Early Congo history began with waves of Bantu migrations from 2000 BC to 500 AD moving into the basin from the northwest and covers the precolonial states absorbed or overthrown by the colonial powers. The Bantu migrations added to and displaced the indigenous Pygmy populations into the southern regions of the modern Congo states. The Bantu imported agriculture and iron-working techniques from West Africa into the area, as well as establishing the Bantu language family as the primary set of tongues for the Congolese.
Their propagation was accelerated by the transition from Stone-Age to Iron-Age techniques. The peoples living in the south and southwest were mostly San and hunter-gatherer groups, whose technology involved only minimal use of metal technologies. The development of metal tools during this time period revolutionized agriculture and animal husbandry. This led to the displacement of the hunter-gatherer groups in the east and southeast.
The tenth century marked the final expansion of the Bantu in West-Central Africa. Rising population soon made intricate local, regional and foreign commercial nets possible, forming networks that traded mostly in salt, iron and copper.
The process in which the primitive original Upemba society transitioned into the Luba kingdom was gradual and complex. This transition ran without interruption, with several distinct societies developing out of the Upemba culture prior to the genesis of the Luba. Each of these societies based the foundation of their society on that of the one which preceded it (much in the way that many aspects of Roman culture were borrowed from the Greeks). The fifth century saw this societal evolution develop in the area around present day Kamilamba at the Kabambasee, which was followed and replaced by a number of other cultures which were based around the cities of Sanga and Katango.
The region in which these cultures appeared is particularly rich in ores and the civilization began to develop and implement iron and copper technology, in addition to trading in ivory and other goods. The Upemba established a strong commercial demand for their metal technologies and were able to institute a primitive but long-range commercial net (the business connections extended over 1500 km, all the way to the Indian Ocean). Additionally, the region was endowed with favorable agricultural conditions and a wealth of fish and game.
Its strong economy and food-base allowed the region to become extremely wealthy. So wealthy, in fact, that cities and centralized government based on a chieftain system developed. The political institution of the chieftain became generally accepted and these rulers became increasingly powerful, especially at the end the of the 1500s.
It must also be mentioned that the climate is a major force in the Congo, which is made up primarily of tropical rainforest that sees some of the highest annual rainfall in the world. This high amount of rainfall makes it difficult to sustain agriculture, and subsequently a large population because the soil is simply too watered-down and prone to periodic floods (which can ruin crops, of course) to produce large quantities of food. For this reason, the population of the Congo has maintained a low population in addition to an extremely low population density.
Also, much has been made about the large number of "primitive" hunter-gatherer groups that inhabit the Congo, especially the Pygmy population. However, the reason for this particular life-style being so prominent in the Congo is geographical and climatic: the area is simply not capable of producing a large amount of food from agriculture, and as a result, a portion of the population has continued to hunt and gather because it is a much more sustainable way of life.
The kingdom was headed by a king known as the Manikongo, who exercised his authority over the six provinces that constituted the Kongo kingdom and the Bakongo (Kongo peoples). When the Kongo Kingdom was at its political apex in the 15th and 16th centuries, the King, who had to be a male descendant of Wene, reigned supreme. He was elected by a group of governors, usually the heads of important families and occasionally including Portuguese officials. The activities of the court were supported by an extensive system of civil servants, and the court itself usually consisted of numerous male relatives of the King. The villages were often governed by lesser relatives of the King who were responsible to him. All members of government were invested with their power under the auspices of a ritual specialist.The Manikongo personally appointed a kind of governor for each of the six provinces to oversee each from his capital, Mbanza-Kongo. The city is now known by the same name as the capital of an Angolan province, but was for a time renamed by the Manikongo to 'Sao Salvador' in an effort to adopt Portuguese culture.
In its prime, the Kingdom exacted taxes, forced labor, and collected fines from its citizens in order to prosper. At times, enslaved peoples, ivory, and copper were traded to the Europeans on the coast. The important harbors were Sonyo and Pinda. In addition to the six provinces, the Kongo kingdom also established a sphere of influence in a number of outlying areas from which it was able to extract tribute. The kingdom was also at the center of an extensive Central African trade network in which it traded and produced large quantities of ivory, as well as manufacturing copperware, raffia cloth, and pottery, along with other natural resources (The eastern region of the Congo [such as the province of Katanga] is particularly rich in mineral resources, especially diamonds). These trade goods would also form, in addition to slaves, the backbone of the Kongo's trade with Europeans (primarily the Portuguese), upon their arrival.
