Mbanza-Kongo was the Kingdom of Kongo’s capital city during the 14th to 19th centuries. It is located on a plateau of 570m in the current country of Angola in the Zaire Province. Today, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In this Kingdom, there existed a strict social, economic and political hierarchical power system. The Aristocracy occupied the highest social rank in this society, which was determined by birth rights and was a highly protected class structure. Upward social mobility into this class was near impossible as the nobility tended to marry within their class structures. Next were the free peoples of Kongo and at the bottom were the enslaved, who were regarded as the spoils of war and invasions.
A King was entrusted to rule the Kingdom of Kongo. The Kings of Kongo were known as the Mani-Kongo. The first Mani-Kongo is said to have been an outsider known as Lukeni Nimi who arrived in Mbanza-Kongo and conquered the nation in the 14th century. When a king died, a special council made up of the most powerful officials in the kingdom convened. This council made up of the provincial governors of the six provinces, members of the aristocracy and elders of the kingdom, would elect the next king. Usually, the most powerful of the king’s sons was elected to occupy the throne.
The Kingdom of Kongo had a very wealthy trade economy with other African kingdoms. Mbanza-Kongo was the seat of the biggest of the trade markets in the Kingdom. Most of the products traded with other African kingdoms included such objects as raffia cloth, pottery, salt, copper iron and Ivory. A strong monetary currency was also used to help in this trading process. Nzimbu shells - small, spiral seashells - were used as money. The arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century saw the Mbanza-Kongo trade market grow. The Portuguese would introduce new products into the market, most of them sourced from Asia and Europe. These products included silk linen, velvet, glass, mirrors, sugar, and skins. The trade between the baKongo and the Portuguese would become difficult in part due to the demands espoused by the Portuguese traders. The Mani-Kongo was told that any further trade that was facilitated would be paid for in the form of slaves. The slave trade, as introduced by the Portuguese, would prove disastrous for the kingdom. Estimates signal that by the year 1680, almost 1 million slaves had been traded in the Kongo region.
The inhabitants of Kongo, before the arrival of the Portuguese prayed to different Gods and a shrine called Mani Kabunga. The king, because of his role in this religious deity, was given the title of Nzambi Mpungu, which translated to mean "superior spirit". It was thus not out of the ordinary for the king to marry someone who was a descendant of the Mani Kabunga. This allowed the king to retain a somewhat higher-than-normal aura over his subjects. With the arrival of the Portuguese, many of these spiritual rites were foregone as pagan rituals. The Portuguese in their effort to spread Christianity, convinced the Mani-Kongo, and his son to convert to Christianity. The son was baptised, sent to a missionary school and given the name Afonso I.
The kingdom of Kongo, housed in the capital of Mbanza-Kongo, is an example of the socio-economic and political structures of society that pre-date the arrival of the Europeans in the 15th century.