Sunday, May 19, 2019


I wrote this in 1993, perhaps, in a two-bedroom house where I lived for a year on the outskirts of Lawrence, Kansas, a half-block from Haskell Indian College. It was the first of a four-part series on the history of the Congo: The others were on the Red Rubber Campaign, the assassination of Lumumba, and Mobutu's kleptocracy. I never succeeded in interesting a publisher in any of them and I've since lost the other chapters, as well as a fully footnoted version of the manuscript, during a transition from one computer to another. 
I wonder what the scholarship has done since to the story as I told it here. A lot has been written, but much of it, it strikes me, having to do more with intramural debates within the field than with disagreements over the historical facts. I'm no longer up on the literature. FWIW, I was reading and rereading Ian Frazier's Great Plains at the time--still one of the most shockingly good books I've ever read--and though I suppose every gardener imagines himself a Capability Brown,  there are sentences here I wouldn't entirely disown.


And the Rise of Black Slavery in the Atlantic

In 1482, the Portuguese navigator Diego Cao set sail from Lisbon harbor in search of a passage to the Indies. In a three-masted caravel, Cao traveled in a broad arc past the Canary, Savage, Madeira and Cape Verde Islands; rounded Cape St. Vincent and Cape Nao in the Maghreb; suffered his sailors’ puns—“He who reaches Cape Nao will return or nao (not)”; revictualed at Arguin, a slave entrepot above the Senegal River, at Fort Mina, an armed post flush with gold dust from the trans-Saharan trade, and at Cape Santa Catarina below Africa’s bulge, until then the outer limit of the known world. Then, trimming his lateen sails to navigate against the prevailing headwinds, he sailed into the Southern hemisphere, in whose unfamiliar skies neither his astrolabe nor his almanacs availed him further. Soon he came to the effluence of a river whose discharge sent sweet red water and clumps of grass and bamboo for miles into the Atlantic, so he named it the Powerful River, or Rio Poderoso. Thinking it might lead him to the fabled realm of Prester John, he coasted into its mouth on an afternoon breeze. Crocodiles and hippopotamuses lay stunned by heat on banks of brilliant orchids. Flocks of parrots chattered at sunset from tangles of mangrove. Eagles wheeled overhead.

Diego Cao 
For centuries, Christian Europe had dreamed of finding Prester John, a legendary monarch and apocryphal adherent of the Nestorian heresy. His army was said to have routed the Persian infidels, and it was widely thought that he would have relieved the crusaders in the Holy Land if he had found the boats to ferry his troops across the Tigris. Like many rumors, this one held a grain of truth: beyond the Islamic strong-holds of North Africa and the Near East lay the isolated Coptic churches of the far Indies and Abyssinia. In 1165, a letter purporting to be from Prester John had arrived on the Pope’s desk. Transcribed into the vernacular languages of Europe, it became a continent-wide best-seller. Like the mappae mundi of the Middle Ages, it embroidered with a baroque magnificence: the presbyter’s dominion, it said, extended over the “Three Indias” to the realm where the body of St. Thomas the Apostle rested, and continued “through the valley of the deserted Babylon close by the Tower of Babel.” A river flowed through the dominion from Paradise, studded with emeralds and sapphires; the palace itself was roofed in ebony, its gables decorated with golden apples and carbuncles that “gave forth light by night.” Beside the castle, in the Fountain of Youth, bathers regained the age of thirty-two. Perched aloft a thirteen-story tower an enchanted mirror reflected the entire world. Every evening, at his gold and emerald table, Prester John was served by 7 kings, 62 dukes and 365 counts; dining with him were 20 bishops, 12 archbishops, and the Patriarch of St. Thomas. On Prester John’s behalf, ants the size of small dogs excavated gold; salamanders spun silk that was washed in fire; and though it was inhabited by “every kind of beast,” including the cannibals of Gog and Magog, in the entire realm, “no noisy frog croaks.”

Expeditions to the priest-king foundered. When they weren’t repulsed, they were never heard from again. The pope’s personal physician set off to the East, and disappeared. Others made it to Abyssinia, were treated grandly, and never left. Richard the Lion-Hearted looked at the evidence—the presence of Christian lieutenants among the golden hordes of Genghis Khan, the peripatetic flow of Asian luxuries, and the occasional traveler’s tale—and decided that if he attacked the Muslims, Prester John would come to his aid. Richard died in France in 1199, and the Third Crusade irritated the Arabs so much that they started oppressing the Christians who lived within their territories. Soon, in all of Arabia, there weren’t many Christians left. In the 14th century, Marco Polo reported that Prester John had died in battle against the Mongols, but the hope of making contact with his kingdom lived on.

Not much is known about Cao’s voyage of 1482. Most of the archives of the House of Guinea and India, where the ship’s log was filed, perished when the castle of Sao Jorge burned in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. In the 1930s, a researcher working on the surviving material, which was stored in the convent of Sao Bento, reported that when attendants went to the basement to search for documents, they had to carry candles. Every now and again, readers shook off the book-worms that had fallen to their laps. About Cao, then, there is room for conjecture.

Like crabs crawling along a coastline, the Portuguese had been exploring the African littoral and the Atlantic islands for decades before Cao’s coming upon the Congo. The Canaries were mentioned by the intrepid Roman geographer Pliny, who called them the “Fortunate Isles,” and died observing the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The Canaries lingered in the European imagination, “patches of twilight in the Sea of Darkness,” but it wasn’t until 1339 that they were re-discovered and settled by the Portuguese. Thereafter, the pace of exploration quickened. In 1415, Prince Henry the Navigator, spurred on by his astrologer, skimmed the profits from his Lusophone soap monopoly, equipped an expedition, and seized the town of Ceuta, opposite Gibraltar. In 1419, a Genoan captain in the pay of Prince Henry struck Madeira. Settlers named the first children born there Adam and Eve. The Azores and the Cape Verdes were discovered in mid-century as navigators inched down Africa’s bulge. Everywhere they went, the Portuguese kidnapped a few of the locals, brought them to Portugal, taught them Christianity, and sent them back. Also, because they had heard from Jewish traders about the Mansa of Mali, a man so rich that on his hajj in 1324 he had single-handedly caused prices in Egypt to spiral, they asked about gold. Some historians wonder which motive was more important. Others say both:
 It was this mixture of the deeper passions—greed, wolfish, inexorable, insatiable, combined with religious passion, harsh, unassailable, death-dedicated—that drove the Portuguese remorselessly on into the torrid, fever-ridden seas that lapped the coasts of tropical Africa and beyond. 
Life in the early Portuguese outposts was like the Wild West, only more so. Convicts who preferred not to hang could serve time in the colonies. The first baron of Madeira asked for a royal pardon and received one after he chopped off the offending organ of the man who had seduced his daughter. When they weren’t fighting, people generally got rich quick. They traded leather, fats, dates, horses, English and Irish cloth, carpets, copper basins, lead, brass utensils, glass ornaments, mirrors, beads, and bracelets, and in return got parrots, seals, monkeys, camels, ostrich eggs, antelope skins, wheat, a pepper called the “grain of paradise,” sweet wine, dyes, a perfume derived from the anal gland of the civet cat, and a resin called “dragon’s blood,” which was good, according to a contemporary source, “for putting flesh on one’s gums.” On a few otherwise uninhabited islands, colonies of lepers hunted for turtles, whose blood they hoped would cure them. Most of all, the Portuguese traded in sugar, ivory, gold, guns, and slaves. Ships filled with prostitutes sometimes dropped in. Some Portuguese “went native,” and many men took native women as wives and concubines. Because blacks and whites were thought to be different species, their children were called mulatos, after the mule.

