Supplement to Chapter Two
A specialist in rituals, called an nganga (priest), would defend people against attacks from the spirit world. As Alisa LaGamma explains, nkisi was “the complex of physical matter, rules, songs, and ritual actions associated with his [the nganga’s] activation of a specific spiritual force. It is deployed to identify and punish those responsible for afflicting others with any number of problems, among them misfortune, sickness, or death.”
When the first Europeans came to the Kongo Kingdom in the late 1400s, they were taken as representatives of an embassy from another world. Parts of the Christian faith began to be integrated into the belief system of the Kongolese after Kongolese king Nzinga converted to Christianity in 1491. The existing Kongolese beliefs were marked by a creator as well as other smaller deities. The people consulted these deities in shrines and believed that ancestors grew in power as they crossed into the afterlife and joined the deities. The nganga brokered dialogue between the two worlds using bells and even physical possession in order to better understand the instructions coming from the afterworld.
A New Yorker article described some of the art from that period: “Fantastically carved ivory horns and geometrically patterned raffia weavings from that time bespeak lofty traditions. Amicable trade relations soon brought examples north. Two elegant horns entered the collection of Cosimo I de’ Medici, in Florence.…[A Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit of Kongolese art] concludes, thunderously, with fifteen of the twenty known surviving Mangaakas from the nineteenth century: wooden male figures, most nearly four feet high, with stout legs, stomach pouches for magical substances, and beetling heads that sport wide, staring white eyes and sharpened teeth. They bristle with nails and bits of iron, each the record of a wish or a curse. They were made as last-ditch defensive implements amid the colonial devastation of Kongo societies. It feels as if all the force of millennia of [Kongo’s] experience were clenched into fists of violent conviction. There are no other sculptures in the world so fierce and sorrowing.”
The Kongo king led both politically and spiritually, enforcing the law of the land, overseeing planting and harvesting, and taking on the role of high priest who would communicate with the ancestors and remain the main contact with the spirits in Kongo’s belief system. As Didier Gondola remarks, the king’s power “was founded upon a duality that corresponded to the cosmology of the people of Kongo. This cosmology viewed the spiritual and material worlds not as two separate worlds but as two components of the same universe, fully harmonious and perpetually interacting. The king was thus invested with a sacred aura that allowed him to straddle the two spheres. As such, he acted as priest, guardian of legitimacy, and guarantor of good relations between the living and the ancestors.”
The historian Adam Hochschild observes, “Like his European counterparts, [the king] sat on a throne, in his case made of wood inlaid with ivory. As symbols of royal authority, the [king] carried a zebra-tail whip, had the skins and heads of baby animals suspended from his belt, and wore a small cap.”
The capital of the Kongo Kingdom was founded around 1400 in Mbanza Kongo, the most densely populated town in the kingdom. It sat on the top of a mountain and housed many of the commercial and political leaders of the kingdom as well as the royal graveyard. The capital played a crucial role in the success of the Kongo Kingdom. Prisoners of war were deployed as slaves on the major farms around Mbanza Kongo, which produced income that supported the king’s army. Because of its numerical superiority, the capital gave the king a major military advantage over any rebellion from the less populated periphery.
According to Didier Gondola, “Mbanza Kongo’s architecture expressed the strong sense of nature’s sacredness held by the Kongo people. Builders made use of natural construction materials such as wood, woven and thatched grass, cob, and bark textiles.…The king’s residence was the political as well as the symbolic center that dictated the design of the whole city. Around the king’s palace, there was a sacred wood encircled by a complex enclosure made of stakes tied together with vines. This was where the dead kings lay, and where the king dispensed justice, received homage from his subjects, and displayed his military power.” The king could only be approached on hands and knees.
In the 1490s the Portuguese sent a delegation of emissaries to stay in the Kongo king’s court, well over a hundred years after the Kongo Kingdom was born. This was the first recorded intergovernmental interaction between representatives of European and African nations. The Europeans offered guns, which the king gladly accepted, as he was facing an insurrection on the periphery of his territory. In Kongo’s first diplomatic mission to Portugal, Kongolese noble Chrachafusus traveled to get technical support from Portugal in the form of carpenters, masons, farmers, and priests, so that “men of each of the two kingdoms would be equal.”
Perhaps the best-known king of Kongo was Afonso I, who ruled from about 1506 until 1543. His reign is better documented than others because he tasked secretaries with recording his decisions, including political matters and war declarations, and because he wrote many letters to kings and government officials in Portugal and Rome. Afonso kept up a voluminous correspondence with the king of Portugal, demonstrating the unique situation of the Kongo Kingdom as “the only precolonial sub-Saharan African state to have had political relations with Europe.”
During his reign, Afonso established diplomatic relations with Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and the Vatican, developed extensive contacts with Portuguese traders and missionaries, declared Catholicism to be Kongo’s state religion, sent students to Portugal, and supported missionary schools for the children of leading members of Kongolese society, where they learned Latin, Christianity, and literacy.
King Afonso sent the first official gift from Africa to Europe, a trumpet ivory carving, to Giovanni de’ Medici, who later became Pope Leo X. Once in the Vatican, Pope Leo X named the son of King Afonso as the first bishop in Africa. The Kongo Kingdom delivered art objects as diplomatic gifts all over Europe, particularly ivory trumpets, and sent diplomats around the world. During Afonso’s reign, the Kongo Kingdom was a world player in diplomacy.
King Afonso expanded Kongo’s education system throughout the kingdom, even into rural areas, with teachers deployed in all corners by the mid-1520s. When the Jesuits arrived in the mid-1500s, “they found evidence of his work everywhere.”