In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Congo River Basin States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Early Peoples in the Congo Basin before 1500
  • Rise of Houses and States from 1500 to 1700
  • Impact of the Past on the Present

African Studies Congo River Basin States
John Yoder, J. Jeffrey Hoover
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0021


Throughout the forests and savannas of the great Congo Basin, families and Houses have organized for hunting, gathering, farming, and trading for at least two millennia. Life in the region has always been dynamic as ethnic groups have contracted and expanded; elites have created and borrowed myths of origin, rituals, and symbols; languages have changed; and trade has evolved from capillary transfers to long-distance exchanges. After 1500, nodes of political influence emerged to coordinate growing populations, take advantage of new economic opportunities, provide defense, and satisfy the ambitions of individuals and lineages seeking elite status. Some of these centers became the nuclei of future states. Although external influences such as New World crops, the slave trade, and guns played their part, the more important causes of the growth of states were internal social, economic, and political innovations. Not just reflexive entities that arose in response to regional and international forces, Congo Basin states actively shaped events, by stimulating increased agricultural and artisanal production, for example, and thereby laying the foundation for further political development. Before the 17th century, most political units were decentralized and regional in scope. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of the previously separate trade, ritual, and political centers were incorporated into large-scale trade associations, chiefdoms, and imperial domains. On the southern savanna, the Luba and Ruund of Katanga were more dominant than their weaker neighbors, such as the Kete, Kanyok, and Kalundwe. In the area between the savanna and the equatorial forest, the Kuba state grew strong, and north of the forest the Mangbetu, Zande, and Ngbandi polities emerged. Along the Congo River above Malebo Pool, the Teke, Bobangi, and Bangala developed trading networks that shared some characteristics of states. However, other peoples such as the Mongo speakers of the forest and the Lele, Chokwe, Salampasu, Pende, Lega, and the Luba of Kasai did not embrace the notion of large-scale centralized polities, relying instead on lineages, warrior leaders, secret societies, heads of large Houses, and ritual specialists for community guidance. In the 19th century, the intrusion of slave traders and colonial conquerors dramatically changed the Congo Basin’s political landscape. Although many of the interlopers and their agents came from the west (Portuguese, Chokwe, and Belgians), others were from the east. Originally from Zanzibar, the Swahili merchant/conqueror Hamed bin Muhammed (Tippu Tib) established a commercial/administrative domain in eastern Congo, while the Sumbwa adventurer Ngelengwa (taking the Lunda name Msiri) came from what is now Tanzania to settle in Katanga, where he created the Yeke state. Although none of the Congo Basin states were able to resist colonial conquest or control by modern governments, most have managed to survive and retain the support of their people even today. Furthermore, the sites of important markets from precolonial times are now large modern cities. Finally, the patrimonial values and habits of precolonial times continue to shape current political dealings.

General Overviews

Unfortunately, no satisfactory book-length general history of the Congo Basin during the precolonial period is available. Although groundbreaking when it was first published, Vansina 1966 is long out of date, mainly because of advances made by Vansina and by scholars the author influenced. Furthermore, Vansina 1966 deals with only one region of the Congo Basin, the woodlands and grasslands south of the forest. More recent scholarship suggests that the concepts of state, kingdom, and empire are applied too rigidly to societies in the Congo Basin. The most extensive overviews of Congo Basin history are contained in four chapters of the edited work Birmingham and Martin 1983 or in Ndaywel è Nziem 1998. Much shorter accessible treatments are single chapters in encyclopedias or in general histories of the entire continent, such as Miller 2008, Vansina 1995a, and Vansina 1995b.

  • Birmingham, David, and Phyllis Martin, eds. History of Central Africa. Vol. 1. London: Longman, 1983.

    Chapters by Jan Vansina (forest region), Dennis Cordell (northern savanna), Thomas Reefe (eastern portion of the southern savanna), and Joseph C. Miller (Atlantic zone) deal with the Congo Basin and nearby regions having great influence on the area. Moving beyond the topics of macro-level politics and trade, the studies give attention to the environment, agriculture, and social structure.

  • Miller, Joseph C. “Congo, Democratic Republic of the: Society and Cultures.” In New Encyclopedia of Africa. Vol. 1. Edited by John Middleton and Joseph C. Miller, 496–501. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2008.

    Accurate summary of the work of Vansina, Harms, and Reefe. In addition, Miller draws from his own work on the Chokwe hunters and traders. Emphasis on voluntary association of peoples rather than forceful integration.

  • Ndaywel è Nziem, Isidore. Histoire générale du Congo: De l’héritage ancien à la Republique Démocratique. Brussels: Duculet, 1998.

    A synthesis of his four decades of research, Ndaywel’s work also covers the colonial and modern periods. The section on the Congo Basin, which contains numerous maps, emphasizes the interconnected nature of ethnic families, languages, economies, and political groupings. When discussing trade, Ndaywel looks at north-south linkages between savanna and forest as well as east-west movements across the savanna.

  • Vansina, Jan. Kingdoms of the Savanna. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966.

    A pioneering work by the foremost historian of Central Africa, the book identifies the major states of the savanna region. Reflecting the state of knowledge in the 1960s, the study offers a somewhat literalistic reading of oral histories. Except when he draws on his own field research about the Kuba, Vansina uses travelers’ accounts as well as oral histories collected during the colonial period. Migrations, state-building, and trade receive much attention.

  • Vansina, Jan. “Equatorial Africa before the Nineteenth Century.” In African History: From Earliest Times to Independence. 2d ed. By Philip Curtin, Steven Feierman, Leonard Thompson, and Jan Vansina, 213–240. New York: Longman, 1995a.

    In an updated version of the original, written in 1978, Vansina traces the political, economic, and social history of the Congo Basin from the start of the Common Era. He argues that political development was not state-centric only but involved a variety of political units such as Houses, villages, and districts.

  • Vansina, Jan. “Upstarts and Newcomers in Equatorial Africa (c. 1815–1875).” In African History: From Earliest Times to Independence. Edited by Philip Curtin, Steven Feierman, Leonard Thompson, and Jan Vansina, 377–397. New York: Longman, 1995b.

    Using trade as a unifying theme, Vansina examines the changes brought by the penetration of outsiders into every corner of the Congo Basin. However, as with the earlier chapter in the same book (Vansina 1995a), the study emphasizes continuities as it chronicles the influence of individuals and institutions that persisted from one period to another.

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