[Image of João I Nzinga a Nkuwu]

The Kongo people or Bakongo (not to be confused with “Congolese” because that’s a nationality of people from the Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo. Bakongo are sometimes referred to as “Kongolese” in English) are a Bantu ethnic group who are descendants of people from the Kongo Kingdom, Central Africa in what is now northern Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kikongo is the mother tongue of the Bakongo and they speak either French or Portuguese as their second language depending on whether they live in any of the Congos or Angola.    

Kikongo is the language of the Bakongo (Kongo people) of Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo. There is a creole language spoken in the D.R. Congo and Republic of Congo called Kituba. Reminents of Kikong can be found in languages/dialects spoken by people descendants from enslaved Africans who were taken from the Kongo Kingdom. It can be found in Brasil. Haiti, Cuba, Colombia and the US. Words that are used in the Americas which may be of Kikongo origin are: zombie from the Kikongo word zumbi meaning fetish, funk/funky from the word Lu-fuki, the Cuban dance Mambo which means  “conversation with the gods” also words such as nganga and many others. Also elements of Bakongo culture and religion can be found in the diaspora  C. Daniel Dawson surveyed Kongo-Ngola culture in the diaspora – in Brasil, Haiti, Cuba, and more.

The Bakongo settled in the Congo region before 500 BCE as part of the Bantu migration. The Kongo Kingdom was formed around 1375. Legends tells of a ruling class who originated in the region around the Congo river, established a political base at Mbanza Kongo and from this capital. Other surrounding sates joined the Kongo Kingdom either by force (and were controlled by the friends and family of the Mwene Kongo (manikongo) aka King of Kongo) or voluntarily, those who joined the Kongo Kingdom remained under the control of their original rulers but they had to submit to the king of the Kongo Kingdom.  

In 1483 a ship from an expedition sent by the Portuguese Kingo João II to find a sea route to Asia arrive at the mouth of the Congo River. Diogo Cão the captain sent delegation to the Bakongo king who lied several days journey away. Cão awaited for their return, after weeks of waiting Cão feared for the safety of hiself and his men, he seized several Bakongo hostages and sent word to the king that the hostages would be delivered safely to Kongo on his next voyage if his delegation was returned to him alive and well. Cão returned to the Congo Reiver in 1488, bringing back the hostages in exchange for his delegates. The Portuguese were treated as honoured guest during their long stay and this was the beginning of  500 year relationship between the Kingdom of Portugal and the Kingdom of Kongo. 

In 1491 Nzinga a Nkuwu, the King converted to Christianity and changed his name to João, making the Kongo Kingdom the first and only pre colonial Central African Kingdom to practice Christianity. The capital Mbanza Kongo was remained São Salvador. After the death of João King Afonso I looked to the Portuguese for help in dealing with factions within the Kongo that were threatening his power. But the Portuguese were more interested the in the business of buying and selling Africans as salves. In 1526 Afonso wrote to the King of Portugal asking him to end the slave trade. He wrote again later that year repeating his complaints about the Portuguese but agreeing to allow the slave trade to continue under a new system of royal supervision. The Portuguese King never responded directly, as the transatlantic slave trade grew, so did the tension between the two Kingdoms. In one of his letter Afonso wrote:

“Each day the traders are kidnapping our people - children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family. This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. It is our wish that this Kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves.”
Many of our subjects eagerly lust after Portuguese merchandise that your subjects have brought into our domains. To satisfy this inordinate appetite, they seize many of our black free subjects…. They sell them. After having taken these prisoners [to the coast] secretly or at night….. As soon as the captives are in the hands of white men they are branded with a red-hot iron”

(Art source)

Afonso is best known for his vigorous attempt to convert Kongo to a Catholic country, by establishing the Roman Catholic Church in Kongo, providing for its financing from tax revenues, and creating schools. To aid in this task, Afonso sent various of his children and nobles to Europe to study, including his son Henrique Kinu a Mvemba, who was elevated to the status of bishop in 1518. He was given the bishopric of Utica (in North Africa) by the Vatican, but actually served in Kongo from his return there in the early 1520s until his death in 1531.

