Little is known about the early inhabitants of the Congo. They may have been primative Pygmies. Gradually the Bantus from the northwest settled most of what is now the Congo. The Bantu population steadily increased and states began to form, several of which grew in size. ome of these states controlled fairly large areas and had sophisticated administrative systems. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach the Congo. The Portuguese at the time were sailing south in an effort to round the African coast and sail east to Asia. Diogo Cão reached the mouth of the Congo River (1482). Eventually the Portuguese expanded their coastal trading osts into the colony of Angola. Arab and Arabized African (Swahili and Nyamwezi) traders from the Indian Ocean coast of modern Tanzania penetrated into central Africa--the eastern Congo. Much of this effort centered on Zanzibar where the Sheik of Oman trasferred his court. The Arabs traded and raided for slaves, ivory, and other commodities. Thus central Africa became an important source of captives for the Indian Ocean slave trade. The Congo Free State, was a far cry from the humanitarian inpulse with which the Victorians justified colonialism. Leopold administered the Congo as his personal property and not a national colony. The people in the the Congo Free State were essentilly turned into slaves worked to enrich Leopold personally. The Belgian Parliament responding to reports of abuses convertedthe Congo Free State into a Belgian colony. The worst excesses of Leopold's rule, especially forced labor, were ended. Enforcement of the new regime was at first uneven as the concessionaire companies controlled large areas and the number of Belgian officials were small.
Little is known about the early inhabitants of the Congo. They may have been primative Pygmies. The population was probably small and the pygmies appear to have lived in the equatorial forests located in what is now the north and northeast of the Congo. Eventually Bantu-speaking people migrated from the northwest (modern Nigeria and Cameroon). They moved into savanna (plains) regions of the southern Congo. The Bantus were more technolgically advanced than the pymaies. They had mastered metalurgical processes incluing iron. There is evidence of Bantu people working copper in Katanga (8th century AD). They also had basic agricultural technology. Bantu peoples had settled most of the Congo (by the 11th century). The Pygmies were driven into remote forested areas. The Bantu population steadily increased and states began to form, several of which grew in size. ome of these states controlled fairly large areas and had sophisticated administrative systems. The basic governing sytem was monarchy, but the power of the Bantu monarchs was limited by councils variously composed of elders ans cilvil administrators.
Some of the Bantu kingdoms were particularly notable. The Kongo Kongdom after which the country was named included much of northern Angola and western Congo (14th-17th centuries). Portuguese travellers encountered the Kingdom of Kongo and its capital city of Mbanza Kongo with about half a million people. It was a developed state at the center of an expansuive trading network.
Merchants traded a variety of valuable materials. Ivory was particularly important. They also traded manufactured products--copper and ironware, raffia cloth and pottery. Slaves were also traded. At first the slaves were primarily war captives, but this trade gradually became a major activity. The Luba Empire controlled the area around lakes Kisale and Upemba in central Katanga (early 16th century). The Lunda kingdom of Mwata Yamo became important in the southwesern Congo (15th century- ). The Kuba kingdom was formed by the Shongo people in the southern Congo along the Kasai and Sankuru rivers (early 17th century- ). The Lunda kingdom wasformed by the Mwata Kazembe along the Luapula River, now the Congo-Zambia boundary (18th century). The Luba were particularly influential. Marriage and trade contacts helped spread political ideas abnd technology to the Lunda, Many smallLuba-Lunda states were organized in the southern Congo.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach the Congo. The Portuguese at the time were sailing south in an effort to round the African coast and sail east to Asia. Diogo Cão reached the mouth of the Congo River (1482). He sailed only a few miles upstream. The Portuguese established trading posts along the coast of what is modern Angola. From an early point slaves became one of the most valuablr trade commodities, laying the foundation for the Atlantic slave trade. The Portuguese had extensive relations with Ndongo Kingdom which paid tribute to the Kongo. The Portuguese had little influence in the Congo and made no effort to move inland (until the late-18th century). The Portuguese first effort to move inland was to arm African and mulatto traders (pombeiros). Thy began top move into land controlled by the Lunda kingdom. Eventually the Portuguese expanded their coastal trading osts into the colony of Angola.
