rumba on the river

A Brief History of the Two Congos
by Gary Stewart © 2011

The history of Africa is forever linked to a fifteenth century Portuguese prince whose curiosity and vision changed the world. He was christened Dom Henrique, son of King João I (John I), but history celebrates him as Henry the Navigator. At Sagres, near Cape St. Vincent on Portugal's southwest coast, Dom Henrique founded a school of navigation that, for Europe, triggered an unprecedented age of exploration. Africa in particular drew Dom Henrique's attention; he imagined it to hold the secret of a sea route to India and the fabled empire of a legendary Christian priest and king known as Prester John.

They didn't know it at the time, but for the Bantu peoples who settled along the nzadi, the great river in central Africa we know as the Congo, Dom Henrique's exploits were grim news. These Bantu people, as historian Basil Davidson explains, have been so named because they speak related languages, many of which contain the root word "ntu, or humanness, with muntu, the singular, meaning person, and bantu, the plural, meaning people."1 They took part in what Davidson describes as a great African migration that began to spill southward about 3,000 years ago from the area of modern day Nigeria and Cameroon to people the lands along the Congo River and beyond. "These were the communities which carried various forms of tropical farming and the technology of iron-smelting from one region to another, absorbing or by-passing the Stone Age hunter-gatherers they encountered on their way."2 They were the ancestors of the makers of modern Congo music. One day their descendants would encounter the Portuguese.

It must have been an astonishing sight along the lower reaches of the Congo River. As the local Kongo people gathered along the banks of their nzadi, two enormous sailing ships glided silently into the river's mouth. It was early in another dry season—late May or June 1483 according to the ships' calendars—and for the Kongo people and their cousins in the hinterlands, life would never be the same.

The Bakongo (as the Kongo people are known in the plural) left no record of what they thought as they paddled their pirogues out to meet the intruders. They may have marveled at the Portuguese caravels—sleek, smooth-planked behemoths sprouting three masts hung with triangular sails—that towered above their tiny dugouts. Strange looking, white-skinned humans never before seen in these parts peered down over the rails. Fear and wonder must have rippled through the welcoming flotilla as the Portuguese explorers under the command of Diogo Cão dropped anchor in what they mistakenly heard the locals call the zaire.

Cão and his crew were exploring under orders of Portugal's King João II, successor to Dom Henrique's father. They had set sail from Lisbon in late summer of 1482 for El Mina, in today's Ghana, where the Portuguese were building a trading outpost. From El Mina they headed east following the coast to the area of modern day Cameroon and Gabon, where it turned southward. Until this voyage, here had been the limit of European exploration.
Within sight of the shoreline, yet distant enough to skirt rocks and shoals, the caravels pushed on past shallow lagoons and sandy beaches, mangrove swamps and towering cliffs. Near the great river, they "sailed beside a low coastline, luxuriant and green, from which the sea-bed sloped very gradually, so that the off-shore waters remained extremely shallow; inland rose reddish hills that continued to the mouth of the Congo."3

Cão could not have overlooked the Congo River. Its broad mouth spewed swift currents that gushed from deep within the belly of the continent. Africa Pilot, a seafarer's guide, reports that "the surface water is still quite fresh at a distance of 9 miles seaward of the mouth of the Congo, and it is only partially mixed with that of the sea at a distance of 40 miles from the coast."4 Clearly, this was a river to be explored.

As Eric Axelson, who has traced the voyages of the Portuguese, describes it, "Cão's ship rounded the point which he called the Cabo das Palmas covered to this day with palm trees and terminating in a rufous-coloured hillock which led later seamen to give it the more colourful name of Red Devil's Point (Ponto do Diablo Vermelho)."5 Just beyond this bluff, sheltered from the ocean breakers, an apprehensive Kongo people received Cão's expedition.

Lacking a common language, the two groups must have struggled to learn of each other's intentions. The local people made it known that they belonged to a large kingdom ruled by a mani (king or lord) from his capital, Mbanza, far inland in what is now northern Angola. Trade was on the minds of the Portuguese. Cão left four of his party to make contact with the Mani-Kongo while he sailed on south in search of an easterly passage to India. Upon reaching the southern coast of modern day Angola, Cão, for unknown reasons, turned back and attempted to collect his four crewmen at the great river. Failing to find them after a few days wait, he took four of the Kongo people hostage and set sail for Lisbon.

A year and a half later, Cão returned to the Congo River with his hostages who, having learned to speak Portuguese and converted to Christianity, acted as interpreters as Cão himself marched inland to meet the Mani-Kongo. At Mbanza, finding their respective countrymen in good condition, the Mani-Kongo and the representative of Portugal's king exchanged prisoners and forged a bond between their two peoples. In the words of Basil Davidson, "It began in friendship and alliance. Within a few years of this visit to Mbanza, the 'royal brothers' of Portugal and Kongo were writing letters to each other that were couched in terms of complete equality of status. Emissaries went back and forth between them. Relations were established between Mbanza and the Vatican. A son of the Mani-Kongo was appointed in Rome itself as bishop of his country."6 The Mani-Kongo and many of his subjects converted to Christianity, and Mbanza was given a Portuguese name, São Salvador.


PAGE 2 >>>