The Story of Africa


- Great Zimbabwe


- Kongo


- Trade


- Portugese intervention in the West


- Portugese intervention in the East



A 15th Century Portuguese ship
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Kongo in the west and Great Zimbabwe in the south east of the continent offered two different trading models.

Before the late 15th century, in the west, there was no Transatlantic trade, although there was commerce up and down the coast. Great Zimbabwe by contrast, through its management of gold production stood at the heart of a massive trade network which extended east across the Indian Ocean, though the Persian Gulf, to India and even as far as China.

Chain of trade

It was not until the 18th century that east-west trade routes on the continent were followed through by single caravans. Before that, there is evidence that goods and products could make their way across great distances, but only through a chain of transactions, involving many different traders. An interesting example of this is the discovery in the Great Zimbabwe site of five double-ironed gongs. These were manufactured in Katanga province, southern part of modern DR Congo.

Slave trade origins

The BaKongo, located as they were in the lower basin of the River Kongo, traded copper and iron for salt, food and raffia textiles. Within a few years of the Portuguese arriving in the estuary of the River Congo, the BaKongo were trading with them. Slaves were an important aspect of that trade from the beginning, but the Portuguese also imported copper, silver, ivory and peppers.

European imports

The BaKongo took a broader view of what they wanted from the Portuguese. They were interested in textiles, horses and crafted goods, in particular those made of metal. They also wanted to acquire skills - the skills of masons and carpenters to build European style buildings, and education and literacy, in order to communicate directly with Europe.

The rulers of the Kongo, starting with Manikongo (or king) Nzinga a Nkuwu, demonstrated a strong fascination with the Christianity which the Portuguese brought with them.

Growth of slave trade

Trade between the two kingdoms became rapidly dominated by slaves, and the relationship between the two kings, which had started out as one of equals, rapidly became unequal. Portugal was importing slaves to satisfy a seemingly bottomless demand for manpower in Latin America.

By the end of the 16th century an annual average of 5,000 to 10,000 slaves were leaving Luanda for Brazil. Kongo's alliance with Portugal increasingly benefited only one side: that of the Portuguese.

Losing control

By the second half of the 17th century, the Portuguese stopped launching any further military conquest. And while they continued to benefit from the slave trade, they began to lose control of the trade network which bought and sold the slaves.

Aside from the Dutch, British and French appearing on the scene in the 17th century, a host of other communities and groups tapped into the trade network, both on the east and west of the continent. Increasingly, these traders acted independently of both the Portuguese crown and traders based in Lisbon.


Among the many independent groups were the Portuguese pombeiros who went deep into western central Africa in the 16th century, initially acting on behalf of the Portuguese traders on the coast. There were also the Yaka and Imbangala, who although of different origins, were equally adept at making a living off other communities, ruthlessly pillaging crops and cattle, as well as slaves.


With the defeat of the Kongo in 1665, the Vili, (located north of the Kongo estuary), took on a greater commercial role, travelling regularly the 800 km to Kasanje, a new powerful broker state bordering on the Lunda kingdom.

The same destination attracted the Ambaquista, a community of traders of African-European descent, who lived in the Cuanza valley, south of Luanda.

The slave trade, under the auspices of Portugal, ruined the economic and political stability of the Kongo. Ultimately it ruined Portugal too, as this small European kingdom let itself float in the destructive slip-stream of profit, without pausing to invest.

The brutality of the slave trade was later echoed in Central Africa, in the 19th century, by the regime of forced labour imposed by the Belgians in the rubber plantations it set up.

Across the continent

From east to west
"I would like to think there could have been trade between the Kongo and Great Zimbabwe; it could have been indirect because we do not know much of what happened between the BaKongo and the Luba Lunda in the south eastern part of what is now DR Congo, and the Luba Lunda and the copper producers of central Zambia. But these commercial conducts did take place directly or indirectly." - Dr. Innocent Pikirayi
By the late 18th century, long distance trade routes began to be established, and by 1850, Ovimbundu traders (in the middle of modern Angola) had reached the Lamba of Northern Rhodesia. In 1856 the Nyamwezi trader king, Msiri, established his base in Katanga (in the southern part of what is today DR Congo), and sent out caravans both to the western and eastern coasts.

Indian Ocean

On the Indian Ocean seaboard, the commercial scene was very different from the Atlantic sea board in the late 15th century. The Arabs had been trading with the Swahili coastal people for centuries before the Portuguese appeared. Trade went east through the Persian Gulf and India, and on to the Far East. The Portuguese arrived in the late 15th century with the principle aim of capturing the gold routes which drove this trade. In this they failed.

Defeat in Zimbabwe

The Shona kingdom of Mutapa, ruled by the Monumutapa (or Mwene Mutapa, as it is sometimes spelt) proved impossible to defeat. It was eventually displaced as the dominant power in the region by the Changamire of Burwa. In the process, Portuguese backwoodsmen, the sertanejos, found themselves pushed off the Zimbabwe Plateau in 1694.

Omani revival

Having bullied the sultans of the east African coast for the last two centuries, the Portuguese found themselves by the end of the 17th century overwhelmed by the Arabs of Omani. However, a Portuguese commercial presence remained on the coast.

At the same time, the mixed race prazeiros established themselves as traders in ivory and slaves in the Zambezi valley.


Then in the first half of the 19th century a number of Portuguese and Brazilian traders experienced a final flush of prosperity. With the abolition of the slave trade by the British in West Africa, the demand in the Americas for slaves from southern Africa surged. This continued in concert with the Arab trade in slaves, until the British closed the slave market in Zanzibar in 1873.


^^ Back to top Back to Index >>