The Church that Afonso created was not simply a copy or extension of the Portuguese church, but from the very beginning included elements of Kongo theology. For example, the BaKongo probably believed that most of the denizens of the Other World were the souls of deceased ancestors, and not gods who had never lived on earth or had a material existence. Thus, the catechism described the Holy Trinity as “three people” (antu a tatu). Priests were called by the same name as the previous clergy (nganga), and more interestingly, the term ukisi, an abstract noun from the same root that gives the word nkisi (typically used to describe a charm, or in 16th century parlance, an “idol”) was used to translate holy.

In fact, key religious terms such as God, holy, and spirit were rendered in Kikongo terms taken directly from Kongo cosmology (Nzambi Mpungu for God, nkisi for holy and moyo for spirit or soul). This in turn, made conversion easier, as self-identification requires only a simple declaration of faith.

In this way, the Bible was called nkanda ukisi which might also be rendered as “charm in the form of a book” and a church was called nzo a ukisi or charm in the form of a building. In this way, Catholic saints were identified with local spiritual entities, and churches built in holy spots. This theology, developed by Afonso and a team of his colleagues, working with Portuguese priests, defined the way in which Bakongo approached the new religion and in many ways naturalized it.

Antonianism, which considered Saint Anthony of Padua to be the source of Kongo’s salvation, was the most prominent of these movements. It arose under Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, a Kongolese woman of high birth. Dona Beatriz fell ill in 1704 and claimed to be possessed by the spirit of Saint Anthony, who addressed the kingdom’s problems through her. She was trained as an nganga marinda, an individual who consults the supernatural world to solve problems within the community. Speaking as a medium for Saint Anthony, Dona Beatriz called for the revitalization of the kingdom through adherence to a vision of Catholicism that was set firmly within Kongo history and geography. This divine communication with Heaven revealed an African Holy Family. According to this vision, Jesus was born in Mbanza Kongo and baptized not at Nazareth but in the northern province of Nsundi, while Mary’s mother was a slave of the Kongo nobleman Nzimba Mpangi. Dona Beatriz also disclosed new versions of the Ave Maria and Salve Regina that were more relevant to Kongolese modes of thought. Although the movement recognized papal authority, it was hostile to European missionaries, whom it considered corrupt and unsympathetic to the spiritual needs of Kongolese Catholics. Dona Beatriz and her followers briefly occupied Mbanza Kongo, from which she sent emissaries to spread her teachings and urge rulers of the divided Kongo territories to unite under one king. In 1706, however, she was captured by King Pedro II and burned as a heretic at the behest of Capuchin monks.

(Art source)

Recommended books:

  • Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora by  By Linda M. Heywood
  • Elite Women in the Kingdom of Kongo by John K. Thornton
  • The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641-1718 by John Kelly Thornton 
  • The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo
    by Caecile Fromont, Ccile Fromont
  • Kongo Political Culture: The Conceptual Challenge of the Particular
    by Wyatt MacGaffey
  • Creoles, Their Substrates, and Language Typology by Claire Lefebvre, Caribbean Religious History by Ennis B. Edmonds, ‎Michelle A. Gonzalez 
  • Africas of the Americas: Beyond the Search for Origins in the Study of Afro-Atlantic Religions by Stephan Palmié
  • “The Origins and Early History of the Kingdom of Kongo,” International Journal of African Historical Studies by John K. Thornton

I see some people on here writing “Kongolese” to refer to ethnic Kongo people it’s wrong. Here is how it should be: (only for when you’re writing in English)

  • It’s not Congolese its Bakongo (plural) or  Muakongo (singular but I’ve only ever hear Muakongo used on very rare occasions some people use “Bakongo” to refer to themselves ) when referring to someone of the Kongo ethnic group or people of the Kongo Kingdom. 
  • Congolese is used to refer to someone from either the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Republic of Congo (and no they were never one country then split) 
  • Some people from the Democratic Republic of Congo still refer to themselves as  Zaïrois especially those who were born and/or lived between 1971–1997
  • Bakongo people live in the Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola
  • People can be ethnically Kongo (Bakongo) and their nationality can be Angolan. They can also be Congolese and ethnically Kongo (Bakongo)
  • Not every Congolese person belongs to the Kongo ethnic group. So people should stop tagging or commenting Kongo when the post is about Congo. Its rude to do so and it erases other Congolese ethnic groups. I hate being referred to as Kongo when that’s not my ethnicity. 
  • It’s okay to use Kongolese when you’re writing in German for example because they use the “K” instead of “C” but only if you mean Congolese not Bakongo