Cao had on board interpreter-slaves from Guinea. They could not have had much luck, though, with the indigenous inhabitants who paddled up to the caravel in dug-out canoes, and whose KiKongo was as different from the languages of Guinea as Lithuanian is from French. Peter Forbath, who has written an excellent account of the European discovery and exploitation of the Congo River, imagines the scene as Cao dropped anchor:
 By means of signs and gestures and wide happy grins, the locals managed to make their friendly intentions known and their desire to become acquainted with the unusual newcomers. In the simple, direct and open way that strangers made friends in those far parts of the world in those distant times, the blacks and whites were soon trading with each other, lengths of wool and cotton cloth for elephant tusks, with Cao inviting aboard ship those among the blacks whom he judged to be chiefs or headmen. . . . There must have been a lot of touching. . . . Cadamosta [a later traveler] tells us that the natives spat on his arm and tried to rub off the white paint, and then they wondered all the more when they found the skin itself was white. 
Diego Cao erects a padrao at Shark’s Point, Banana
One of Cao’s first duties was to raise a padrao, a limestone pillar topped with a small cross, whose inscription read: “In the year 6681 of the creation of the world, and 1482 of the birth of our Lord Jesus, the very high, very excellent and mighty prince King Joao II of Portugal ordered this land to be discovered and these padroes to be placed by Diogo Cao, squire of his house.”

Considering they didn’t speak a common language, Cao’s crewmen and the Kongo got on surprisingly well. The Portuguese learned that the name of the river was Nzere, or “the river that swallows all rivers,” and that a powerful king lived several days walk into the interior of the country. They promised to return soon, and dispatched some expendable crew members—these may have been the slaves—with lavish presents. Then they continued south-ward, looking to round Africa’s rim.

15th century Kingdom of Kongo and present-day political
What historians know of the Kongo Kingdom and its eventual destruction is fragmentary. Sources include contemporary European accounts, private letters, church correspondence, bills-of-lading, papal bulls, missionary memoirs, slaver propaganda, embassy appointments, oral histories, ethnographic field-work, and a pirate’s autobiography. Researchers have combed the archives of the Vatican, Rome, Florence, Milan, The Hague, Madrid, Lisbon, London, Paris, Brussels, and Sao Tome. On splint houses above the Congo river and in decaying hillside villages anthropologists have sat down with tape recorder and note pad to sift the memories of old men. Despite these efforts, there’s a lot that isn’t known. Archives in Africa were destroyed by “cannibals” and fires. Sources contradict each other. Descriptions are vague or hostile. Parsing the old documents in the light of anthropological knowledge of present-day societies—a technique favored by many but not all researchers—is a bit like solving math problems by looking at the teacher’s manual, with this caveat: the manual goes to a later edition of the problem book.

View of City M'Banza-Kongo, capital of Kingdom of Congo, from Description of Africa by Olfert Dapper, 1668 
When the court and King of the Kongo first learned that a whale-colored people from a place called Mputu had arrived at the mouth of the Nzere, their sails “like knives in the sun,” the kingdom was perhaps only six generations from its founding, late in the thirteenth century. Like the great empires of West Africa, the Kongo emerged by subjugating its neighbors through war and incorporating them into a broad-reaching trading zone. The wars of conquest were not remembered for their difficulty. One Kongo noble told a seventeenth century chronicler that the original inhabitants of his region were small men with big heads, fat bellies and short legs. When they fell down, he said, they had trouble getting up. At its peak, the kingdom formed a rough square stretching from the mouth of the river to Malebo (Stanley) Pool, and from Luanda Island into present-day Angola. It would have been slightly larger than Portugal, and nearly as populous.

Most Kongo lived in small villages, scatterings of wattle and thatch huts strung along a mesh of footpaths that gathered at one or another of the six provincial capitals. Species of bananas grew on terraced clearings, shading the huts; the Portuguese, who hadn’t seen bananas before, called one variety the tree of knowledge and another the tree of paradise. Palm trees were the mini-marts of the Kongo: they provided a bit of everything. A hole bored at the top of the tree produced a sweet milky sap that was mildly alcoholic: the famous palm wine. Left for several days in the sun, the sap turned vinegary, and was tossed in salads. Women pounded the fruit of the palm with mortar and pestle, extracting an oil that was used for cooking, making bread, or as a body lotion. The kernel of the palm fruit resembled the almond, and was “good to eat, healthful and nourishing.” Men spun fibers threaded from the palm leaf into cloth so soft and colorful that Europeans compared it favorably to damask, taffeta, satin, velvet, and silk.

For meat, the Kongo ate savanna rat, palm worm, caterpillar, grasshopper, and snake, but preferred the bird, antelope, warthog, and elephant that the pygmies—preeminently—brought down. Other hunters dug pits and chased elephants into them, or sprang trigger traps from overhanging trees and tracked the spear-bloodied elephant for weeks, or (after the Portuguese had arrived), shot at the beasts as the animals took their evening salt lick by the river, then ran to reload from the safety of their canoes. But the pygmies rubbed their bodies with plants and elephant droppings, sent one of their young men crawling under the elephant’s belly to sever its hamstring, then attacked the crippled beast from all sides. It could take three or four hundred spear thrusts to finish off a large elephant. A Lilliputian struggle: death by toothpick.

Fish grew so abundantly in the river and in its tributaries and streams that pike were said sometimes to jump onto the banks. The manatee, called the pig fish or the woman fish, inspired the early European chroniclers to some of their best descriptive efforts: “It is fatty like the pig,” wrote one, “feeds on the grass of the banks, has a tail in the shape of a shield and has a snout like an ox.... It can weigh up to five hundred pounds.” Another wrote:
 It has a very good taste, and might be mistaken for veal. It has no feet, but it does have arms. Its eyes are so small that one can barely distinguish them. It has no ears... [but] it has teeth like us and its mouth is similar to a man’s. It defends itself very well with its arms. This fish lives at the bottom of the river, where it searches for its food in the mire. 
When they caught a manatee, fishermen cut it up and took the meat to the king. If they ate it themselves, and the king heard that they had, he put them to death. Fishermen and traders used dug-out mahogany canoes that could be twenty meters long and take sixty men to paddle. An anthropologist who has worked on the river says that canoe makers would camp out by the site of the tree they were working on, and that it could take months to shape and carve out a canoe. The only way the men could launch the larger canoes was by waiting until the river rose and flooded the construction site.

Men and women had different jobs. An eighteenth-century priest joked: “The women have the duty of providing the food, and the men that of obtaining the wine. If the men do not give the women anything to drink, the women will not give the men anything to eat, and vice-versa.” Many European chroniclers made note of how much harder women worked than men. “They take charge of cultivating the land, sowing and reaping in order to obtain sufficient food for their husbands,” said one, adding that “only the women are concerned with working.” Another said simply, “The men never work.” And a French Jesuit deplored the “incredible sufferings of the women, who drop with fatigue in the field, especially when they are pregnant or nursing a very young child.” Because Kongo women did farmwork that in Europe was normally undertaken by men, such as the planting, weeding, and harvesting of the fields, one historian has argued that the chroniclers may have thought the division of labor more lopsided than it was; on the other hand, most anthropologists today say that, in general, African peasant women are “overemployed” compared to their men.

When the women left the fields and tattooed their foreheads, gleamed darkly with palm oil and perfumed themselves with sandal-wood, and when the men chewed cola nuts all day for potency and decked themselves out in raffia cloth, the missionaries knew what was coming: an “indecent ball.” Through the centuries, nothing so provoked the missionaries as the Kongolese dances. One wrote of their “abominable songs” and their “actions even more horrible.” Another said that “the pen of the devout person refuses to put such things on paper.” And a third described them as a “scene from hell, diabolical practices fit to raise the devil.” Actually, the Kongo did sometimes dance in a style that was sexually explicit: in ways no European might ever have really understood, the dances linked and celebrated the fertility of the human, natural, and supernatural worlds. For their part, the Kongo found the inhibitions of the missionaries comical. If a Kongo woman met a European on a path, she was apt to raise her dress and strike, “not without coquetry,” the pose of the Venus de Medici. The records suggest that many Portuguese priests arriving in the Kongo forgot their vows within months.

