In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Kongo Atlantic Diaspora

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Journals
  • Language
  • Culture and Society
  • Religion
  • Health and Healing
  • Art

African Studies Kongo Atlantic Diaspora
John M. Janzen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0102


The full African diaspora must include references to actors, localities, or cultural features in the Mediterranean, continental Europe, and South Asia as well as North and South America over several thousand years. This article explores western equatorial Africa and its extension in the New World, where Kongo people, speakers of the KiKongo language, and their successors have participated actively in the continuation and transformation of their African way of life and their story. The Kongo Atlantic world is unique in encompassing five centuries of historical documentation. Portuguese explorer Diogo Cao’s visit in 1482 began a several-century interaction between the Kongo court and region, and Portuguese and other European nations that opened diplomatic ties with Kongo and European states while the Kongo elite adopted Christianity, European language, clothing, religion and social trappings. Commercial relations were launched that included ever increasing enslavement of Africans. During the course of five centuries, the relationship of western equatorial Africa to Europe and the Americas transformed the lives of millions of people, who provided massive labor for the development of plantations and industries and founded the cultural ancestry of an important cross-section of the New—the African-American—World. Accessible English sources are given preferential treatment in this article. Old World contexts reviewed include the precolonial kingdoms of the region (Kongo, Loango, KaKongo, Ngoyo, Tio), the people, the language and culture, and the history; the ports and hinterlands of a massive inland trading empire that moved people and goods across vast distances from the 17th to the 19th centuries; this region as the point of entry of three colonial territories (the Congo Free State and the Belgian Congo, Portuguese Angola, and part of French West Africa) and of three modern African states (Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, and Congo-Kinshasa). See also the separate Oxford Bibliographies articles on Angola, Kongo and the Coastal States of West Central Africa, Congo, Republic of (Congo Brazzaville), and Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire). A sampling of New World Kongo settings are found in Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti, and Cuba as well as along the Georgia and Carolina coasts and in New Orleans in the United States—nations, regions, or localities that originate in the spheres of British, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and American colonialism, respectively.

General Overviews

The African Diaspora Studies Institutes (Harris 1993) have sought to identify the full scope of this diasporic world. Other scholars and works have treated this vast and complex story in other ways. Lovejoy and Trotman 2003 has sought to clarify shifting ethnic and national identities in the transatlantic experience. In contrast, Gilroy 1993 (Black Atlantic) introduces a non-national, nonethnic, pan-African, black Atlantic consciousness derived from artistic and intellectual performance. Rahier, et al. 2010 follows in this vein in portraying the African diaspora as an imagined modern, global community of black consciousness against the negating forces of colonialism. Obboe and Scacchi 2008 has “recharted” the African diaspora as the voices and images of contemporary culture in a black Atlantic world. Heywood and Thornton 2007 and Fennell 2007 utilize the focus on regional developments—western equatorial Africa, western Central Africa, Kongo, Angola, etc.—to untangle complex gradual developments in the transatlantic world that produced slave migrations to, and resettlements in, the New World. Students and researchers may need a few simple rules of thumb to navigate the complexities of the names Kongo, Congo, Zaire, and Nzadi. Kongo (with a “K”) refers to the historic kingdom, the people (BaKongo), the language (KiKongo), and the contemporary cultural traditions of the wider region and the diaspora. Congo (with a “C”) refers to the Congo River and to the colonial states that were created beginning in the 1880s: the Congo Free State, the Belgian Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as the southern region of French West Africa renamed the Republic of Congo. President Mobutu renamed the DRC and the river “Zaire.” The northern province of Angola already bore this name. “Zaire” is a Portuguese/European mispronunciation of Nzadi, the ancient KiKongo term for not only this major river running through its territory, but also the metaphysical river that flows between the world of the living and that of the ancestors. After Mobutu, the country was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the river returned to being called the “Congo” River.

  • Fennell, Christopher C.. Crossroads and Cosmologies: Diasporas and Ethnogenesis in the New World. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.

    Treats symbolic expression, formation and maintenance of social group identities, and individual innovation in offering an understanding of core symbols in the diasporas of African cultures such as the BaKongo, Yoruba, and Fon. The concept of “ethnogenic bricolage” explains the crystallization of cultural identity in New World sites.

  • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

    Gilroy’s writes from a cultural studies perspective, and his work has moved African diaspora analysis away from “ethnic absolutism” toward a focus on African intellectual history and its cultural construction. The “black Atlantic” becomes a space of transnational, self-conscious, artistic, and literary creativity. Gilroy’s “double consciousness” refers to the black Atlantic striving to be both European and black.

  • Harris, Joseph, ed. Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora. 2d ed. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1993.

    Incorporates essays from African Diaspora Institutes, with emphasis on the widest possible geographical, historical, and sociopolitical scope. Chapters relevant to this article include Montilus 1993 (cited under Haiti) on collective e memory in Haiti of “Guinea” versus “Congo” lands of origin, and Mahaniah 1993 (cited under History of Western Equatorial Africa: Colonial) on Garveyite influence in early colonial Lower Congo.

  • Heywood, Linda M., ed. Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Chapters by the leading Central-African and Atlantic authors and case studies from Brazil, Haiti and Spanish America, North America and the Caribbean, suggest that émigrés from western Equatorial Africa provided much more foundational experience for the African Atlantic diaspora than has previously been realized because of the high numbers of slaves taken early to several New World regions.

  • Heywood, Linda M., and John K. Thornton. Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Recent archival research establishes Central Africa as the origin of most Africans brought to the English and Dutch colonies in North America, the Caribbean, and South America before 1660. These Central Africans were frequently possessors of an Atlantic Creole culture that included adaptation of Christianity and elements of European languages.

  • Lovejoy, Paul E., and David V. Trotman. Trans-Atlantic Dimension of Ethnicity in the African Diaspora. London: Continuum, 2003.

    Transatlantic case studies feature conditions of slave work, African legal status that fated some people to be taken as slaves while protecting others, and emerging creolized identities. Thus, western equatorial African places and ethnonyms—Kongo, Umbundu, Kimbundu, Cabinda, Angola, etc.—provide helpful references for an understanding of the fates of people from this African region and in the New World diaspora.

  • Oboe, Annalisa, and Anna Scacchi, eds. Recharting the Black Atlantic: Modern Cultures, Local Communities, Global Connections. Routledge Research in Atlantic Studies 1. London: Routledge, 2008.

    Essays examine the “black Atlantic” in an effort to transcend the limitations of the concept of “African diaspora” and to globalize the American national parochialism of “African-American.” Essays of particular importance to this article include Fischer-Hornung 2008 (cited under Haiti) on the films of Katherine Dunham and Maya Deren.

  • Rahier, Jean Muteba, Percy C. Hintzen, and Felipe Smith. Global Circuits of Blackness: Interrogating the African Diaspora. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

    Explores the African diaspora in terms of the “imagined community” of self-consciousness around black identity, with special attention to 20th-century writing and activism.

  • Thornton, John K. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511800276

    This is Thornton’s first overview work to define the historical foundations and features of an African Atlantic world. Chapters on sailing technology and shipping patterns, trade and economics, labor practices, slavery, politics, society, and religion make this work very useful as an introductory college textbook to the topic.

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