The aforementioned slave trade was to be a significant factor in bringing about the end of the Kongo Empire, as the elites of the empire allowed European slave traders to eliminate a significant percentage of the population.
When King Álvaro I, came to the throne in an environment of contestation in 1568, he immediately had to fight invaders from the east (who some authorities believe were actually rebels within the country, either peasants or discontented nobles) called the "Jagas". To do this, he had to enlist the aid of the Portuguese based at São Tomé, who sent an expedition under Francisco de Gouveia Sottomaior to assist. At the same time, however, Álvaro had to allow the Portuguese to establish a colony in his province of Luanda in the south of his country. Kongo provided the Portuguese with support in their war against the Kingdom of Ndongo, located in the interior east of Luanda, when Portugual went to war with it in 1579. Eventually the Portuguese would gain control over most of the surrounding territory which led to increasing tensions with the Kongo.
At the Battle of Ambuila in 1665, the Portuguese forces from Angola defeated the forces of king Antonio I of Kongo; Antonio was killed with many of his courtiers and the Luso-African author Manuel Roboredo, who had attempted to prevent this final war. Nevertheless, the country continued to exist, at least in name, for over two centuries, until the realm was divided among Portugal, Belgium, and France at the Conference of Berlin in 1884-1885.
The Lunda kings became powerful militarily and then politically through marriage with descendants of the Luba kings. The Lunda people were able to settle and colonialize other areas and tribes, thus extending their empire through southwest Katanga into Angola and north-western Zambia, and eastwards across Katanga into what is now the Luapula Province of Zambia. The empire became a confederation of a number of kingdoms or chieftainships which enjoyed a degree of local autonomy (as long as tributes were paid), with Mwata Yamvo as paramount ruler, and a ruling council (following the Luba model) to assist with administration.
In the 18th Century a number of migrations took place from the Lunda Empire as far as the region to the south of Lake Tanganyika. The Bemba people under Chitimukulu migrated from the Lunda Kingdom to Northern Zambia. At the same time, a Lunda chief and warrior called Mwata Kazembe set up an Eastern Lunda kingdom in the valley of the Luapula River.
The Lunda Empire came to an end when invaded by the Chokwe people who were armed with guns, but Lunda chieftainships survive in the former empire.
The federation’s capital was Nsheng, which is now modern Mushenge. The name “Kuba” is derived from the term used by the Luba (whose kingdom lay to the south of the Kuba) for the civilization.
Because of its relative remoteness in the southern Congo, Kuba was largely spared the turmoil of both European and Arab slave trades. As a result, the civilization was able to maintain itself until the 19th century. Also due mainly to its location, even after Belgium officially established the Congo Free State in 1885, the Kuba were able to sustain their federation, which comprised some 100,000 square kilometers and had a population of approximately 150,000 inhabitants.
The Belgians began attempting to gain the acceptance of the Kuba in the early 1880s; however, the gifts Belgium attempted to give were always rejected and king aMbweeky aMileng threatened to behead any foreign intruders. As a result of their justifiable fear of white foreigners, it was not until the African-American missionary William Sheppard made contact with the Kuba that a foreigner would gain their acceptance. This was mainly due to his African blood and Sheppard was able to live amongst the Kuba for four months.
Eventually, after colonial officials were able to enforce their authority upon the Kuba near the end of the 1800s, the entire region became increasingly unstable. However, the well-organized Kuba fought relentlessly against the regime and the area was one of the main sectors of resistance to Belgium throughout its rule.
Of particular note is that the populations of the Eastern regions of the precolonial Congo were heavily disrupted by constant slaving, mainly from Zanzibari slave dealers such as the infamous Tippu Tip (though he would come after the Europeans' entrance onto the scene). The slave trade in this portion of Africa was primarily Arab in nature (in contrast to the European or Atlantic Slave Trade, which took place primarily in West Africa, the Arab slave trade was located on the eastern coast of the continent), with captured persons being shipped off to the Middle East or to holdings of Arabian kingdoms for labor.