Arabs from North Africa began penetrating over the Sahara to West Africa soon after Arab conquests. They did not, however reach central Africa. It was Arab and Arabized African (Swahili and Nyamwezi) traders from the Indian Ocean coast of modern Tanzania penetrated into central Africa--the eastern Congo. Much of this effort centered on Zanzibar where the Sheik of Oman trasferred his court. The Arabs traded and raided for slaves, ivory, and other commodities. Thus central Africa became an important source of captives for the Indian Ocean slave trade. The Arabs were more than traders. Some set up quasi-states to support their trading and traiding enterprises.
One of the most important Arab trader state was created by Msiri (a Nyamwezi). He set up his state near Mwata Kazembe encroaching upon the Lunda kingdom (1856). He was an important force in the Congo until Belgian authorities killed him (1891). Muhammad bin Hamad (Tippu Tib) established a another Arab trader state (1860s). Tippu was an Arabized Swahili trader from Zanzibar who was part Nyamwezi. He controlled a substantial area of the eastern Congo northwest of Lake Tanganyika.
The colonial era was launched by one of Europe's smallest countries--Belgium. King Leopold II, who proved to be the most brutal colonizers launched the colonial race in Africa. Belgium was a new country and had not participated in the colonial competition of the 16th and 17th century. Now Leopold declared, "Belgium must have a colony". The colony Leopold founded, the Belgian Congo, was a far cry from the humanitarian inpulse with which the Victorians justified colonialism. Leopold administered the Congo as his personal property and not a national colony. The people in the the Congo Free State were essentilly turned into slaves worked to enrich Leopold persnally. They were subjected to horendous abuses. As reports filtered out describing the terrible abuses, King Léopold eventually relinguished personal control of the Congo. Belgium annexed the Congo with a Treaty (November 28, 1907). The Belgian Colony was administered by a governor-general at Boma. A Colonial Council and colonial minister in Brussels set policy. The Congo was divided into 15 administrative districts. The new colonial adminstration made many improvements. The Belgians to redeam their national reputation attempted to turn the Congo into a "model colony". The Belgiand opened primary and high schools. Unlike some colonial powers, many of the ethnic laguages were used in the new schools. Belgian doctors and medics worked on tropical diseases, an eradicated the sleeping disease. The Belgians set up perhaps the most comprehensive medical infrastructure in Africa. The Belgians developed the Congo economicallt, building railways, ports, roads and opening mines and plantations. At the time of indepence, the Comgo had Africa's highest gross national product was the highest in Africa. The wealth was not, however, well distriubuted and the Belgian Government did very liitle to prepare the colony for self government.
