- Kongo in the Age of Empire 1860–1913: The Breakdown of a Moral Order by Jelmer Vos
Jelmer Vos’s Kongo in the Age of Empire is a very fine addition to the considerable corpus of historical and anthropological writings on the long history of one of Africa’s iconic “kingdoms,” a literature distinguished by its revealing [End Page 230] blending of the two academic disciplines. The book is also a subtle and compelling narrative of “empire” as experienced in what was becoming northern Angola, an approach contrasting with the usual perspectives of the politicians attempting to implement colonial projects from Europe. On the history of the “kingdom,” well known through the many ongoing studies of John Thornton and recently deepened by Cécile Fromont’s provocative study of overlapping Kongo and Christian symbologies, Vos contributes a distinctive sense for how Africans understood and operated polities—as contrasted with the modern and structural connotations of “kingdoms”—that applies far more widely than this half-century along the lower Congo River. On “empire” he expands on the too-minor current in the flood of works on “conquest,” “colonialism,” “resistance,” and other abstractions that dominate too much historical writing on Africa to portray the Kongo experience of these processes as largely unaware of, and certainly unconcerned with, what seems obvious only now, from afar, and in retrospect. His narrative flows smoothly and revealingly in a thoroughly historical mode, that is, people on all sides—British Baptist missionaries, Portuguese Catholic priests, Angolan government agents, and Kongo generations, lineages, factions, and tellingly characterized individuals—proceeding under the pressure of circumstances only marginally of their own making, and through perspectives they inherited without thinking about them as such, to make the most of the kaleidoscopic changes through which they were living. The title captures the approach cleanly: the book is consistently about Kongo people, more than about the polity of the same name, navigating a turbulent age that Europeans understood as competing for national survival through overextended imperial maneuvering around the globe, using a political “moral economy” of personal relationships that had served them well enough over four preceding centuries of engaging worlds beyond, until one December afternoon in 1913, when it didn’t.
The story proceeds through roughly chronological chapters marked by the succession of broader changes sweeping through the Kongo area, and increasingly centered on the historic Catholic capital, São Salvador. The opening act sets the stage in terms of a depiction, as clear a one as I have seen, of the sense in which the Kongo integrated Catholic titles and sacraments into a thoroughly African healing cult centered on a “king” who functioned as trustee for the aggregation of communities that had long coordinated their shared business—recently slaving and the ivory trade—through a succession of holders of the title that rotated, often contestedly, among them. Although he did not rule, nor was there a “government” separate from the networks, mostly of kin, joining in the composite, the channels of connectedness flowing through him mattered. Political power in Kongo was the power of belief, and it was strong. Vos here builds on Wyatt MacGaffey’s penetrating notion of African political systems as “states of mind.” Then the growth of the export trade in wild “red” rubber in the 1860s enabled a new generation of younger men, some from communities marginal to the historic networks, and many working as carriers for European [End Page 231] trading factories on the south bank of the lower Congo, to build retinues (including slaves no longer sold off) independent of their elders.
Happenstance, as in all good history, figures prominently, and the second chapter brings it on the scene in the persons of British Baptist missionaries, whose presence prompted a Portuguese Catholic counter-mission, and then traces the utility of both, seldom naive but often dependent, to the Kongo parties in...