By geographic and historical accident, different regions or villages within the Kongo developed special skills. Trade flourished. Vertical-loom raffia cloth, copper bands and bracelets, ironwork, foodstuff, the hair from elephant tails, salt, honey, leopard skins, domesticated animals, religious and medical artifacts, and musical instruments like drums, bells, trumpets, fifes, and xylophones were traded from market to market, up and down the river. Markets rotated within each zone on a four-day schedule. Prices were fixed: the Kongo were puzzled when the Portuguese wanted to barter. On the island of Luanda, women dove for thin, shiny black shells called nzimbu, the basic unit of currency. 100 nzimbu bought a chicken. 20,000 nzimbu filled a wicker basket called a kofu; later, one or two kofu could buy a slave.

Tribute from the six provincial governors was due the Kongo king every three years, but taxes of various sorts could be assessed more often. In 1619, under Alvaro III (the Kongo Kings had by then taken to using Portuguese names), peasants complained that a new tax was assessed every time the king’s cap blew off. The triennial tribute was an occasion for the governors to renew their oaths of loyalty; if they didn’t show up, the king considered them in revolt. A census in the 1640s, when the kingdom was already in decline, showed that the total tribute consisted of 7,000 kofu, plus hundreds of bundles of cloth and an assortment of food-stuffs and animals.

17th century painting of the dutch painter Albert Eckhout showing two emissaries of the Kingdom of Kongo in Brazil holding the two main sources of wealth in west africa, an ivory tusk and a jewel box.
The king’s household, an enclosure a mile and a half around, contained walled paths, palisades, decorated huts, courtyards, and gardens. One early traveler compared it to the Cretan labyrinth. Trumpeters and soldiers stood guard at its entrance. Mbanza Kongo, the capital city, rose on a cliff overhanging a river and a narrow valley fringed with forest. On its fertile plateau two springs gave crystal-clear water. Estimates of the population vary: at the time the Portuguese arrived, 60,000 to 100,000 people were said to live in the capital; the only other town of note, the capital of the coastal province of Sonyo, had a population of about 15,000, and the various other provincial capitals were considerably smaller.

The king himself stood at the apex of a social and political world fraught with hierarchy: slave to commoner; women to men; younger to elder; village chief to governor-the entire structure was fastidious in its observation of rank and manner. One observer wrote: In a gathering of chiefs, this is how the salutations proceed: The most important of the dignitaries grasps his own right wrist in his left hand, places the index finger of his right hand on the ground, carries it to his temples three times, opens the hand, presses the tips of the fingers to the ground, and then with closed fists beats the hands together rhythmically. This last gesture is repeated by every person present.

Depending on the situation and on a person’s status, protocol might include falling to one’s knees; taking dirt and rubbing it on one’s temple; using an “interpret-er” to speak to members of a different clan; and, among noble women, keeping a finger in the nose during conversation, “as a sign of nobility and high birth.” Only a few high-ranking nobles could address the king directly. No one (“neither man nor beast”) was allowed to watch the king eat, on pain of death; when he was about to drink, a servant struck two iron staffs together, and all present would fling themselves face down on the ground.

From his throne of ivory and sculpted wood, the king ruled through an elaborate network of councilors and governors, clan elders and local chieftains, priests and electors. He maintained that network through alliance, marriage, trade, and force. Of his twelve councilors, four by statute were women. In theory, the king could neither declare war nor open a road without the councilors’ consent; in practice, the king’s power depended on his political skills. A strong king, for example, could replace his governors at will; a weak one struggled to maintain their loyalty. No rule of primogeniture applied. Instead, clan elders picked the future king from among the sons of the dying king’s lesser wives. Despite the fact that successions were sometimes bloody, it was a system that insured continuity: anyone sharp enough to earn the clan elders’ loyalty was usually savvy enough to rule. Sometimes border provinces tried to break away, and sometimes peasants led local tax revolts, but the benefits of trade, on the one hand, and the power of the king to levy an 80,000-troop army, on the other, were usually enough to discourage rebellion.

When a man died, he was officially mourned for eight days. Then the man’s principal wife led the relatives to the nearest river, cut the belt that her husband had worn in life, and threw it in. The river carried the belt away, “together with the sadness for the lost one.” During that period, male kin wore white whenever they approached the corpse—white being the color of the dead. On the eighth day, women applied a mix of powdered charcoal to their faces and chests to signify the end of mourning, though a variety of rites and prohibitions were in effect for up to a year thereafter. The Kongo believed that the soul of the dead person retired to the water and assumed a white body and a new name, and that it might loiter in this world for months before crossing the ocean and attaining paradise. If, as the Kongo believed happened on occasion, the ghost of an ancestor returned to harm the family, the family would dig up the corpse and cause it to rise, walk about, and speak. Then they would inquire into their mistake and rebury the body with the correct rituals. Most explanations for this practice say that the spirit of the dead person entered the body of a living one; but some contemporary accounts insist that the corpse itself was resurrected.
Kongo grave marker, 19th century. His cap
with four leopard’s teeth, the beaded necklace, and
the bracelet identify the individual as a chief.
(Brooklyn Museum)
The dead were buried in a special thicket. On their graves were placed objects indicating their status in life: chairs and cups on the tombs of title-holders; baskets of roots and herbs on those of curers; hammers, bellows, and anvils on those of smiths. On the tombs of hunters were placed the skulls of wild beasts.

Besides the ancestors, there were gods of earth, water, and sky, with their accompanying cults, symbols, powers, and priestly castes. Some governed the fertility of the land; others the success of war or the acquisition of wealth and office. For the Kongo, a chance encounter with a peculiarly shaped twig or stone was loaded with meaning; whirlwinds incarnated the spirits of noble ancestors; grubs caused rain; albinos, dwarves, and twins could cure infertility, kill thieves, or prevent elephants from destroying the house; and disease was the invariable outcome of witchcraft. If fifteenth century Christians brought with them a religion that had grown aggressive, doctrinaire, and remote, the landscape of the Kongo was charged with ambiguous significance, replete with signs and symbols of the sacred.

Cao emerged from the Congo River and continued southward several hundred miles to a range of granite hills that fall in cliffs to the sea. The rock there is studded with mica and quartz; according to the Africa Pilot, a navigation handbook, “one of the cliffs, abounding in the former, reflects the sun’s rays like a vast mirror.” The hills project into a headland “alive with a heaving brown mass of seals,” says the historian Eric Axelson, “whose barks and cries must have reminded Cao of the shouts of the crowd at a bullfight.” Here Cao planted his second padrao and turned back. Perhaps he was running low on supplies, or perhaps he lost his nerve; the record doesn’t say. On his return he stopped in at the mouth of the Congo, couldn’t find the emissaries he had dispatched to the interior, retaliated by kidnapping several Kongo, and somehow made it understood that he would return in fifteen months.

A 16th century king of Congo on a podium receives a retinue of Portuguese. 
Colored engraving based on a De Bry original.
Two years later, Cao sailed into the Congo equipped with the pomp and ceremony of a medieval emissary. Cao’s African hostages had been treated as distinguished guests, housed in a wing of the Portuguese king’s palace, and taught Portuguese and the Christian catechism; Cao himself had been knighted and awarded an annuity of ten milreis. On this second voyage, Cao sailed down the river’s narrowing gorge past the Fetish Rock and the Devil’s Cauldron to the Cauldron of Hell, a cataract whose rapids a later English traveler described as a “struggle of water not to be surpassed on the face of the earth.” Here Cao and a few companions carved their names and heraldic insignia on the flat face of a large granite rock, and, leaving their ship, set out on foot to visit for the first time with the King of the Kongo. Professor Axelson writes:
 One can imagine Cao and the King meeting in the shade of one of those giant baobab or fig trees which were favoured sites for palavers, with the drums bellowing in the background and soft strains played on horns made out of whole tusks of ivory. Cao sings the praises of his royal master, boasts of his importance and tells of his noble intentions. The African King, in turn, informs his visitor of the greatness of the royal house of Kongo, and tells of the half-legendary deeds of Ntinu Wene, the first sovereign, who came to power in a chiefdom north of the Congo River.... 
 Cao presumably asked about Prester John; Axelson says that “in accordance with African traditions of hospitality, the King would undoubtedly have answered every question in the affirmative.” Cao then returned to his ship with the Portuguese emissaries he had feared were lost, along with the sons of a dozen or so Kongo nobles whom he had agreed to take back to Portugal. This time, he sailed south as far as the Namibian desert before raising the last of his padroes on a sandy bank inhabited by jackals and sea-lions. He died sometime on the return to Europe, having mapped fifteen hundred miles of African coastline, and having paved the way for Bartolomeu Dias and the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope. Within two decades, Portuguese outposts would dot the world’s coasts from Brazil to India.

If, as many scholars now insist, the European explorers did not “discover” the world—it had, after all, been discovered by countless indigenous peoples already—they nevertheless inaugurated a global process of dis-enclavement, threading the first tenuous connections between the dispersed and disparate civilizations of the earth. For many non-Westerners that process would result in destruction, dispossession or death. And because freedom emerged as a defining ideal of the West during an era in which the worst abuses of that freedom were routine, our vision of the past can take on a clarity it lacked in the event, obscuring how tentative, uncertain—in a word, explorative—those early oceanic adventures were. More medieval than modern, the explorers learned by going where they went. And in doing so, they not only redrew the map, they also discovered the countless ways people had devised of being human. That is what makes the European encounter with the Kongo—the first large-scale, previously unknown civilization the Europeans came upon—so riveting: one can see, in those early moments, how things might have turned out differently. Before circumstance and power had narrowed their vision, Europeans were as wide-eyed as any “native.”

In fact, the early encounter between Kongo and Portugal resembles an Abbott and Costello routine more than it does, say, an old-style Western. In 1491, King Joao of Portugal sent to “his royal brother” the King of the Kongo a richly provisioned expedition that included priests, carpenters, stone-masons, and women, who were to instruct the Kongo in house-keeping. (An expedition the following year, to the nearby island of Sao Tome, included two German printers, with printing press!) Received with a jubilation that even they must have found astonishing, this first batch of colonizers went to work. Within months, the masons had built a stone church and the priests had baptized the king and most of the nobility.

For their part, the Kongo thought that the Europeans were water spirits, gods of fertility. Painted in white and naked to the waist, they had greeted the European colonizers in a ceremony that was, according to the historian Ann Hilton, “clearly an nkimba [fertility] cult assembly.” Soon after the Europeans arrived, the brother of a traditional high priest discovered a black stone in the shape of a cross, proving to the Kongo that the newly introduced religion belonged, as they had suspected, to the dimension of water and earth spirits. (After all, the whites resembled albinos, who were thought to have special powers in this regard.) The Kongo King then insisted on being baptized before going off to war, because he wanted the protection that the European ritual might give him.

The Portuguese, for their part, continued to be impressed with the African kingdom. They recast the Kongo court in the image of the late medieval world: Kongo nobility were designated dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, and barons; their servants major-domos, chamberlains, squires, and cup-bearers. The Portuguese christened Kongo with Portuguese names: in their mouths, Afonso became Fusu; Bernardo, Mbelenadu; Pedro, Mpetelo; and Cristina, Kitidina. In translation much, inevitably, was lost: in the Lord’s Prayer, the word the Portuguese chose for “our daily bread” was nfundi, which was actually a starchy gruel; when the Portuguese used the word nkisi they meant holy, not fetish; when they said nganga they meant priest, not sorcerer; and however much they wanted to impress their hosts, when they spoke of Nzambi Mpungu, they definitely meant the Christian God, and not, as the Kongo at first assumed, the King of Portugal.

In those early days, both the Portuguese and the Kongo struggled to communicate with each other, but there was a difference. The Portuguese generally struggled to make themselves understood; the Kongo, to understand. The Kongo called the whites mundele, a word meaning “whale,” because they came from the sea. (In a neighboring area whites were called vumbi, because, to the Africans, they looked like living cadavers. Hence, our word “zombie.”) The whites’ home was a place called mputu, which was a corruption of “Portugal,” or a word meaning “agitated water,” or the resting place of the ancestors. (Historians aren’t sure which.)

Given the odd ideas they had about each other—the Portuguese, to give one more example, thought that if they traveled too far inland the moon’s rays would swell their heads—it’s not surprising that the Kongo and the Portuguese often found each other baffling. What is surprising is how quickly the Kongo were able to take advantage of their contact with Europe. Fruit from Asia, the Americas, and the Mediterranean—orchards of guava, lemon, orange, papaya, pawpaw, mango, kumquat, and pineapple—throve in the Kongo’s tropical damp and laterite soils. The American cassava, or manioc tuber, replaced millet, sorghum and luco as the starch of choice. Pineapple wine, sugarcane beer, English rum, and Indian ganja all joined palm wine on the shelf of local intoxicants. The Kongo quickly adapted European technology that they found useful: the Kongo king substituted an exotic horse tail for the elephant tail he had used as his own personal fly whisk. The nobility saw the benefits of literacy and sent their sons—and sometimes their daughters—to missionary schools early on. In the mid-seventeenth century, paper was in such demand that it cost a hen per sheet, and a common missal cost a slave.

Crucifix, 16th–17th century. Kongo peoples
More surprising than the Kongo adoption of European crops and technical skills is the kingdom’s acceptance of some aspects of Christianity and Portuguese political organization. Like Kemal Ataturk, or the leaders of the Meiji Restoration, the kings who ruled the Kongo in the sixteenth and seventeenth century responded with astonishing enterprise and creativity to the European challenge. “Not until our own time,” asserts the historian Jan Vansina, “would such an attempt at massive but free and selective acculturation be seen again.” The Kongo kings embraced elements of Catholicism to give their rule a stronger ideological basis; they struggled to secure their succession along Portuguese lines. And yet, despite these ingenious, sometimes heroic efforts, the Kingdom of Kongo was destroyed, as completely as the empires of the Aztecs or the Incas. By 1678, a visitor to Mbanza Kongo reported that the capital had been sacked, and that elephants were roaming in the ruins, eating bananas off the abandoned trees.

In a word, the reason for the Kongo’s demise was sugar. Sugar had been known to Europe from about the tenth century. Fulcher of Chartres, who accompanied the army of the First Crusade and chronicled their hardships, is one of the first Europeans to mention it:
 In those cultivated fields through which we passed during our march there were certain ripe plants which the common folk called “honey-cane” and which were very much like reeds.... In our hunger we chewed them all day because of the taste of honey. However, this helped but little. 
 But it was not until the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries that sugar replaced honey as the sweetener of choice, and thereafter it gradually became a staple. On that appetite the great sugar plantations of the Atlantic islands and Brazil flourished. And in their fields and mills, the institution of chattel slavery, which since Roman times had been all but extinguished, flickered back to life. One historian has written that the sugar plantations prefigured the transformation of European society, “a total remaking of its economic and social basis.” For Africa, that transformation would be a bitter one: it was largely in order to meet the labor demands of the Atlantic island and Brazilian cane sugar plantations that the slave ships first came to Africa, leaving in their crowded wake a subdued and chastened continent. Four centuries of slavery had their genesis in the cane fields outside Jerusalem.

English illustration of a king of Kongo, 1685
In the history of this period there is no more pivotal or enigmatic figure than Mvemba Nzinga. Known to generations of Africans by his Christian name, Afonso I, he ruled as king of the Kongo from 1506 to roughly 1543. So little is known about him that he reflects to every age something of its own image: to contemporary Portuguese he was a figure of miracles, a soldier saint, a Christian scholar who knew more of the Bible than the priests who came to instruct him. Here is how one priest described him in a letter to King Manuel of Portugal:
 May Your Highness be informed that his Christian life is such that he appears to me not as a man but as an angel sent by the Lord to this kingdom to convert it, especially when he speaks and when he preaches. For I assure Your Highness that it is he who instructs us; better than we he knows the prophets and the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ and all the lives of the saints and all things regarding our Mother the Holy Church, so much that if Your Highness could observe him yourself, you would be filled with admiration. He expresses things so well and with such accuracy that it seems to me that the Holy Spirit speaks always through his mouth. I must say, Lord, that he does nothing but study and that many times he falls asleep over his books; he forgets what time it is to dine, when he is speaking of the things of God. 
To later missionaries, reading these accounts in what appeared to them a lapsed and impenitent era, the age of Afonso was a gilded moment, the focus of a consoling nostalgia that was distinctly Christian in its location of an un-redeemed present enfolded in a grace past and future. In the 1960s and 1970s, the image of Afonso underwent another sea-change: to liberals, he appeared as a “forest Othello,” too innocent and trusting to understand that his dream of bringing European civilization to Africa was doomed by European duplicity--by priests eager to swap missals for slaves. To pan-African nationalists, he became one of the first great figures of resistance, the black king of legend who struggled to save his people from bondage.

The most recent scholars to have studied the early history of the Kongo, parsing the few contemporary documents with sophisticated textual and analytic tools, present a more prosaic, complex picture. And perhaps it is because we see something of ourselves in the canny and prismatic spirit who emerges that the portrait seems at once more ambiguous and more realistic than earlier ones.

Afonso seized power in 1506, upon the death of his father, King Joao I. As the first-born son of the King’s principal wife, Afonso was ineligible for succession. By tradition, that right belonged to sons of the king’s lesser wives. But Afonso had the Portuguese in his silk tabard pocket. For many years the governor of Nsundi, the north-easternmost province, he had developed close ties with Europeans searching for Prester John. And as the first-born, he was seen as the only legitimate heir by Portuguese priests, a perception he did much to encourage. Unlike his father and brothers, who had quickly lost interest in the mundele’s religion because of its strictures against polygamy, Afonso maintained his commitment to Christianity. Accounts of the battle by which he won accession to the throne shows how helpful that commitment was. Greatly outmanned, Afonso met his half-brother Mpanzu a Kitima outside the capital. A Portuguese priest described what happened next:
 Here Dom Affonso, and his handful of men, were ranged against the pagans and his brother; but before the latter had come face to face with the king, he was suddenly and entirely routed, and put to flight. . . . Therefore the people in the city mocked the pagans, and taking heart from such a victory, no longer feared, but became eager to attack their adversaries, who told them that they had not won the day themselves, but owed their victory to the presence of a lady in white, whose dazzling splendour blinded the enemy, whilst a knight riding on a white palfrey, and carrying a red cross on his breast, fought against them and put them to flight. . . . Being overcome by fright, Mpanzu rushed headlong into the ambush covered with stakes, which he himself had prepared for the Christians, and there, almost maddened with pain, the points of the stakes being covered with poison, ended his life.
Afonso and the early chroniclers tended to ascribe his victory to the Virgin Mary and St. James, “sent from God to his aid.” But the presence of Portuguese guns and cavalry in the ranks probably didn’t hurt Afonso, either. (In other accounts, Afonso had his brother put to death after the battle was won.)

Once in power, Afonso borrowed aggressively from Europe. He sent his sons to be educated in Portugal. One was consecrated Bishop of Uttica by Pope Leo X —Africa’s first and only bishop for four hundred years—and another became a professor of humanities at the University of Lisbon. Afonso himself seems to have studied everything. After reading five thick volumes of Portuguese law lent to him by a certain Balthasar de Castro, he quipped: “Castro, what is the punishment, in Portugal, for those whose feet touch the ground?” Afonso established schools in Mbanza Kongo and in the provincial capitals and sent the sons of hundreds of nobles to them. To prevent the boys from sneaking away during their lessons, he built high wooden fences around the schools. In 1526, he wrote to the King of Portugal asking for more grammarians.

Though he never wavered in his profession of faith, Afonso seems to have used Christianity like one of those foreground-background pictures that let you see two figures in profile or, alternatively, a vase. To missionaries, he appeared a devout Catholic; to Kongo, the beneficiary of a powerful new cult. He cleared the ancient thickets where the graves of the ancestors lay, and on them built churches. He called the new churches mbila, meaning tombs. He appointed the traditional high priest of the water dimension to be in charge of the maintenance of the churches and the provision of holy water for baptismal rites. The priest, who had initially opposed Christianity, became an ally. Afonso took the traditional domain of witchcraft, with its concern for worldly success, and onto it grafted Catholicism—a religion whose prayers and relics were understood as European spells and fetish objects.7 Then he gave the new cult prominence as his own personal spiritual realm and used it to legitimize his rule. Soon there were kingly cults, with their respective (Catholic) churches, in “every lordship and province” in the land. He destroyed the fetishes of his opponents, and though he presented himself to Europeans as a “married Christian monarch,” he somehow contrived to leave behind 300 grand-children.

In 1507, a year after seizing power, Afonso sent to Portugal a shipload of copper and ivory. By 1511, however, he was already complaining of the behavior of certain Europeans living in his realm. In the first of twenty-two surviving letters between Afonso and successive Portuguese kings, he asked Manuel—the Portuguese King—to send an ambassador to the Kongo capable of restraining them. In 1512, responding in a lengthy regimento (a sort of protocol), Manuel specified the kinds of military, technical, and religious assistance Portugal was prepared to give Afonso. Accompanying the missive were an ambassador and a contingent of priests, soldiers, and technicians. The regimento asked about the prospects for acquiring slaves: “This expedition has cost us much,” it concluded; “it would be unreasonable to send it home with empty hands.” There were, in fact, few slaves available for purchase in the Kongo, but Afonso raided a neighboring kingdom after a border skirmish and acquired six hundred prisoners. These the slave captains probably sold to the plantation owners of Sao Tome and to the King of Akan, in West Africa, whose realm at that time produced roughly 10% of the world’s annual gold output. (In the early 1500’s, gold and sugar were, ounce for ounce, nearly equally valuable.)

Soon thereafter, settlers on the tiny island of Sao Tome, apparently impatient with the trickle of slaves Afonso was willing or able to export, opened their own slave depots at the mouth of the Congo River. Under Kongo law, only criminals and prisoners of war could be sold as slaves, so the Tomistas, many of whom were themselves exiled Portuguese criminals, bribed chiefs, encouraged crime, incited rebellions, and instigated wars. They also blackballed priests, killed messengers, refused to ship Afonso’s other products (chiefly copper and ivory), defied the Portuguese king, and, along the way, introduced venereal disease into Africa. In 1515, Afonso wrote to Manuel asking that he be allowed to take over the island. In 1517, he asked to purchase a boat, so that he could at least trade with the Portuguese without interference from the Tomistas. “Most powerful and high prince and king my brother, it is due to the need of several things for the church that I am importuning you,” wrote Afonso. “And this I probably would not do if I had a ship, since having it I would send for them at my own cost.” In 1526, he wrote to Manuel’s successor, King Joao III:
 The excessive freedom given by your factors and officials to the men and merchants who are allowed to come to this such...that many of our vassals, whom we had in obedience, do not comply. We cannot reckon how great the damage is, since the above-mentioned merchants daily seize our subjects... Thieves and men of evil conscience take them because they wish to possess the things and wares of this Kingdom.... They grab them and cause them to be sold; and so great, Sir, is their corruption and licentious-ness that our country is being utterly depopulated... to avoid this, we need from your Kingdoms no other than priests and people to teach in schools, and no other goods but wine and flour for the holy sacrament; that is why we beg your Highness to help and assist us in this matter, commanding the factors that they should send here neither merchants nor wares, because it is our will that in these kingdoms there should not be any trade in slaves nor market for slaves. 
Letter from Afonso I of Kongo to Manuel I of Portugal
requesting religious paraphenelia, June 8, 1517.
When this letter went unanswered Afonso tried to block the slave trade himself, but this was impractical and maybe impossible. The Kongo king depended for his position on being the acme of the trading system. “If Afonso [had] ejected the Portuguese traders,” writes the historian Anne Hilton, “the tributary governors would certainly have welcomed them and hastened the disintegration of the state.” Instead, Afonso established a commission of three royal officials to examine the slaves and determine whether they were “truly war captives or kidnapped free men.” The commission had little effect. Afonso continued to complain of the “inordinate covetousness” the slave trade had induced in his kingdom, spoke of slavery as “that great evil,” and protested that “under cover of night” nobles and freemen were still being stolen from their homes. And in a letter Afonso wrote to accompany five of his nephews and a grandson on their journey to Portugal he wrote:
 We beg of Your Highness to give them shelter and boarding and to treat them in accordance with their rank, as relatives of ours with the same blood... and if we are reminding you of this and begging of your attention it is because... we sent from this Kingdom to yours... with a certain Antonio Veira... more than twenty youngsters, our grandsons, nephews and relations who were the most gifted to learn the service of God... The above mentioned Antonio Veira left some of these youngsters in the land of Panzamlumbo, our enemy, and it gave us great trouble later to recover them; and only ten of these youngsters were taken to your Kingdom. But about them we do not know so far whether they are alive or dead, nor what happened to them, so that we have nothing to say to their fathers and mothers. 
Joao replied in 1529. He opened on a solicitous note. Did Afonso no longer want to trade with Portugal? If that was his wish, so be it. But he should know that to refuse to engage in trade was “contrary to the customs of all nations.” Here Joao plunged his knife: “It would be no honor to Afonso or to his kingdom... if it were said that the Kongo had nothing to trade and it were visited by only one ship per year.” What glory, on the other hand, attended a kingdom capable of exporting 10,000 slaves annually! Twisting the knife, Joao concluded, “If one of your nobles were to revolt against you, rich with merchandise from Portugal, what then would become of your glory and your power?”

Given the immensity of what followed—nine to eleven million Africans shipped to the New World in the next three centuries, millions more dead from wars fomented to secure slaves or from the horrors of the middle passage, an enduring legacy of hatred and grief—a novelist might be tempted to portray Afonso in the labyrinth of his palace, weighing the imponderable future of his kingdom against a trade whose sorrows he himself had experienced. Unfortunately, all we know for sure is that by the late 1520s, a thriving slave trade had evolved at Malebo Pool in the northeastern corner of the Kongo, and that this was a trade Afonso could and did profit from. For one thing, the slaves came from distant lands, so that the Kongo were themselves no longer subject to the depredations of the slavers. For another, the route the caravans took on their way to the slave ships passed through the capital, allowing Afonso to tax and regulate the trade. By the 1530s, four to five thousand slaves were leaving Kongo shores each year, and the Milky Way, which traced the axis of their movement, was nick-named Nzila Bazombo—the Road of the Slavers—for the men who drove them to the coast. In 1540, Affonso could boast to Joao of his kingdom’s importance to the transatlantic trade: “Put all the Guinea countries on one side and only Kongo on the other and you will find that Kongo renders more than all the others put together... no king in all these parts esteems Portuguese goods so much or treats the Portuguese so well as we do. We favor their trade, sustain it, and open markets and roads to Mpumbu where the slaves are traded.”

After reading Afonso’s eloquent and well-tempered letters protesting the trade, it is, of course, dismaying to come across a letter like this one. The transatlantic slave trade was so manifestly cruel that one wants to believe that from the start there was abundant resistance to it.9 This much can be said for Afonso: in an era in which slavery was universally accepted, he did everything in his power to see that his own people were safe; he resisted Portuguese slavers for twenty years, and only cooperated with them when he was faced with the prospect of his country’s imminent collapse; in dire circumstances he managed not only to ensure his nation’s survival, but saw to its prosperity. There is, as well, some evidence that Afonso may never have been as co-operative as the slavers would have liked, even after he had established the slave markets. In 1539, for example, eight Portuguese, led by a priest, burst into the cathedral where Afonso was attending High Mass (it was Easter Sunday) and sprayed the chancel with musket fire.

Ultimately, however, a letter like the one of 1540 shows how sentimental it may be to imagine that Afonso felt any qualms about the trade itself. Few nations made out better than the Kongo in the early years of slavery. “Through his monopoly on European products,” writes Hilton, “Afonso was able to draw many of the neighboring groups into tribute and to create a greater Kongo which far exceeded the nuclear kingdom of the late fifteenth century and which added to his wealth, prestige, and power.” By the late 1520s, the kingdoms of Ngola a Kiluanje in the south and Matamba in the southeast had sent tribute. In the next decade, several states north of the Zaire, including a prime copper-producing region, had also sent presents, and so had groups from the eastern plateau and the southern mountains. By the time Afonso died, sometime in the early 1540s, the Kongo was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Africa, its people among the wealthiest, and its position seemingly unassailable. It would not remain so for long.

In 1568, a mysterious tribe from Central Africa attacked the Kongo, and like barbarians at the gates of Rome, laid waste to the countryside and sacked the capital. Though they were called the Yaka, or Jaga, no one really knows who they were or where they came from. Some people think they were spawned by wars that raged deep within the continent’s interior for control of the slave trade. The one surviving contemporary account of the invasion focuses on the dread the Jaga inspired, and their ferocity—they were reputed to be cannibals—seems to be the one unambiguous fact about them. One writer has described the Jaga as “warriors on the march,” but even that may be too kind. They seem more like a roving clan of sociopaths: “they killed their own babies, burying them alive at birth, so as not to be hindered on their relentless march, and. . . . adopted the children of the peoples they conquered and made them warriors in their army.” According to Andrew Battell, a pirate who claimed to have spent two years with them in 1600-01, after the Jaga conquered an area, they fanned out to slaughter and eat the inhabitants and the livestock that remained behind, burned the houses and the fields, chopped down enough palm trees to give themselves wine for a month, and then, having despoiled the place, moved on.10 Battell’s description of the Jaga’s camp eerily prefigures Conrad’s description of Kurtz’s outpost, and may in part have inspired it.

The Jaga invaded the Kongo from the southeast, swooping upon the Mbata province, a prosperous agricultural region whose men were accomplished tailors and weavers. They attacked with such speed that the King of Kongo had hardly any warning of the invasion or time to raise his troops, particularly since it was the rainy season, when the mud and wet slowed organization. The court, assorted European merchants and missionaries, and thousands of ordinary citizens of Mbanza Kongo fled to an island on the Congo River, where they suffered from chronic hunger and the bubonic plague. For three years, crocodiles feasted on the hundreds of dead and dying who were cast into the surrounding waters, and the Kongo King sent one SOS after another to his royal brother in Portugal. Eventually a 600-man contingent of Portuguese soldiers arrived via Sao Tome, rallied the remnants of the Kongo army, and routed the Jaga. It turned out, comic book style, that the sound of gunfire frightened the “cannibals” half to death.