Decolonization takes on greater force in Africa as Britain and France begin to grant independence to their colonies. The failure of colonial wars convince most Europeans , including the Belgians that indeoendence is inevitable. And the Belgians realize that they do not have the military capability to hold the vast Comngo by force. The Belgians as part of a belated effort to prepare the colony for the future held municipal elections in Léopoldville (modern Kinshasa) (1957). The Alliance des Ba-Kongo (Abako) won the election. This was a tribal-based party promoting the interests of the Bakongo tribal group. It was headed by Joseph Kasavubu. He championed a an independent Congo based on a federalist structure in which the Bakongo could enjoy adegree of autonomy in their area of the Congo. A firey, more radical political orator emerged during the transition period--Patrice Lumumba. Unlikeed Kasavubu, he belonged to a minor tribe. He wanted a more centralized state. He founded the Congo's first nationwide party, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) (1958). The Belgian Government sponsored talks in Brussels to consider the limited measures to to estanlish a degree of self rule. When they began there was no sense of urgency ad conditions in the Congo wre calm. This changed when riots begin in Léopoldville (January 1959). The riots are sparked when Belgian colonial authotities ban a scheduled political rally. Rioters loot and burn shops, break into houses, and attack Belgiansand other Europeans. The police respondd with force and many Congelese are killed and wounded. The Belgium Givernments attempts to control the situation by commiting go independence and some unspecified future date. King Baudouin declares the Government's intention to offer full independence. Elections for a territorial assembly were previously set for December 1959. When Belgian authorities announce the elections, intense political activity begins. Political activity was a new phenomenon for rge Congolese. They had had virtuallyh no say in the colonial adminitration. The parties that emerge are primary establioshed along tribal lines. For most Congolese the tribes were virtually theor only alleginces. The Congolese form a myriad of political partiesd. They register more than fifty parties are officially registered (November 1959). The only truly national party was Lumumba's MNC. There were, however, two other particularly important paries, both tribal-based parties with substantial regional support. Kasavubu's Abako party was supported by the Bakongo people in the coastal region. This was the region around Léopoldville and the powerful trading kingdom of Kongo (15th-17th centuries). The other was a party founded by Moise Tshombe in the mineral-rich southeastern province of Katanga. The elections were a non-event. Several parties boycotted them. This led to rising violence. The Belgian Government selected 96 party to a conference in Brussels (January 1960). Lumumba, Kasavubu and Tshombe are among the most important. The Belgians propose a 4r-year transition period leading to to independence. The delegates who agree on virtually nothing, do agree that they do not want to wait. Belgium which has no intention of fighting a colonial war, agrees to a hoplessly flawed rush to independence. Independence is set in 6 months (June 30, 1960).
Belgium sets independence for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (June 1960). Belgium had done little to prepare the Conglese people for indepebdence. Belgian authorities hold elections in preparation for independence (May 1960). Lumumba's MNC lead in the outcome, becoming the largest single party, nit not a majority party. Kasavubu's Abako gained second place. Neither is able to form a majority coalition. They work out an untenable compromise. Kasavubu becomes president and head of state while Patrice Lumumba becomes prime minister. He forms an unwiedly coalition including a dozen small parties with no shared interests. Tshombe's party also becomes an important force, winning control of the provincial assembly in Katanga. There were virtually no chance that this arrangement would work. It would have required coopertion and deocratic compromise. The Congolese had, however, no experiece with democravy or compromise. The Congo bcame independent (June 30, 1960) as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. immediately problems developed with the Army. We notice the account of a Western boy in Zaire. The soldiers in the new Congolese Army proved difficult to control after independence. A factore here ws that the officers in the were without exception white Belgians . In the Belgian colonial army, Africans could not rise higher than the rank of sergeant-major. The Belgian Government only began to address this in the rush to independence. The first Congolese officer cadets have not yet completed their officer training courses. Prime minister Lumumba attempted to apease the soldiers (early July 1960). He moved to dismoiss the Belgian officers and replace thm with Congolese. The job of issuing new commissions was put in the hands of Minister of Defense Joseph Mobutu. The patronage linvolved makes him a major figure in the developing Congolese Army. The Congolese military, directed by the Belgians and presumably the CIA, fearin g pro-Soviet connections, removed Lumumba from office just a few weeks after independence and shot him.
Following 5 years of instability, Mobutu Sese Seko seized power from the unsble government. He then established a dictatrship that lasted 30 years. He rnamed the country 'Zaire'. Mobutu like many of the cntinent's line up of dctators used the country's ample resources for his own personal agrandizement. Rather than develop the country's economy, he used the govrn,ment's revenue to build lavish palaces of not rel benefit. Palaces went up in every province. Mobutu died shortly after Congolese people overhhrew him (1997). He had vast wealth in Swiss bank accounts while the people of the Congo lived in abject poverty, unchanged if not worse off than before independenve.
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