of Angola.


What is history but a fable agreed upon?
Napoleon Bonaparte

Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.- Mohandas Gandhi

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Lord Ranulf View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Lord Ranulf Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 23-Mar-2007 at 16:00
Interesting and refreshing too to see that contrary to the uninformed view, that slavery as an institution, in Africa, was not really originated by Euro's perse. The case log chronicles of slavery in the sub-Saharan Kingdoms of old is manifold and legion. Sometimes, even when the obvious is obvious, it is not so for all, who would defend an agenda vice the historical record. 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Mayra Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 27-May-2009 at 00:03
Originally posted by Lord Ranulf Lord Ranulf wrote:

Interesting and refreshing too to see that contrary to the uninformed view, that slavery as an institution, in Africa, was not really originated by Euro's perse. The case log chronicles of slavery in the sub-Saharan Kingdoms of old is manifold and legion. Sometimes, even when the obvious is obvious, it is not so for all, who would defend an agenda vice the historical record. 
There is so much historical evidence to back that up and can you believe that when I was in Nigeria, I got in to a very heated discussion with a nigerian and two trinidadians, over whether africans were raiding and had slaves before the arrival of the europeans. They insisted they did not! LOLOLOLOL....when I pointed out translated text after translated text of itans, or verses of the sacred Odus, the oral bible of the Yorubas, which clearly and distinctly talks about several classes of people; lowest being "slave", then there was "pawn" where your family could loan you out to pay off a debt. They insisted that any reference to "slave" was the ignorance in translation of the texts, or was instead really that of "pawn". Some people are so hung up on whitey being the bad guy they can't see their own history's role in the slave trade. We need to all get a grip and realize that almost every people on every point of this planet have at one time or another been enslaved or are still being enslaved. white, red, yellow, black...all of us....
"Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds."
" I have no particular talent. I am merely inquisitive". Albert Einstein
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Carcharodon Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 27-May-2009 at 02:45
The real bath of steel for Kongo came with the Belgians in the late 19th and early 20th century. The hunt for natural resources and the production of rubber came to affect Kongo and it´s population as a cataclysm of nearly biblical proportions.
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