In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Kongo and the Coastal States of West Central Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Collections
  • Journals
  • Slavery in West Central Africa
  • African Economies
  • Religion and Culture

African Studies Kongo and the Coastal States of West Central Africa
Jelmer Vos
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0052


The kingdom of Kongo emerged sometime in the 14th century in the border region of modern northern Angola and the southwestern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. During its heyday in the 16th century, the kingdom exerted influence from its capital in Mbanza Kongo over large areas north and south of the Zaire River, including the coastal states of Loango, Kakongo, Ngoyo, and Ndongo. The kingdom was renowned in Europe for its conversion to Christianity around 1500, which resulted in a steady flow of Catholic missionaries to central Africa (which continued to the 19th century), and its early involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. After opening the slave trade in Kongo in the early 16th century, merchants from Portugal and other European nations also started trading on the Loango Coast, in Angola, and ultimately in Benguela. These different coastal regions and their hinterlands are commonly seen as forming one interconnected zone, labeled West Central Africa, which became the largest regional supplier of coerced labor to the New World on the African continent. After the transatlantic slave trade was effectively abolished in the 1860s, the coastal societies of West Central Africa developed alternative export trades, most notably in ivory, coffee, and rubber. Like the slave trade, these new export trades had deep social and political ramifications in the West Central African interior, where they often strengthened local institutions of slavery. Most of West Central Africa was integrated in the colonial state of Angola.

General Overviews

Historical West Central Africa comprised many different communities, which shared common cultural elements and influenced each other through economic and political interaction. This shared cultural, economic, and political past is underlined in several general overviews of West Central African history, most of which take a wide geographical approach. Birmingham 1981 and Vansina 1984 focus on a period of roughly four centuries preceding European contact. Miller 1983 and Vansina 1992 concentrate on historical developments in the era of the Atlantic slave trade. Dias 1998, Vellut 1989, and Birmingham 2015 analyze the 19th century, when the slave trade was gradually phased out and new forms of economic interaction with the Atlantic world developed.

  • Birmingham, David. Central Africa to 1870: Zambezia, Zaïre, and the South Atlantic. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

    Birmingham’s contributions to Volumes 3 to 5 of the Cambridge History of Africa (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975–1986) are gathered in this book, covering the later Iron Age, the Atlantic era, and the 19th century.

  • Birmingham, David. A Short History of Modern Angola. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    The first part of Birmingham’s masterful narrative has the expansion of the Portuguese Empire in Angola as its leading theme, covering the period from Brazilian independence in 1822 to the British Ultimatum in 1890.

  • Dias, Jill. “Angola.” In O império africano: 1825–1890. Edited by Valentim Alexandre and Jill R. Dias, 319–556. Lisbon, Portugal: Editorial Estampa, 1998.

    Outstanding book-length essay on 19th-century Angola, covering the suppression of the slave trade, the transition to legitimate commerce, and the growing impact of Portuguese imperialism.

  • Miller, Joseph C. “The Paradoxes of Impoverishment in the Atlantic Zone.” In History of Central Africa. Vol. 1, The Early Years, to 1870. Edited by David Birmingham and Phyllis Martin, 118–159. London: Longman, 1983.

    Assesses the impact of West Central Africa’s integration in the Atlantic world through the slave trade and the 19th-century expansion of the produce trade.

  • Vansina, Jan. “Equatorial Africa and Angola: Migrations and the Emergence of the First States.” In General History of Africa. Vol. 4, Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. Edited by Djibril Tamsir Niane, 551–577. Paris: UNESCO, 1984.

    A reconstruction of West Central Africa’s history before European contact, focusing on early state formation and the forest as a dominant ecological force; builds on scholarship from the 1970s and earlier.

  • Vansina, Jan. “The Kongo Kingdom and Its Neighbours.” In General History of Africa. Vol. 5, Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Edited by Bethwell A. Ogot, 546–587. Paris: UNESCO, 1992.

    A synthesis of the literature published before 1985 on political formations in West Central Africa up to the 18th century.

  • Vellut, Jean-Luc. “The Congo Basin and Angola.” In General History of Africa. Vol. 6, Africa in the Nineteenth Century until the 1880s. Edited by J. F. Ade Ajayi, 294–324. Paris: UNESCO, 1989.

    Overview of West Central African history from 1800 to 1880, stressing continuities in African lives between this and earlier periods, as well as changes caused by the progressive incorporation of the region in the world economy.

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