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  • Ethiopia and Congo:A Tale of Two Medieval Kingdoms
  • Fikru Gebrekidan (bio)

This essay provides a comparative sketch of the political history of Ethiopia and Congo since the sixteenth century. It argues that Congo and Ethiopia, despite similar political characteristics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had, by the late-nineteenth century, evolved in opposite directions. On the eve of colonialism, Congo was a shadow of its former self, fragmented by centuries of transoceanic slave trade. Ethiopia, on the other hand, entered the twentieth century not just unscathed by the slave trade, but rather, having been strengthened by it. The divergence between the two kingdoms lay in their unique positions within the oceanic slave trade. Before the sixteenth century the servile population of Congo, besides being relatively insignificant, was made up of foreign-born war captives. Overwhelmed by external powers and internally divided and weakened, Congo would become a major victim of the transatlantic slave trade in the long-term. Ethiopia, by contrast, not only protected its Christian subjects from the Indo-Mediterranean slave trade, both before and after the sixteenth century, but its rulers also used resources from the peripheral slave trade to further bolster centralization. Thus, while Congo, in its fragments, succumbed to the European scramble for Africa with little organized resistance, Ethiopia began the twentieth century in a state of anticolonial defiance and with a centralist political tradition akin to authoritarianism.1


Africa in the sixteenth century consisted of two significant powers: the Bantu kingdom of Congo and the Solomonic empire of Ethiopia. The historic Congo kingdom, often referred to as Old Kongo, encompassed the coastal territory and its immediate hinterlands between what is now northern Angola and the northern shores of the Zaire River. In the 1880s, as a private real estate of King Leopold II, Congo's territorial extent conflated by a multifold, covering much of present-day Central Africa. Sixteenth-century Ethiopia, or historic Abyssinia, sprawled from the Red Sea in the north to the valley of the Awash River in the south. By the late-nineteenth century, even as it lost Eritrea to Italian colonialism, Ethiopia too had almost doubled up in size as a result of Emperor Menilek's imperial expansion.

Unlike their abrupt physical transformations, Ethiopia and Congo followed a protracted and divergent path in their modern-day political evolutions. During the sixteenth century [End Page 223] both kingdoms had maintained a mutually intelligible political culture: divine kingship, centralization, hierarchical social structure, Christianity, and diplomatic ties with Portugal. Centuries later these similarities would turn into distinct differences. While Ethiopia still remained centralized, Congo was to become prey to centrifugal forces. In the mid-nineteenth century, despite internecine civil wars that lasted several decades, Ethiopia reemerged united, capable of thwarting European colonial ambitions. By contrast, the same period saw the further disintegration of Congo, its people subject to genocidal colonialism.

Explaining these opposite outcomes was the slave trade. The transatlantic slave trade, initiated by Portugal, proved to be Central Africa's nemesis, a key factor in the destabilization and eventual demise of the Congo kingdom. Even if it inflicted a comparable tragedy across Northeast Africa, the Indo-Mediterranean slave trade did not affect Christian Ethiopia irreversibly. In fact, by confining the slave trade among peoples of the periphery, Christian Ethiopia achieved two objectives. First, it spared most of the highland populace from enslavement. Second, it used the revenue from the peripheral slave trade to facilitate territorial expansion and further political centralization. In the modern era, thus, Congo and Ethiopia would find themselves in opposite circumstances: the former prostrate under the most exploitative type of colonialism, and the latter still jealously guarding its independence after defeating a colonial foe.

Through a cursory treatment of two regions and their historic watersheds, this comparative essay aims at four points. First, it reveals the fascinating similarities and parallels of the history of two medieval kingdoms. Second, it identifies the fault line where the two societies diverged, each ending with a distinct national personality. Third, it demonstrates how, through a comparative analysis of the histories of two or more regions over the long-term, historians of Africa can have a better appreciation of continental patterns and...


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pp. 223-238
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