Bakongo – The African Renaissance Part III, by Jan van Seist

Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo. Oh, no, no, no, no, no!
Bingo, bango, bongo, I’m so happy in the Congo. I refuse to go!

From “the lament of the slave” by the Singing Sisters of St Andrew.

Fair gentles, of gentle Africk’s foremost shire, it is with great pleasure that I once again offer for your edification and entertainment my humble thoughts and musings on the African renaissance. Once again, I acknowledge my debt to our mighty doge, Thabo M’dici, whose constant pontificatings on this subject are a never-ending source of inspiration(1)to me.

In this history, I wish to chronicle the brief, glorious but, alas, tragic history of the Kingdom of the Bakongo. The African kingdom that during the 16th century scaled the highest heights and then, in the 17th, plumbed the lowest lows of all the lands south of the Sahara.

Our story begins in the late 15th century, in the lush and fertile delta of the mighty Congo – a delta that was ruled in its entirety by the Manikongo, Bakongo’s mighty king. The founders of the Bakongo state (a race of armourers(2) who had decided that demand was more fun than supply) had foundered their foundries and Bungi-jumped downstream from Bungu at some point in the 14th century. Over the course of the years, they had established a more or less typical feudal state(3), that stretched from northern Angola to north of the modern Congolese Republic that wasn’t formerly known as Zaire.

In Fourteen hundred and eighty two, the Portuguese sailed the ocean blue (HUZZAH) and they discovered a powerful and united kingdom to the rear of their Islamic enemies and conveniently located on a coast that they wished to circumnavigate. This got them thinking. The poor suffering heathens were obviously in desperate need of the redeeming power of the gospel. They could also, with a little technological assistance, develop into a pro-Portuguese, potential pain in the Paynim posterior. The Bakongo for their part, weren’t entirely convinced about the redemption business but were quite happy to receive whatever technology the Portuguese were prepared to pass on.

From 1490 on Portugal poured missionaries, masons, carpenters, soldiers, engineers etc. etc. into the Bakongo. Young Kongolese noblemen travelled regularly to the Portuguese court for education and training. The capital Mbanzakongo was entirely rebuilt out of stone and during the reign of King Afonso the Great (known to his friends as Nzinga Mbemba; b.1491, crowned. 1507, died 1543) the kingdom enjoyed unprecedented (but alas also unpostcedented) peace(4)and prosperity.

Alas there was, as the less enlightened of our American cousins would say, a pigmentally-challenged gentleman in the woodpile. The Portuguese needed slaves in Brazil and they were prepared to pay. The Bakongo had next-door neighbours and they were prepared to sell(5). By the end of Mbemba’s reign things were starting to get out of hand. The peasant shortage was causing a few agricultural problems and the tendency of his courtiers to organise long Brazilian holidays for their rivals was rapidly reaching epidemic proportions.

King Afonso wrote to his Portuguese ally to warn him of the moral dangers that slavery posed to the subjects of their two great nations. However, the Portuguese king was too busy counting the profits from his Brazilian estates to pay much attention. Afonso then wrote to the Pope to explain the threat that slavery posed to Christendom in West Africa. The Pope was too busy counting the prophets of Protestantism and assessing the threat that they posed to Christendom in West Europe to risk parting with his Portuguese allies. However, he was a man of principle. After receiving Afonso’s letter, the Pope immediately sent an extra boatload of missionaries to the Bakongo to cheer them up. He also wrote a very stern letter to the Portuguese king on Afonso’s behalf and summoned the Portuguese ambassador to the Vatican and gave him a particularly nasty Paddington Bear hard stare.

In 1575, the Portuguese (who had long since stopped sending anything other than missionaries or slavers to the Congo delta) generously invaded the Angolan lands south of Bakongo to take some pressure off their unhappy and rapidly depopulating allies. Unfortunately, their new native subjects preferred hopping over the border, acquiring a few village loads of Bakongans and selling them to their sweet and innocent Portuguese friends to becoming slaves themselves.

Matters went from bad to worse and, finally in the 17th century, the Manikongo declared war on Portugal. It was a nice idea in principle but the remnants of his kingdom weren’t up to it in practice. The Portuguese shipped the survivors to South America and the once glorious nation of the Bakongo vanished from the history books, never to return.

(1) .. and amusement

(2) The Bakongo never forgot where their power came from and their court was perhaps the only one in the world where the title “Smith” was more or less equivalent to “Count” (or would have been if their counts had counted as counts- see note 3).

(3) The Bakongo kingdom was pretty much indistinguishable from a typical mediaeval kingdom, except for two points. One, they tended to eat more tropical fruit than the average Norman and, two, they had to make do with chiefs, sub-chiefs and so-forth instead of dukes and counts because they were black.

(4) Peace meaning that no one dared attack Bakongo. Afonso’s armies were of course kept very busy throughout his reign testing out all the wonderful toys the Portuguese had given them on their quickly subjected but not particularly impressed neighbours.

(5) The ambitious 16th Century Bakongan had a wide variety of mercantile options. He could mine metals at great risk to life and limb and sell them for a pittance to the Portuguese. He could hunt wild animals at great risk to life and limb and sell the skins/tusks/other bits for a pittance to the Portuguese. Finally, he could grab that annoying kid from next-door and sell him to the Portuguese for a colossal fortune. Hard choice.

The Bakongo and Japan
In a surprising footnote to the history of the Bakongo, one of their number occupies a minor role in pre-Edo Japanese history. In 1581, a group of Jesuit missionaries held a fair in Kyoto. They were accompanied by a Congolese slave. When Oda Nobunaga – the de facto Shogun – heard that the Southern Barbarians (= Catholic Europeans, Northern Barbarians = Protestant Europeans) were accompanied by a man with black skin, he ordered them to bring the man to his court and to strip and wash him in his presence. Satisfied that the Congolese was indeed black, Nobunaga thanked the missionaries for their present and allowed them to leave. When Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582, the Congolese was the only member of his household to survive the attack.