Don Alvaro, King of Kongo

It’s interesting to remember that there was a pre-colonial time when the European imagination hadn’t yet essentialized Africa into a land of savages.  I purchased the image below – a reprint of an engraving from a 1668 book on African exploration – on a trip to South Africa last year, intrigued by seeing a European artist using European symbols of power to demonstrate the position of an African king.  (In other words, he is rather reasonably providing an accessible visual interpretation of African “power” for his audience.)  Note the Latin inscription “Don Alvarez, Rex Kongo” and the elegant European-style interior:

“Don Alvaro, king of Kongo, giving audience to the Dutch in 1642”

The Kingdom of Kongo, as it turns out, had a long and fascinating pre-colonial history.  From origins just south of Matadi (in the present-day DRC), it expanded to cover an area from the north of (modern-day) Angola to the south of the Republic of Congo, and remained extent as a political entity from roughly 1400 to 1914.  Its territory was divided into anywhere from 6-15 provinces and sub-provinces, with provincial rulers taxing local trade and paying revenues upward to the king.  In the early 17th century, the population of its capital, Mbanza-Kongo, and the surrounding hinterland was estimated at 100,000 people.

So whence this engraving?  The Portuguese came into contact with the Kongo in 1483, when Diogo Cao made his famous voyage up the Congo River.  Subsequent relations seem to have ranged from amicable to strategic to hostile, mostly centered around the slave trade and factional struggles for the throne of Kongo.  By the 1600s, however, the Dutch were competing with the Portuguese for the spice trade, and they captured Luanda from the Portuguese in 1641.  In 1642, Kongo agreed to provide them with military assistance, and in return the Dutch helped the then-king of Kongo, Garcia II, put down a rebellion in the south.  (Garcia’s predecessor, who died in 1641, was Alvaro IV.  Presumably either the name or the year in the print above is incorrect.)

Kongo held out, through wars, factional struggles, and a post-Berlin wave of Portuguese colonialism, until 1914.  But even today, the kingdom’s afterlife continues.  The DRC-based religico-political group Bundu dia Kongo has pressed for a revival of the Kongo culture and kingdom since the late 1960s, and has gotten attention more recently for demonstrating against (and being brutally suppressed by) the Kabila regime.