The origins of the Kongo lie in a number of small Iron Age communities lying just north of the Malebo Pool in the River Congo (formerly River Zaire). This strategic location provided fertile soil, iron and copper ore, a rich source of fish, and a river which was navigable for thousands of miles upstream.
By the early 15th century these communities had grown in wealth and size to form a loose federation centred on one kingdom, led by a king or Manikongo. Following the defeat of a branch of the Mbundu, the focus of power had shifted 200 kilometres south west, south of the River Kongo, where a capital was established called Mbanza Kongo (Sao Salvador under Portuguese rule).
A broad range of crafts emerged from the Kongo and its client states: metal work, pottery and raffia textiles, much of it practised exclusively by the ruling class. The expansion of the Kongo was effected less through military conquest, and more through trade, alliances and marriages.
The sovereignty of the Manikongo was exercised through a number of governors. To the west and north were three important states, which were allies - Loango, Ngoyo and Kakongo.
Celebrating expansion of Congo
On our departure from Kongo there were nine caravans under nine chiefs with their staff of office.
We brought with us the basket containing the relics of our ancestors, which are used in the installation of chiefs.
We brought the grass rings for the chiefs' roof-tops.
The paths we travelled were safe.
The villages we built were peaceful...
We kept all together.
We were careful not to separate. - From a 'boasting song', collected by the Belgian missionary J. Van Wing, quoted by Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore in The African Middle Ages
With increased population density in the region, food supplies began to be outstripped by demand. A number of expeditions were launched in search of new territory. These were headed by chiefs chosen by the Manikongo. They set off west, north east and south to establish new outposts to the Kongo empire.
At its height, Kongo was the biggest state in western Central Africa. It stretched from the Atlantic in the west to the Kwango River in the east, encompassing what today is northern Angola, part of DR Kongo and part of Congo Brazzaville.
Arrival of Portuguese
The first European to arrive in sub-Saharan Africa was the Portuguese navigator, Diogo Cao. Having come south down the coast from what is now Elmina in Ghana, he sailed into the estuary of the River Congo. His initial encounter with the people of Soyo, on the coast, made it immediately clear that he was on the edge of a great empire.
When asked who the ruler of the region was, he was told of the Manikongo and his seat of power in Mbanza Kongo, even though it was over 300 km inland.
Today's pride in a tragic past
"People (the BaKongo) remember that the Manikongo (the king of the Kongo) agreed to open his kingdom to modern influences very early on. They say that they themselves are less civilized than white people, but more civilized than other Kongo people. They say the country can only be saved if the Kongo lead the country.
The other people say to the Kongo people, 'you are too arrogant. You think that you are the only people that can save the country - why?' And this has created a big problem."
- Dr. Remi Bazenguissa, anthropologist at Ecole des Haut Etudes, Paris, France, who is making a special study of the BaKongo today and their sense of identity.
Two years later Diogo Cao actually visited the capital. Trade began in earnest between the BaKongo and the Portuguese and the kings began to correspond.
Gradually the Transatlantic slave trade began to overshadow the relationship between these two empires, and drain the region of its manpower.