Module Eighteen, Activity Two

History of Central Africa

In Activity One we learned about the geography, cultures, politics and natural resources of Central Africa, discovering that it is an area of great diversity.

Activity Two will focus on the historical evolution of Central Africa from the first occupation of the area more than 2000 years ago, through the development of centralized kingdoms, the colonial experience, to the period of independence. Like all regions in Africa, Central Africa has been in constant change, particularly over the past five centuries. Indeed, most of the region’s current characteristics were shaped since the fifteenth century and the current states of Central African states are the products of the colonial legacy. Colonialism impacted the region socially, economically, and politically.

Unlike other areas of Africa, no remains of early humans (hominid) have been found in Central Africa and the knowledge about the earliest inhabitants of the region is still limited. However, it is believed that the first inhabitants of the region were forest-dwellers who lived in the tropical forest of the present Congo, or sometimes in the savanna. Evidence suggests that the Ancient Egyptians knew about these first inhabitants many millennia ago (5,000 BCE).

The first forest dwellers were hunter-gatherers highly skilled in taking advantage of their forest habitat. They lived in small communities and used tools made of wood and stone and cooked their food over the fires. These early populations are the ancestors of the Mbuti, Twa or the Mbenda people who still live in the region and who are ‘insultingly referred to as ‘pygmies’ because of their uncommonly short height. They comprise only a very small percentage of the current population of Central Africa. [For more information on the theses peoples go to Module Nine, Activity Two]

Approximately 2,000 years ago a new group of people started moving into the region. The new migrants are commonly referred to as Bantu-speakers, because they spoke related languages that linguists have classified as belonging to the Bantu (or Niger-Congo) language family . Historians believe that these peoples originated from the region of the present day Cameroon and Nigeria. They (the Bantu) traveled toward the south, into eastern or southern Africa, in successive waves of migration. By the year second century CE Bantu speaking peoples had reached the present Democratic of Republic of Congo and other parts of the region. The new immigrants, who came with metal working and agricultural skills were able, during the next millennium displaced the majority the existing hunter-gatherer communities, or absorbed them into their communities. Consequently, the vast majority of the current population of Central Africa are Bantu-peaking people descendant from the earlier Bantu-settlers. [For more information on African language groups go to Module Eight Activity Two; for more information on the Bantu Migrations go to Module Six, Activity Five

The Bantu settlers introduced pastoralism and cattle breeding in the region along crop cultivation. They were farmers who also developed other technologies like the art of making tools out of iron and other metals and pottery.

Agricultural & Metallurgy

The new immigrants were agriculturalist, having developed the skills necessary for the domestication of animals and the cultivation of plants—grains, tubers, vegetables, and fruits. In addition they brought with them the skills of metallurgy—the mining of minerals such as iron and copper, and the manufacture of metal tools and weapons. As we learned is some detail in Unit Two, particularly Module Nine (Activity Two) and Ten (Activities Two and Three), the capacity to raise food and to make tools out of metal greatly increased agricultural productivity and the availability of food.

Increased quantities and reliability of food supplies brought about by agriculture and metallurgy allowed for the development of more permanent communities as the necessity to constantly move or migrate in search of food was reduced. Stable communities with growing populations necessitated, in turn, the development of more centralized systems of rules and governance that resulted in the rise of chieftainships and, eventually, significant kingdoms. These historical processes in Central Africa are similar to those that occurred in other regions of Africa, although the dominant environmental factor in Central Africa–tropical rainforest—resulted in economic, political and cultural processes that were unique to Central Africa.


The Iron Age, the period when people started using tools made of iron, is coincidental of agricultural development in Central Africa. The Iron Age in Central Africa is divided into two main periods: The early stage of the Iron Age (1st century CE to 10th century CE ) and the later Iron Age ( 11th -18th century).

The main characteristics of the early period in Iron Age were among others the domination of the iron-work, sedentary and semi permanent life; development of pottery work and the use of fire by the Bantu-speaking communities.

The later Iron Age saw the development and advancement of the early age carried over with an improvement in skill and technology. This Age was characterized by a more specialized agricultural economy, high population growth, better fed people, with an increase in immigration and a careful use of the land.


The development of copper had an important impact on the region. Many peoples looked for products among their resources that could be traded for other precious metal and exotic goods in addition to copper.

Salt, textiles and dried fish were the main products of trade in the region. The salt industry in central Africa developed from the necessity of salt in life. The salt lagoons of the west coast became particularly important, and salt tracks ran into the interior to agricultural communities without salt of their own. The importance of salt to human existence and its absence in the interior of the region resulted in a long distant salt trade the control of which contributed to the development of political power and the formation of centralized states in the region.

The textile industry, just like the salt industry, led to long distance trade because specialized cloths were made for export to neighboring regions. This trade was controlled by politically powerful individuals who dominated the markets and supplied protection to the long-distant traders who carried the bales of cloth. For the most part textiles were manufactured from fibers obtained from raffia palm.

Cloth was the most durable possession in almost every household and as such it was preferred for social payments. The bride’s wealth for example was paid in cloth and the control of weaving was in the hand of old men since they no longer have the strength to go hunting. In controlling the cloth industry, old men also controlled marriage and could get married to several young women, insuring that their family line would be dominant in the next generation. Marriage was an important link between communities and men were not expected to marry into their own clan. It was therefore necessary to maintain contact with neighbors.

Dried fish was also a source of wealth in central Africa. Not only did the control and management of fish ponds contribute to the increase of the political power but it also contributed to the power and wealth of the ancestors of the Luba, whom for example, were able to control all aspects of the fishing industry. You may wonder why ‘fish’? