The history of the lower Congo River tribes of the Belgian Congo
Benner, Phyllis Louise
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The history of the lower river tribes of the Belgian Congo is the study of the major part of the Bakongo tribes. They are part of the great Bantu peoples, and probably did not settle in their present area until 1200 A.D. In common with the history of all the Bantu, their origin, whether it be inside or outside of Africa, is not known. All documents and all Bakongo traditions point to their arrival from the east to to the area south and west of the Congo River. The great southern and western movements of the Bantu came for a variety of reasons, but two stand important: 1. the activity of the people in the north of Africa, particularly the Arabs and the kingdom building groups to the north west; and 2. the search for fertile and productive land for expanding peoples. The first to arrive in the equatorial areas were pushed south and west by the later comers, and tribes banded together in groups and confederations for protection from these later comers. Thus did the early organizations grow up. More than one invasion entered the area now occupied by the Bakongo, and the last invaders to come came west from Kwango, and set themselves up as the rulers of the area. This in time grew, until it became the Kingdom of Kongo that the Portuguese found when they arrived in 1482, with its capital at Mbanz's Kongo (San Salvador, Angola), its ruler called Ntotila, six provinces (Sonyo, Mbamba, Mpemba, Nsundi, Mpangu, and Mbata), and with a sphere of influence which extended far beyond these provinces. They were a people who had reached a fairly high degree of civilization with agriculture as basic. Their religious perspective was directed toward their ancestors, and they were organized as matrilineal families and state. This kingdom and people were in no way prepared to fight for their culture against an agressive commercial people backed by the force of the military. And their initial welcome of the white man's religion and commerce broke down, in a very short time, their whole organization. And what had been a prosperous land and people became ultimately a few people living in no-man's land. There was, basically, little difference between the Portuguese newcomers and the Congolese civilization they found, apart from their religion and their soldiers. The great difference which existed when the country was re-opened in 1877 were a result of many changes which resulted from the early years of contact with the white man. The Congolese had gone backward, and the white man had gone forward. The first two Kongo kings laid the kingdom of Kongo wide open to the Portuguese. Both religious and commercial men came in great numbers. Of the former, they condemn themselves, in their own records, for they say that they were not true in their own ideals. And they left almost no traces of their work, aside from a few fetishes. The commercial man ran over the country, for the important commodity of the times, slaves. Later kings became either figure heads or anti-white. And soon the country was involved in a series of revolutions which were complicated by outside assaults, the greatest of which came from the Jagas to the south east. A brief interlude of Dutch rule on the coast weakened the Portuguese hold on the country, and finally the people became unmanageable. No central ruler could establish his power. Piracy on the estuary of the Congo River aggravated the situation. So, the Kingdom was no more, and the Portuguese rule of the Bakongo tribes became nominal, and the religious groups abandoned the country. When slavery was forbidden in the British Idles and America, their warships began patrolling the Congo coast to stop slave trading. During all this time sporadic attempts had been made to explore the Congo River, but the rapids kept the explorers back. The solution was found by Henry M. Stanley who came from the east in 1877. He found several commercial houses established on the estuary of the Congo River, and a series of tribes along the river inland, all more or less independent of each other. From Stanley Pool west they spoke one language, and talked of a ruler whom they called Ntotila at San Salvador. For all practical purposes they ruled themselves. With Stanley's help the Congo was reopened again. The first comers were the Protestant missionaries. Commerce was not easy until the caravan routes were replaced by the Matadi-Léopoldville railroad. The Catholic missionaries came later. Much of the help which came in the areas of education and medicine came from these two groups of missions, the Protestant and Catholic. Stanley was employed by Léopold II of Belgium to return to Congo, explore the country, and establish a series of settlements. From this original purpose developed the Association Internationale du Congo, which founded its claim on the territory on the treaties it had signed with four hundred and fifty chiefs and tribes. This state in turn was renamed the Etat Indépendent du Congo, and was under the personal rule of Léopold II. The lot of Bakongo was a hard one under his new foreign rule. They were forced to supply porters for the caravan route and workers for the railroad. Due to the latter and its many imported workers, coupled with a lack of sanitary methods, epidemics of smallpox and sleeping sickness swept the land, leaving the once well populated land almost a desert. In 1908, because of the many cries of slavery, mismanagement, and atrocities, Belgium took the Congo from its king and from then on ruled it as a colony. Most of the Bakongo are now contained within the boundaries of the present Belgian Congo, but their old capital city, Mbanz'a Kongo, is in Angola under Portuguese rule. The Bakongo themselves have lost many of their distinctive features as a group and no longer have their own state, but still maintain their feelings of identity and common ancestry.
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University