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Studies of slavery in Africa during the period of the Atlantic slave trade have largely ignored questions of how political processes affected enslavement during the period and also the extent to which notions of who could be enslaved were modified. Documentation for the kingdom of Kongo during the 1500s to 1800 allows us to explore how the trade was sustained and the social and political dynamics behind it. In a state that consistently exported large numbers of slaves throughout the period of the trade, kings of Kongo at first observed quite a pronounced distinction between foreign-born captives subject to enslavement and sale in the Atlantic trade and freeborn Kongos who were largely proctected from enslavement and sale overseas. In time, however, the distinctions that separated foreign-born and Kongos fell apart as later political authorities and others disregarded such distinctions and all Kongos became subject to enslavement and sale overseas. This was a product of internal Kongo conflicts, which witnessed the collapse of institutions and the redefinition of polity, what it meant to be a citizen or freeborn, and who could be enslaved.

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1 Rodney, Walter, ‘African slavery and other forms of social oppression on the upper Guinea coast in the context of the Atlantic slave trade’, Journal of African History, 7 (1966), 431–43; Fage, J. D., ‘Slavery and the slave trade in the context of West African history’, Journal of African History, 10 (1970), 394404.

2 Paul Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (2nd ed., New York, 2000), 281–3. Lovejoy exempted West Central Africa from the productive schemes while retaining the idea that slavery was central to the area's political economy.

3 See, for example, Igor Kopytoff and Susan Miers (eds.), Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives (Madison, 1977); Claire Robertson and Martin Klein (eds.), Women and Slavery in Africa (Madison, 1983); Joseph E. Inikori, The Chaining of a Continent: Export Demand for Captives and the History of Africa South of the Sahara, 1450–1870 (Mona, Jamaica, 1992); John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800 (New York, 1998).

4 James Duffy, Portuguese Africa (Cambridge MA, 1959); Basil Davidson, Black Mother: The Years of the African Slave Trade (Boston, 1961); Joseph Miller, Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830 (Madison, 1996); Ann Hilton, The Kingdom of Kongo (Oxford, 1985); John Thornton, The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition (Madison WI, 1983); Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatrice Kimpa Vita (New York, 1998); Thornton, , ‘As guerras civis no Congo e o tráfico de escravos: a história e a demografia de 1718 a 1844 revisitada’, Estudos Afro-Asiáticos, 32 (1997), 5574; Jose Curto, Enslaving Spirits: The Portuguese--Brazilian Alcohol Trade in Luanda and its Hinterland c. 1550–1830 (Leiden, 2004).

5 John Thornton has discussed this thoroughly in his article entitled ‘African political ethics and the slave trade: Central African dimensions’, on the internet at

6 Hilton, Kingdom of Kongo, 123.

7 Thornton, John, ‘Early Kongo--Portuguese relations, 1483–1575: a new interpretation’, History in Africa, 8 (1981), 183204.

8 Thornton, John, ‘The kingdom of Kongo, ca. 1390–1678: the development of an African social formation’, Cahiers d'Études Africaines, 22 (1982), 325–42. Joseph Inikori, relying mostly on Hilton's work, critiqued Thornton and instead took the position advanced earlier by Walter Rodney, more than four decades ago. See Joseph Inikori, ‘Slavery in Africa and the Atlantic slave trade’, in Alusine Jalloh and Stephen Maizlish (eds.), The African Diaspora (Arlington, 1996), 39–72; Thornton, Africa and Africans.

9 Cited in Lovejoy, Transformations, 127–9.

10 Davidson, Black Mother, pp. 116–50; James Duffy, Portuguese Africa, 49–56.

11 For a discussion of slaves in early Kongo, see Hilton, Kingdom of Kongo, 58–60.

12 For studies of the trade in other regions of Atlantic Africa, see, for example, Boubucar Barry, Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge, 1998); Paul Lovejoy, Slavery, Commerce and Production in West Africa (Trenton, 2005); Robin Law, The Slave Coast of West Africa, 1550–1750: The Impact of the Slave Trade on an African Society (Oxford, 1991); Law, Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving Port, 1727–1892 (Ohio, 2004).

13 João António Cavazzi de Montecúccolo, Descrição histórica dos três reinos do Congo, Matamba, e Angola, trans. Graciano Maria de Leguzzano (2 vols.) (Lisbon, 1965), I, 230.

14 Armando Cortesão and Avelino Teixeira da Mota (eds.), Portugalliae monumenta cartographica (6 vols.) (Lisbon, 1960) I, 12 (plates 4–5).