The new, post-restoration Kongo resumed its role as a primary exporter of slaves to the New World. But the lesson of the Portuguese repulsion of the Jaga was clear: Europeans might not yet be able to invade and occupy African states, but they held the balance of power between them. That lesson was not lost on the powers emerging on the African scene in the early seventeenth century. By now, the trade had grown so lucrative that both the Portuguese and the Kongo found themselves competing for business. (The volume of the African slave trade tripled from 1500 to 1575, and doubled again in the next quarter century.) French and British pirates, like Andrew Battell and Sir John Hawkins (who was knighted for his piracy by Queen Elizabeth I) raided the Portuguese cargo ships. The Dutch, nearing their moment of global ascendancy, waged war on Portugal in Europe and abroad. Meanwhile, kingdoms to the north and south of the Kongo emerged as major slave-producing regions, and innumerable tiny ports along the West African coast hung out the slaver shingle as well. Most of these places could sell slaves for less than the Kongo because slaves elsewhere didn’t have as long a march to arrive at the coastal depots, and weren’t as heavily taxed as those that passed through Mbanza Kongo. (Prices for slaves at the point of origin varied dramatically over the years, but tended to fall during the seventeenth century and rise again in the eighteenth).

Pushed out of the slave trade, the Kongo staved off decline for a half century by producing cloth that the Portuguese exchanged for slaves up and down the African coast, but eventually lost even this advantage to European and other African weavers. Gradually, the authority of the Kongo state frittered away. In 1615, the Portuguese colonized the shell-producing island of Luanda, which for two centuries had been the source of the Kongo’s nzimbu money, and also began importing shells from Brazil and India. In four years, the value of the Kongo currency plummeted by 80 percent. Sensing the Kongo’s weakness, Queen Nzinga of Angola annexed the Kongo’s southern provinces, and siphoned off slaves from the interior. By the early seventeenth century, Angola was furnishing a quota of 12,000 slaves per year, most of them former Kongo subjects, to Portuguese merchants.

In addition, the Portuguese began distributing guns more widely, which altered the balance of power away from the capital and toward the provinces. The Kongo’s coastal province of Sonyo declared independence, and neighboring states that had once formed part of the greater Kongo broke free as well. Battles for succession harrowed the Kongo; eight kings ruled in the period between 1614 and 1641.

In 1641, the Dutch invaded the Portuguese outpost in Luanda to the north of the Kongo and proposed an alliance with the recently invested Garcia II, who was to rule the Kongo for the next twenty years. This was the Kongo’s last, best hope of survival, and Garcia, an exception-ally able king, played his cards with the acuity of a Bismarck. Garcia declared the Dutch invasion an “act of God” designed to punish the Portuguese for their many sins (there were rumors the Portuguese had been planning to invade the Kongo), and enticed the Dutch into offering the Kongo generous treaty terms by exaggerating the potential of the copper and silver mines that lay in his domain. Yet he was uncertain enough of the Dutch commitment to Africa that he put off ratifying the treaty, and in fact, publicly burned the Calvinist texts that were lent to him. Instead—and without scuttling his relations with Holland—he proposed an alliance with Queen Nzinga of Angola, and sent ambassadors to Madrid and Rome to solicit military and Papal support for his cause. Garcia also tried to play off the natural rivalry between the Capucins and the Jesuits, the main missionary groups within the Kongo. But of the two, the Jesuits were too worldly—the rector of the Jesuit college in Luanda owned 3000 slaves—and the Capucins too godly to care very much for the destiny of Garcia’s kingdom.

Unfortunately, Garcia’s fears about the Dutch proved accurate: not up to the continent’s climate, they succumbed to disease and suffered a slew of military reversals before they were finally crushed in Luanda in August, 1648. The victorious Portuguese sent the Dutch soldiers to Brazil in chains, and accused Garcia in absentia of crimes ranging from massacring Portuguese to admitting Spanish missionaries in contempt of Portuguese rights of patronage. Garcia put off answering the charges as long as he could. But a Portuguese invasion, in which thousands of Kongo soldiers were killed, forced Garcia to sign a humiliating peace treaty, which effectively turned the Kongo into a dependency of Sao Tome. Before he died in 1661, Garcia waged a brilliant diplomatic campaign that mitigated most of the treaty’s worst aspects, but the Kongo still faced military challenges from recalcitrant Portuguese governors and from African kings to the north and south, who saw the Kongo as the place to plunder for slaves and copper.

Garcia’s son, Antonio I, proved nearly as adept as his father in maintaining the loyalty of the Kongo. But in 1665, following a bitter dispute over mineral rights with the Portuguese governor of Luanda, Antonio tried, disastrously, to put an end to Portuguese depredations. In a Manifesto of War dated July 13, 1665, he ordered all able-bodied Kongo men to enlist in a fight to protect their “lands, possessions, women and children, their lives and their liberties.” According to later Portuguese estimates, 100,000 Kongo, 190 musket-bearing mulattos, and 29 Portuguese answered his call. On October 30, Antonio and his troops met the combined forces of Luanda and Portugal in fields outside Mbwila, a market town in north-central Luanda. It was drizzling and Antonio hoped the rain would dampen the Portuguese guns. It did not. The Kongo lost 5,000 men, including Antonio, his two sons and two nephews, four of the seven governors, various court officials, 95 title holders, and 400 other nobles. Portuguese losses were minimal.

The Kingdom of Kongo never recovered. It splintered into hundreds of competing chieftainships, all led by infantes claiming descent from Afonso I, all variously cooperative or mercenary, and all dependent on the slave trade for their survival. Soon there seemed to be a slave factory in every village in the land, and the trade fed, and fed off of, a civil war that verged on complete anarchy. Over the years, visitors to the capital Mbanza Kongo reported that the population there varied from 100 to 5000 people, depending on the transitory success of the local chief in reviving the idea of the kingdom. But as a legitimate, viable political entity, the Kongo died in 1665.

Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the Kongo, no longer a state on a map, became, as it had been before Cao, wholly a place of the imagination. Once, Africa was a land of a million strange shadows, known only by the stories travelers overheard in distant marketplaces and repeated in tallow-lit taverns far from home. Citied and peopled by countless Scheherazades, the continent the medieval cartographers drew recalls a time when the words “wondrous” and “awful” were synonymous: on the ancient maps, the places labeled terra incognita were never blank, but populated residences of the imagination. The explorers who plotted the continent’s profile and sounded its coastlines expected to be astonished, and were. Imagine what a giraffe, or an elephant, or a manatee, looked like to the first Europeans to see them! Imagine Bartolomeu Dias rounding the Cape of Good Hope and seeing the African coast stretch north-ward—after traveling five thousand miles in a ship no larger than the average American house! Imagine feeling the warmth of the Indian Ocean, and seeing the dhows of Mombassa and Zanzibar that even then had sailed as far as China! But behind the explorers came the missionaries and the slavers (who were often the same person), and with no more than the usual dose of arrogance and greed they shriveled the continent to the size of their hearts. “Africans being the most lascivious of all human beings,” wrote one slaver, “may it not be imagined that the cries they let forth at being torn from their wives, proceed from the dread that they will never have the opportunity of indulging their passions in the country to which they are embarking?”

