Book Review: The Kongo Kingdom: The Origins, Dynamics and Cosmopolitan Culture of an African Polity


by Koen Bostoen and Inge Brinkman, editors

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xii, 322+. Illus., maps, tables, notes, biblio., index. $110.00. ISBN: 1108474187

A “Forgotten” African Kingdom

Specialists in African history and culture, Professors Bostoen and Brinkman (Leiden) have collected nearly a dozen papers by various colleagues to present an interdisciplinary look at the history and culture of the Kingdom of Kongo. Originating around 1250, Kongo was a major power around the lower reaches of the Congo River, from the late fourteenth century into the seventeenth century, and its remnant survived into the twentieth. At its peak, from about 1400 to about 1600, when its ruling class and many of its people had become Christians, the kingdom had diplomatic and commercial ties with Portugal and some other European states, and even with the Vatican, but declined as the Portuguese began exploiting its for slaves

About half the essays address the history and organization of the kingdom under the leadership of several notable monarchs. So we get an interesting look at the introduction of Catholicism, the creation of a somewhat bureaucratic state on European lines, foreign and domestic policy, and then the kingdom’s decline under the stress of the slave trade and Portuguese imperialism. The balance of the essays deal with various aspects of Kongo culture, society, and influence down to the recent past.

Several of the papers stress the need to use the earliest recorded versions of oral tradition, an important reminder that memory tends to evolve, a matter about which some scholars are rather careless.

The essays are generally very critical of essentially racist Enlightenment interpretations of supposedly “irrational” beliefs and practices as superstition. Such criticism might have been strengthened by noting similar irrationalities in other cultures, notably those of classical Greece and Rome. Unfortunately, none of the essays attempt to address the kingdom’s military policies or institutions.

A very good work, The Kongo Kingdom is primarily for the specialist in African history.


Note: The Kongo Kingdom is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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