15 Pacheco Pereira, Esmeraldo de situ orbis (1st critical ed., Lisbon, 1905), 134.

16 In sixteenth-century Portuguese, ‘gente’ could mean people or followers, but not slaves.

17 Afonso to Manuel I, 5 Oct. 1514, in António Brásio (ed.), Monumenta missionaria africana (1st series, 15 vols.) (Lisbon, 1952–88) (henceforth, MMA), I, 295. The seventeenth-century Latin--Kikongo dictionary kept by Joris van Gheel lists the Kikongo word mússa for the Spanish word gente (Latin populum/plebeius) for common people. See ‘Vocabulario congolese’ (1648), Biblioteca Nacional Centrale da Roma, MS Varia 274, fols. 41, 78.

18 Afonso to João III, 18 Oct. 1526, MMA, I, 489; João III to Afonso, end of 1529, MMA, I, 526.

19 These terms are being used in the sense in which Afonso and his contemporaries used them, which might not be the same meaning as they had in Europe.

20 Afonso to Manuel I, 5 Oct. 1514, MMA, I, 320.

21 Afonso to Manuel 1, 5 Oct. 1514, MMA, I, 295, 297, 300.

22 Ibid. 297, 300.

23 Ibid.; also see Thornton, ‘Political ethics’.

24 Pereira, Esmeraldo, 134.

25 Afonso to Manuel I, 5 Oct. 1514, MMA, I, 314–15.

26 João III to King Afonso, end 1529, MMA, I, 525–6. Although João was probably exaggerating in response to Afonso's complaint that his country was being depopulated because his people were being stolen, this does not invalidate the statement that most of the slaves at the time came from outside of Kongo.

27 Afonso to Manuel I, 5 Oct. 1514, MMA, I, 300.

28 Ibid. 300–1.

29 Afonso to João III, 6 July 1526, MMA, I, 468.

30 Ibid. 471.

31 The invasion or uprising was the subject of a lengthy debate in the 1960s and 1970s. For a summary and new contribution, see the annotation in M. Chandeigne's re-edition of the Wily Bal translation of Pigafetta's description, Le Royaume de Congo et les contrées environnantes (1591) (Paris, 2002), 291–5.

32 Fillipo Pigafetta, Relatione del Reame di Congo del circunvincni contrade (Rome, 1591), 60.

33 Ibid. 62.

34 Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Miscellania, Armadio I (henceforward ASV, Misc., Arm I), vol. 91, Collettione di Scritture di Spagna II, Papers of António Manuel, Certificate of Freedom, 25 Oct. 1604, fol. 126.

35 Pedro II to Giovanni Battista Vives, 28 Nov. 1623, MMA, VII, 160–3; Jesuits to Lord Collectors, 20 Oct. 1623, MMA, VII, 513–14; Royal Letter to Governor of Brazil, 18 Mar. 1624, MMA, VII, 220; Mateus Cardoso, ‘Relação do que se passou em Angola no anno de 623 …’ MMA, VII, 177.

36 ‘Inquirição sobre o comercio de S. Tomé com Angola ordernada por D. João III’, 12 Oct. 1548, MMA, II, 197–206; Pigafetta, Relatione, 19, 26.

37 Olifert Dapper, Naukeurige beschrijvinge van Africa gewesten (Amsterdam, 1668), citations from the English translation, John Ogilby, Africa (London, 1670), 582.

38 Pigafetta, Relatione, 68.

39 ASV, Misc., Arm I, vol. 91, fol. 125, Provision of Miguel, Count of Sonho, 4 Feb. 1593.

40 Ibid. fol. 244, Order of Álvaro II to Simão Manipemba, 22 Feb. 1600.

41 In the same letter, Álvaro II detailed the steps the Mani Mpemba should take to monitor the trade with the Portuguese at Mpemba, Mbamba and Mbwila. Ibid. 242. These toll houses are clearly shown on the map. Joan Blaeu, Regna Congo et Angola, 1652, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Chartes, Collection D'Anville 08255, or on the internet at For a discussion of Kongo's taxation system, see Hilton, Kingdom of Kongo, 117–19.

42 ‘Relação que faz o Capitão Garçia Mendes Castelobranco do Reyno do Congo’, 16 Jan. 1620, MMA, VI, 438.

43 Anne Hilton argued that the actions ensured control over revenue. Hilton, Kingdom of Kongo, 121–41.

44 Afonso to João III, 25 Mar. 1539, MMA, II, 73–5.

45 Afonso to João III, 25 Mar. 1540, MMA, II, 100–2.

46 ‘Sentença do Cardeal D. Henrique a favor do Bispo de S. Tomé’, 14 Mar. 1571, MMA, III, 10–13.

47 For a discussion of local and international currencies in Central Africa during the period of the Atlantic slave trade, see Miller, Way of Death, 175–89. For West Africa see Jan Hogendorn and Marion Johnson, The Shell Money of the Slave Trade (Cambridge, 2003).

