From Kongo to Congo: The History Of The Belgian Congo (To 1963)

Within the Kongo during the first millennium B.C. a variety of groups lived and exchanged commodities. Bantu speaking peoples, Sudanic peoples, the Gbandi, the Ngbaka, the Zande and the Mangbetu, who were Nilotic cattle herders from Eastern Africa, joined the indigenous people. The Bantu people came from the Benue River in what is now Nigeria. They started arriving at about 1000 BC and continued to come for several centuries, well into the middle of the first millennium (Gondola 20-23).

The Bantu people are credited with bringing many cultural developments to the Kongo area. They brought intensive agriculture, and metallurgy, which, is iron smelting. Because of these advances, food was abundant and now used in trade, which was something that had not happened before their arrival. The arrival of the Bantu people made the first impact on the Kongo region, and continues to impact the region even today (Gondola 23-25).

Even before colonization of the Kongo, the people living in the region had a formal political structure throughout the country. This structure can be divided into four different groups: villages, districts, provinces, and finally kingdoms. Villages were comprised of kanda or the extended matrilineal line of families. Districts were groups of villages, headed by an official who was appointed by the king. Provinces were large, groups of districts watched over by a governor, also appointed by the king. Mani Kongo, or the king, would rule of the kingdom (Gondola 23-25).

The Kanda were important to Congolese society. Women were the pillars of Kanda’s and men were outsiders. Bloodlines were traced through women, which meant that children did not belong to fathers, but to the mother’s families. As a male in this society, your wife’s brother controlled your children, and you were left with mere guardianship. Kanda’s would also incorporate members through slavery or debt. Power and wealth within this community was based on seniority. The head of a kanda was also the head of a village. They would be responsible for dispensing justice, maintaining roads, and reporting to their district official. Women were the head of Kandas during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (Gondola 25-28).

In the late fifteenth century, the Mani Kongo was ruler of more than three million subjects. The kingdom was divided into six principal provinces: Mpemba, Soyo, Mbamba, Nsundi, Mpangu, and Mbata. Mpemba, Soyo and Mbamba were by far the wealthiest of the provinces. Governors of these provinces had difficult jobs, they were required to command military actions, accompany the king into battle, look over fiscal and administrative duties, and tax their subjects a tribute to the king. They also looked over the district and village officials (Gondola 27-29).

The king was supreme ruler, the kingdoms civil and spiritual leader. Duties of being the highest priest in the land meant mediating between the living, nza ya yi, and the dead, nzi ya bafwa. Mani Kongo created and enforced all laws of the land. The king’s income came mostly from tribute, or taxes that were collected in his name (Gondola 28-29).

In 1482, the first Portuguese caravan reached Mbanza Kongo, the kingdoms wealthiest town. Diogo Cão a Portuguese seaman led the expedition. A few years later, in 1491, King João II of Portugal sent missionaries to the Kongo. The mission wanted to embrace the native people with Catholicism, it lead to Civil War and the eventual collapse of the Kingdom (Gondola 31).

By 1506 the Kongo had its first Catholic King. Nzinga Mbemba, the governor of Nsundi, was baptized under the name Afonso I, and became the Kongo’s first and most capable Catholic King. During his rule, he opened the Kongo to merchants and missionaries. He adopted Catholicism as the state religion, which would inevitably lead to the destruction of the Kongo’s people. During this time slavery expanded 10,000 slaves a year. The slaves were being taken from the Kongo to Brazil and the Catholic clergy were among the worst slave traders (Gondola 31-32). Afonso I was considered the most capable Catholic King because of the relations with Europe that he opened for his people. Afonso had contact with the now very present Portuguese in the Kongo. He sent letters to the King of Portugal addressing the issue of slave trade within the country. At this time, Afonso’s Kongo was the only "pre-colonial Sub-Saharan African State to have relations with Europe" (Gondola 27).

With King Afonso I’s death in 1545 the Kingdom was in near ruin. Slave trade was rampant and Portugal had begun to try and control the region. Afonso I was succeeded by King Diogo I. He tried to hold the Congo together during violent civil war, which was also fueled by the Portuguese government. In 1566, the Portuguese succeeded and placed King Alvaro I into power over the Congo. Two years after the Portuguese helped Alvaro into power, he again needed their help when Jaga, a group of migrant warriors from the east, invaded the Congo. By the end of the Jaga threat the Congo was loosely controlled by the Portuguese through economic means (Gondola 34).

Alvaro I died in 1587 and his son Alvaro II succeeded the throne. During this time, the effects of the previous years of Portuguese influence on the Congo are noticed. Mbanza Kongo, the kingdoms most wealthy market, and province was losing power to Luanda, a new market and colony set up by the Portuguese. Alvaro II would rule until 1614, after which many different rulers would come into power form civil war after civil war (Gondola 34-35).