Caspar, one of three maji, by
Jan Van Biljer c. 1650
 In 1508, when a young black woman arrived in Scotland, (off a wrecked pirate ship, possibly), King James IV held and won a royal joust in honor of “that ladye with the mekle lippis.” A century later, Shakespeare and Rembrandt gave to their portraits of Africans an intelligence and dignity that later centuries would scarcely credit, and dozens of lesser painters of the Italian and Northern Renaissance sprinkled their canvases with images of blacks that were no more or less condescending than their image of Europeans. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century the Pope and the secular kings of Europe welcomed African potentates to their courts, and treated them with all the deference due royalty. But slavery needed a myth to sustain and justify itself. So in the bedrooms of the Brazilian sugar estates, where oriental drapery wilted from balustrades in the humid air, and from the lecterns of the cathedrals that the missionaries built on the fetid islands of the Atlantic, stories took root of the African as a tom-tom player and a devil-worshiper, an uncivilized savage, a sex-fiend and cheerful submissive. “The people of Guinea,” wrote one German scientist in the eighteenth century, “are more insensible than others towards pain and natural evils, as well as towards injurious and unjust treatment. In short, there are none so well adapted to be the slaves of others, and who therefore have been armed with so much passive obedience.” And Thomas Carlyle proclaimed, dizzily, “Before the West Indies could grow a pumpkin for any Negro, how much European heroism had to spend itself in obscure battle; to sink, in mortal agony, before the jungles, the putrescences and waste savageries could become arable, and the Devils in some measure chained up!”

In this ideological transformation the Kingdom of the Kongo played a pivotal role. For it was with the discovery and exploitation of the Kongo, coming hard upon the establishment of the Atlantic sugar plantation, that the European demand for slaves was re-kindled, and the identification of slavery and race made explicit. In the century prior to 1482, the number of black slaves taken annually from Africa numbered, at most, in the hundreds. Most worked in Mediterranean Europe as household servants, hospital orderlies, garbage collectors, or in similar, menial positions. Color at that time was no bar to servitude: Greeks, Turks, Russians, Slavs, and Cretans were also enslaved, and most of the very first slaves shipped to Brazil were white. But after 1482, the number of slaves coming from Africa rose dramatically. By 1550, a Portuguese ditty could sum up Europe’s changing perception of Africa, and of the Kongo in particular:
 uns aos outros se vendem;
& ha muitos merdadores que nisso somente entemdem;
& hos enganam & prendem;
& trazem aos tratadores.
 (They sell each other there are many merchants whose specialty it is to trick and capture them and sell them to the slavers.) 
Thus the question of who could enslave whom, and under what conditions, which had been a topic of lively debate in the early years of the European discovery and conquest of the New World, received a decisive answer. The die was cast: even today-some three hundred years after the Battle of Mbwila—thriller novels and college bars still borrow the Kongo’s name for its suggestion of the primitive. The old kingdom, its territory neatly bisected by the border between present-day Angola and Zaire, continues to exert an atavistic attraction, like an out-of-the-way theater in a once-fashionable neighborhood, where, on sporadic afternoons, the lights darken and the silent films still run.

Pendants with a feminine Christ that may represent the
martyrdom of Kimpa Vita
The Kongo had one last incandescent moment. Like the defeated Indians of the Great Plains, whose Ghost Dance religion prophesied the destruction of white people and the return of the buffalo, the Kongo were attracted to a millenarian, hybrid creed. This one was preached by a young, fine-featured woman, an African Joan of Arc, who was to go down in history as “the false St. Anthony.” Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, to give her real name, was born to high nobility and may have spent some years as a traditional religious curer. Her mission began in 1702, when, ill and near death, she was visited by the spirit of St. Anthony, who took possession of her body. Instantaneously recovering, she renounced her possessions and became an itinerant preacher, urging, among other things, the restoration of the Kongo Kingdom. She called for the burning of all fetishes, Christian and animist, and according to a contemporary French priest, Father de Lucques, held the cross in particular contempt, as the “instrument of Christ’s death.” She preached that Jesus was an African, born in Mbanza Kongo, and his mother a slave; that direct communion with God was preferable to ceremony, and that baptism, marriage and confession were therefore superfluous; that the ruins of the capital were a precious mine of stones and minerals; and that to those who followed her would come the “rich objects of the whites.” She died, by her own account, every Friday, visited heaven during the night, and returned on Saturday to tell the Kongo what to do. Among her reputed powers was the ability to make sterile women fertile and to bring dead trees to life.

By 1700, a generation of Kongo who had come of age under the threat of war and slavery were ready for a message of hope, no matter how fantastic or desperate it sounded. Beatriz drew her followers “from the forests and the wilds, ruder than rudeness itself, more ignorant than ignorance itself.” (This according to de Lucques.) Noble women cleared her path, and pretenders to the throne offered her “the ends of their capes as mantillas or table-cloths.” The historian J. K. Thornton writes that, at first, “even the Christian priests found it ‘an admirable thing to see the ease with which the blacks, young and old, men and women,’ took to her teaching, and went singing her prayers ‘on the roads, in the fields, everywhere.’” But as her power grew, she became a threat to both the missionaries and the strongmen who were competing for power—especially when she proposed to resettle the abandoned capital and choose a new king to unify the country. Captured by the ambassadors of a local strongman and delivered to Pedro IV, a claimant to the crown, she was held for two months in chains. Pedro would have preferred to exile her, but urged on by zealous Capucin missionaries, he pronounced on her and her companion, whom she described as her “angel guardian,” a sentence of death by fire. Father de Lucques described the execution:
 The young woman now appeared to be filled with fear and dread.... The basciamucano [a court official] made a long speech. Its principal theme was a eulogy to the king. He enumerated his titles and gave proofs of his zeal for justice. Finally, he pronounced the sentence against Dona Beatriz, saying that under the false name of Saint Anthony she had deceived the people with her heresies and falsehoods. Consequently the king, her lord, and the royal council condemned her to die at the stake.... The woman did all she could to recant, but her efforts were in vain.... For the rest all we can say is that there was gathered there a great pile of wood on which they were thrown. They were covered with other pieces of wood and burned alive. Not content with this, the following morning some men came again and burned the bones that remained and reduced everything to very fine ashes.
 De Lucques’ fellow missionary, Father de Gallo, remarked that Beatriz perished “with the name of Jesus on her lips,” and quipped: “The poor St. Anthony, who was in the habit of dying and rising, this time died but did not rise again.”

Already a patchwork of chieftainships, the Kingdom of Kongo subsided even further after the death of Beatriz. By 1790, the capital’s population had dwindled to about one hundred, and the king’s rule extended only over his compound, his wives, a few slaves, and a deserted clearing believed to be inhabited by spirits. His tribute consisted of a few pigs, chickens and goats, and a bit of money paid by a nephew, who succeeded him.

In the decades and centuries that followed, neither war nor peace would succeed in re-uniting the kingdom. And yet, however degraded, the idea of resurrecting the Kongo never entirely died. In the 1950s, F. Clyde Egerton, a visitor to Mbanza Kongo, reported of the former capital:
 It has completely lost any romantic character it ever had, and is now no more than a straggling village. The walled cities have disappeared and the eleven churches with them. What is left of the Cathedral is unimposing, just the chancel arch and some low remains of chocolate-coloured walls. It is surrounded by the unkempt grass which is everywhere to be seen in the dry season; and the graves of the early kings of the Congo, rough, obelisk-like monuments in an untidy churchyard, look unkempt and neglected also. 
 Egerton wrote that he had spoken to an “old man of nearly seventy who sported a magnificent white mustache and who called himself Dom Pedro VII, the last king of Congo, but he was rumored to be an impostor.” He lived in an unpretentious house near the ruins of the cathedral. Around the walls of his house hung copies of paintings of Portuguese royalty. Egerton was shown the “regalia” which he described as a “royal robe trimmed with white fur, which looked more like rabbit than ermine, a silver crown, a sceptre, and miscellaneous utensils, none of which looked more than a hundred years old.” The king, who died in 1955, was given a small subsidy by the Portuguese authorities, which he supplemented by growing a little coffee and rice.
Cathedral of the Holy Savior of Congo in Angola

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