48 Carmen Radulet (ed. and trans.), Relazione del Regno di Congo, in O cronista Rui de Pina e a ‘Relação do Reino do Congo’ (Lisbon, 1992), 116.

49 Afonso to João III, 25 Mar. 1540, MMA, II, 100–2.

50 Bras Correa to Juan Baptista Vives, 20 Oct. 1619, MMA, VI, 405.

51 Garcia to Rector of the College of Luanda, 23 Feb. 1643, MMA, IX, 18.

52 Manuel Baptista Soares, ‘Lembranças que fes, e deu a V. Magestade, o bispo de Congo’, 7 Sept. 1619, MMA, VI, 360.

53 Fr. Capelle, ‘Corte beschrijvynge vat gepasserde in Rio Congo’, Nationaal Archief Nederland, Oud West Indische Compagnie, 56, no. 33, 25 Aug. 1638.

54 Louis Jadin, L'ancien Congo et l'Angola (1639–55) d'après les archives romaines, portugaises, néerlandaises, et espagnoles (3 vols.) (Louvain, 1975), I, 372.

55 Nationaal Archief Nederland, Oude West Indische Compagnie, 59, Garcia II to Dutch Governor of Brazil, 20 Feb. 1643, ‘en met die gaet dese kleijne verderinge van slaven, also de gelegenheit niet anders en heeft toegelaten …’ My thanks to Andrea Mosterman for her transcription and translation of this passage.

56 Le gouverneur et le Conseil du Brésil, 14 Aug. 1643, in Jadin, L'ancien Congo, I, 475; Lettre general de O.W.I.C au gouverneur et au Conceil de Recife, 29 Oct. 1643, in Jadin, L'ancien Congo, I, 500.

57 Ogilby, Africa, 543.

58 ‘Copia cuiusdam capituli litterarum ex Ulixbona sub Dei VI Novembre 1491’, in Adriano Capelli (ed.), ‘A proposito di conquiste Africane’, Archivo Historico Lombardo, Series 3, 10 (1896), 416–17.

59 Devassa de D. Diego Rei do Congo, 10 Apr. 1550, MMA, II, 261.

60 Alváro I to Father Garcia Simões, 27 Aug. 1575, MMA, III, 127–8.

61 Inhabitants of the eastern province of Zombo were called Muzombos in the Portuguese plural.

62 Pigafetta, Relatione, 38. On the identifications of the Mosobos as Zombo in this section, see the annotation to the revised French edition/translation by Bal, Royaume de Congo, 295–6.

63 Pigafetta, Relatione, 32.

64 Another province in the eastern part of Kongo.

65 Linda Heywood and John Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660 (Cambridge, 2007), 110.

66 ‘De statu regni Congi’, 1595, MMA, III, 508.

67 Ogilby, Africa, 540.

68 Ibid. 541.

69 For the reference to the 4,000–5,000 soldiers, see ‘De statu regni Congi’ (1595), MMA, III, 508. For Hilton's discussion of how Álvaro acquired the slaves see Hilton, Kingdom of Kongo, 85. However, this document (the only one Hilton cites) does not specifically identify these soldiers as slaves.

70 Pigafetta, Relatione, 38.

71 ‘Carta do padre Garcia Simões ao padre Luis Perpinhão, 7 November 1576’, MMA, III, 146.

72 Ogilby, Africa, 536, 538.

73 Girolamo da Montesarchio, ‘Viaggio al Gongho’, pub. in Calogero Piazza (ed.), La prefettura apostolica del Congo alla metà del XVII secolo. La relazione inedita di Girolamo da Montesarchio (Milan, 1976), 226.

74 See, for example, Girolamo Merolla da Sorrento, Breve relatione del viaggio nel regno di Congo (Naples, 1692), cited from the English translation ‘A voyage to Congo’, in Awasham Churchill and John Churchill, A Collection of Voyages and Travels (4 vols.) (London, 1702), I, 607, 645.

75 Cavazzi, Descrição histórica, I, 86, 160.

76 Ibid. 86.

77 ‘Points à toucher dans lá reponse du pape au rei du Congo pour aide cette chrétienté’, in Jadin, L'ancien Congo, III, 1290–1.

78 Serafino da Cortona to Jose de Granada, 6 Mar. 1653, in Jadin, L'ancien Congo, III, 1451–2; see also Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, MS 3533, Antonio de Teruel, ‘Descricion narrativa de la mission serafica de los Padres Capuchinos … en el reyno de Congo’ (1664), 126.

79 Serafino da Cortona to Jose de Granada, 6 Mar. 1653.

80 Le pratique missionaire des PP. capucins italiens dans les rouymes de Congo, Angola et contrées adjacents (1747), ed. D. Northrumb (Paris, 1931), 82.