It is during King António I rule, 1661-1665, that the Congo sustained the most devastating blows. By this time, the Portuguese have had control over many areas of the Congo, and not just the markets like, Luanda. In 1665, King António I is killed in the largest conflict between the Portuguese and Congolese (Gondola 35). António’s death marked the beginning of serious chaos for the Congo. The Congo was eventually divided among the French, Belgian and Portuguese. During this time, the Congo was extensively traded on the slave market by Portuguese, French, British and Dutch peoples. Slave trade was so important that the native people now depended on selling slave to these people and not on the agricultural production it was used to relying on (Gondola 45). Luckily, by the 1800’s slave trade started to become obsolete because of the industrial revolution in Europe. Brazilians and Spanish-Cubans were the only slave trading nations left after 1835 (Gondola 46).

In 1816, James Kingston Tuckey, a captain in the British Royal Navy, embarked on an expedition to find the source of the Congo River. It was the first time a European explorer would undertake the task of exploring the locality of the inner regions of the Congo. His attempt however was not successful (Gondola 43-47). The captain and his crew faced overwhelming obstacles; the rapids of the river, and yellow fever were among the worst. Tuckey’s lack of success did, however, increase the interest in other Europeans wanting to "unlock the mystery of the Congo River" (Gondola 47).

John Rowland, or Henry Morton Stanley would follow Tuckey’s lead, and eventually accomplish what the British Naval Captain was unable to do. Stanley was not however the first European to become interested in the Congo after Tuckey’s mission. British physician, missionary and explorer, David Livingstone had set off to central Africa in search of the source of the Nile River. At fifty-two years of age Livingstone set off on a two thousand mile expedition, which would take three years, and cost many people their lives. David Livingstone, gravely ill, arrived in Ujiji, where he would meet with Stanley, who had ventured into Africa to find him (Gondola 47-48).

James Gordon Bennett Jr backed Stanley’s rescue mission of David Livingstone. Bennett was the publisher of the New York Herald. The rescue brought instantaneous fame to Stanley because people in Europe had feared for Livingstone’s life. This mission was not Stanley’s first trip to Africa, and it would not be his last (Gondola 48-49).

After returning to England a hero, Stanley set off to Africa once again. This trip included 7,000 miles, and a crew of over three hundred people. Most of the people accompanying Stanley were natives, and most did not survive the terrible conditions forced upon them by the environment, and the inhumane treatment from Stanley himself (Gondola 49).

’The blacks give an immense amount of trouble; they are too ungrateful to suit my fancy,’ he wrote while on the journey. He drove his men up hills and through swamps without letup.’ When mud and wet sapped the physical energy of the lazily-inclined, a dog whip became their backs, restoring them to a sound-sometimes to an extravagant-activity.’ (Hochschild 31)

When Stanley, and nine other men reached Boma in August of 1877, he proclaimed, "Europeans had finally solved the great mystery of both the Nile and Congo rivers"(Gondola 49). When he returned to England, he began making speeches to manufactures and politicians.

There are 40,000 naked people beyond that gateway, and the cotton-spinners of Manchester are waiting to clothe them . . .. Birmingham’s foundries are glowing with red metal that shall presently be made into ironwork in every fashion and shape for them. . . . and the minister of Christ are zealous to bring them, the poor benighted heather, into the Christian fold. (Gondola 49)

Like others, Stanley wanted to "map" (Gondola 49) geographic discoveries so that Europeans could benefit from this "darkest Africa" (Gondola 48). This visit was among the most detrimental for the Congo. It "paved the way for claiming African territories"(Gondola 50).

Fame and fortune were not the only things waiting for Stanley when he returned from Africa. The King of the Belgians, Leopold II, had followed Stanley’s expedition with enthusiasm. Belgium was a small country about half the size of West Virginia that had recently declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1830 (Gondola 50). Although it was a small country, Leopold was determined to find a colony for Belgium, and thought that an African state would be in their best interest. Leopold met with Stanley in Brussels during June of 1878. Stanley was spared no expense and became the "kings man in Africa" (Gondola 50).

Aware of the European communities opinion of Leopold the man, he tried doubly hard to make his case for the Belgian colony of the Congo. After gaining knowledge of the explorer’s trip to Africa, Leopold asked Stanley to accompany him to the conference in Brussels to talk about what could "be done" in Africa. "The resulting international, humanitarian and scientific assembly met on September 12, 1876 in the palace of the Belgians in Brussels" (Wesseling 86). Two days later the Association Internationale Africaine, with King Leopold acting as president, was formed.