81 Cavazzi, Descrição Histórica, I, 80.

82 Merolla, ‘Voyage’, 616.

83 [Mateus Cardoso], ‘Morte de D. Alvaro III El Rei do Congo e eleição de D. Pedro Affonso’, 1622, MMA, XV, 485.

84 For details, see Heywood and Thornton, Central Africans, 141–3.

85 Ogilby, Africa, 541.

86 ‘Rapport de Pieter Moortmer au Conseil du Bresil’, 14 Oct. 1642, in Jadin, L'ancien Congo, I, 347.

87 Thornton, Kingdom of Kongo, 69–124. For a discussion linking the fall of Kongo to changes in the trade routes and the decline of the cloth trade, see Hilton, Kingdom of Kongo, ch. 5.

88 Pratique missionaire, 83–4.

89 Merolla, ‘Voyage’, 645.

90 Ibid. 619.

91 Luca da Caltanisetta, ‘Relatione delle missione fatta nel regno di Congo per il Padre Fra Luca da Caltanisetta … sino alla fine del 1701’, in Romain Rainero (ed.), Il Congo agli inizi del setecento nella relazione da Luca da Caltanisetta (Florence, 1974), fol. 99v.

92 Carlo Toso, L'anarchia Congolese nel sec. XVII: la relazioni inedita di Marcellino D'Atri (Genoa, 1984), 291.

93 da Dicomano, Raimondo, ‘Informazione 1798. Documentario’, Studia, 46 (1987), 302–26, fol. 14 (original foliation marked in this edition).

94 Merolla, ‘Voyage’, 662. For an account of the Battle of Mbwila, see ‘Relação da mais gloriosa e admirável victoria que alançarão as armas de el Rey D. Affonso VI’, MMA, XII, 582–91.

95 Merolla, ‘Voyage’, 658–9.

96 Archivio dei Cappuccini da Provincia di Toscana, Florence, Lorenzo da Lucca, ‘Lettera annua del 1705’, 30 Dec. 1705, in Filippo Bernardi da Firenze, ‘Relazioni d'alcuni missionari cappuccini toscani singularmente del P. Lorenzo da Lucca che due volte fù missionario apostolico al Congo’, 206. French translation: Jean Cuvelier, Relations sur le Congo du P. Laurent de Lucques (Brussels, 1953) (which notes the original pagination).

97 See, for example, Thornton, Kongolese Saint Anthony.

98 Pratique missionaire, 92.

99 Cherubino da Savona, ‘1755 Congo’, in António Brásio, ‘O problema de eleição e coroação dos Reis do Congo’, Revista Portuguesa da História, 12 (1969), 209.

100 Da Savona, ‘1755 Congo’, 208–14. For a discussion of the role of some of the women in Kongo politics, see Thornton, John K., ‘Elite women in the kingdom of Kongo: historical perspectives on women's political power’, Journal of African History, 47 (2006), 437–60.

101 Academia das Cienças de Lisboa (ACL), MS Vermelho 296, Rafael de Castello de Vide, ‘Viagem do Congo do Missioario Fr. Raphael de Castello de Vide, hoje Bispo de S. Thomé’, 85.

102 Ibid. 207.

103 Da Savona, ‘1755 Congo’, 380.

104 Da Dicomano, ‘Informazione 1798’, 7–8.

105 Cavazzi, Descrição histórica, I, 160.

106 Ogilby, Africa, 535.

107 ‘Rapport de Pieter Moortmer au Conseil du Brésil’, 14 Oct. 1642, in Jadin, L'ancien Congo, I, 347.

108 Ogilby, Africa, 359.

109 Merolla, ‘Voyage’, 638.

110 Ibid. 639.

111 Archivio De Propaganda Fide, Scritture riferite nei Congressi (APF, SRC), 3, 188–188v, Antonio Barreto da Silva to Propaganda Fide, 1 Oct. 1701.

112 APF, SRC 5, 298, Rosario del Parco, ‘Informazioni del stato della missioni in particolare’ (c. 1760).

113 Da Savona, ‘1755 Congo’, 43.

114 Ibid. 43v.

115 ACL, MS Vermelho 296, de Vide, ‘Viagem’, 290–2.

116 Ibid. 291–2.

117 Da Dicomano, ‘Informazione 1798’, 12.

118 Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, Historie der caribischen Inseln Sanct Thomas, Sanct Crux und Sanct Jan: Kommentierte Edition des Originalmaunskriptes, ed. Gundrun Meier, Stephan Palmié, Peter Stein and Horst Ulbricht (4 vols.) (Berlin, 2000–2), I, 516.

* This article was first presented in 2007 at a conference held at the University College of London in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the ending of the Atlantic slave trade. I would like to thank Emmanuel Akyeampong, Joseph Miller and John Thornton for their constructive criticisms.

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