What really happened in the Congo was very different than what Leopold told the European community he would do in the beginning. "He maintained it until the turn of the century, when the Congo atrocities transformed his image for good from humanitarian prince into colonial villain-in-chief" (Wesseling 88). The peoples of the Congo were exploited, the land was exploited, and it had always been the plan of Leopold, and the Belgian explorers.

Less than ten years after Leopold first had the inkling to colonize Africa, his small country of Belgium controlled one-tenth of Africa. During those ten years Leopold change two ideas he had about the Congo. First changing the ideology from "national philanthropic association" to "private commercial enterprise." The second was the change from a "commercial plan to a political reality: the Congo Free State" (Wesseling 89).

Leopold had set out to civilize the Congo in the heart of Africa. He first sent missionaries, and explorers. The next step was colonization; Leopold and European settlers developed new governments while developing the Congo (Wesseling 92). It was during this time that the Congo’s innocence disappeared.

Everyone tried to put their hand on a piece of Africa, the Belgians, the French, the British, and the Germans, all played their part. Portugal already thought they had their own rights in Africa after their first discovery, but in the 1880’s the Portuguese had little presence with the Congo. Countless treaties were signed between the Belgians and the native population, as well as between all countries scrambling for colonies in Africa. The Belgians were finally given the consent of the rest of the European community after Leopold proposed his "Congo Free State" idea where there would be free trade (Wesseling 100-105).

The Belgian colonization of the Congo was brutal. Endless atrocities were committed in the name of civilization. Leopold single handedly destroyed any and every part of what was left of Kongo civilization with the development of his new Congo state. Just as guilty as Leopold and the Belgians were the rest of Europe, during this time every country was knee deep in the spilt blood of Native Africa (Wesseling 106).

Germany, under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, called the Berlin Conference to discuss the recent events in the Congo. The conference was called to do three things. First, with representatives from Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain and the United States present they would discuss "freedom of trade in the basin and mouth of the Congo." Second on the agenda was "freedom of navigation on the Congo and the Niger based on the same principles as applied for the Danube." The last subject tackled at the conference was to make clear "the definition of the formalities to be observed when taking possession of new territory on the African coast" (Wesseling 106-114). The conference took place on November 15, 1884.

The outcome of the Berlin Conference was the origin of the Congo Free State. This is what Leopold had been working towards for years, recognition of the Congo by the super powers of the world, and after playing games, and making promises to every side of the table, Leopold received their support. Berlin however had questions for Leopold; Bismarck wanted to know exactly what Leopold’s Association actually was. The Belgium king replied that it was "an organization founded to set up stations with the purpose of linking the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and of establishing a free state" (Wesseling 121). Bismarck finally gave Leopold his blessing and recognized not only the AIC, but also the boundaries that Leopold and Stanley had created (Wesseling 116-121).

For a long time occupation of the Congo was looked upon as philanthropic; the hard working Europeans building roads, schools, hospitals, and missions. The truth was that the Congo was anything but. Leopold controlled the Congo for twenty-four years and it was during these years, 1885-1908 that the Congo lost between five and eight million native people (Gondola 59-63).

During these years, mass murder and slavery ran rampant in the Congo. European, as well as some native people, were enslaving neighbors to harvest red rubber and ivory. Leopold’s "vacant lands policy" (Gondola 74), called for the harvest of rubber and ivory not populated by the native people. It wasn’t until 1905 that the rest of the world would speak out against the conditions in the Congo (Gondola 67-74).

Congolese people were subjected to horrible atrocities during this time, hands were cut off, people were chained together to work, whipped, kidnapped, and held hostage. Sometimes death was an escape from the torture of this dark period in the Congo’s history, but even that was brutal and inhumane. During this time the Congo was a leading exporter of ivory and rubber (Gondola 67-74).

During this time, two missionaries from the United States were visiting the Congo, George Washington Williams and William Sheppard. "Shepard’s and Williams’ protests on behalf of the millions of Congolese victims of colonial abuses set the stage for what was called the Congo Reform Association" (73-75). The Congo Reform Association, led by Edmund D. Morel and Roger Casement led to the Casement Report. This report told of the "large-scale" (Gondola 74) atrocities all over the Congo, where once booming communities were now populated by only small numbers of survivors and witnesses. The Casement report attracted attention in the United States and in Europe, and everyone was looking for Leopold’s reign in the Congo to end (Gondola 72-74). "In 1906, while the debate was raging in Belgium, evidence of Leopold’s rape of the Congo continued to rise" (Gondola 74).

Leopold however, was still looking for a way to put money into his pockets, and he announced his intentions to sell the Congo.

The Belgian government received full sovereignty over the Congo in return for assuming FR 110 million worth of debts that Leopold had incurred. Under the terms of the deal, the Belgian government also agreed to pay more than Fr 45 million toward completing some of the king’s wayward, self-aggrandizing projects in Belgium. They were to pay Leopold another Fr 50 million, to be extracted from the Congo, as a ‘mark of gratitude for his sacrifices made for the Congo.’ (Gondola 75)

On November 15, 1908 the Congo Free State became the Belgium Congo. The Belgium Congo however, was not very different from Leopold’s Free State; a huge number of native Congolese were still enslaved (Gondola 72-75).

The new Belgian Congo was still Leopoldian in thinking when it came to the monetary wealth of the Congo’s resources. The government had not really changed, and King Albert I, Leopold’s successor, still controlled a lot of power over affairs in the Congo. Belgium controlled the Congo for another fifteen years before they noticed changes occurring within the Congo.

In 1920, it became clear to the rest of the world, that the Congo’s government did not represent the needs of its native peoples, and must be changed. It did; the Congo became even more repressed than ever. "Belgian administration in Congo might be described as a ‘colonial trinity.’ Three forces, namely the state, the missions, and the big companies, collaborated in the administration of the colony" (Gondola81) .

European influence within the Congo was astounding; missionaries helped the government "civilize" the native population. They did so, and the Catholic Church was even given a special status within the colony. Education was just as important to the Belgians during this time. They wanted to control a colony that had knowledge and skill, but of course, only to a certain degree (Gondola 78-82). The Congolese did show resistance to Belgian rule, on many different levels. Each form of resistance took on its own type of punishment from the colonial government. "The Belgians successfully promoted the idea of a ‘happy colony’ where there were no upheavals or discontent, only peace and progress under the humane and benevolent care of the colonial government" (Gondola 96). The Belgian’s own policies brought this view of the Congo to an end in 1959 (Gondola 94-96).

Slowly colonies surrounding the Congo were seeing political change that favored for a shift in the indigenous natives position. Many were even on the way to independence from their colonizers. When the Congo did not respond to changing politics with in the area an "all-European commission" was set up to investigate and ultimately "blue-print" the "new governmental policy in the Congo" (Gondola 109). These events would not have been possible if it were not for various political movements now capturing the Congolese people (Gondola 108-109).

The Congo was emancipated from Belgium on June 30, 1960. The Belgians did bring wealth to the colony, and the native Congolese were hoping to finally enjoy their own economic prosperity. They had just been through conquest from foreign countries, the depression, horrible colonial rule, World War I and World War II. The Congolese people were ready for independence (Gondola 109-113). The problems of racism, the treatment of the native population as second-class citizens, and the lasting effects of World War II helped other countries side with the Congolese people in their fight for independence.

For three years after the Emancipation of the Congo, the country was in turmoil. Various political uprisings occurred and the country was torn apart. Each political group, none of which could deliver, made promises. The poorer peasants of the country "were waiting for the tractors to arrive" (Young 312). Those tractors were only one "unfulfilled expectation"(Young 312). Strikes, broken promises and political friction continued to linger and destroy the Congo’s former continuity from previous Belgian rule (Young 307-313).

During the Congo’s turbulent beginning, many countries tried to intervene in political affairs. They used: fear of communism, economic collapse, civil war, and protection of European citizens living in the Congo to back themselves for intervening. Two things were happening during this time; "a slow downward spiral of disintegration, which reached its nadir with the announcement of the assassination of former Prime Minister Lumumba in February 1961, and which saw the Congo split into four principal fragments: Katanga, South Kasai, Congo (Leopoldville) and Congo (Stanleyville)" (Young 321-322). The second was "a gradual improvement and trend toward reunification" (Young 322).

These events involved the United Nations, whom deployed troops to the Congo, and also called attention from the rest of the world. By the end of 1960, the Congo was divided four ways, two sections claiming succession and the other two claiming to have control over the whole country (Young 322). Several years of negotiations occurred between the four provinces and their supporters (Young 312-341). The UN presence became even greater during this period, until an agreement could be reached. On January 14, 1963, Katanga’s succession was resolved and the country was once again made whole (Young 341-343).


Works Cited

Gondola, Didier Ch. The History of Congo. Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut, 2002.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston, 1998.

Weiss, Herbert F. Political Protest in the Congo: The Parti Solidaire Africain During The Independence Struggle. Princeton University Press: Princeton New Jersey, 1967.

Wesseling, H.L. Divide and Rule: The Partition of Africa 1880-1914. Praeger: Westport Connecticut, 1996.

Young, Crawford. Politics in the Congo: Decolonization and Independence. Princeton University Press: Princeton New Jersey, 1965.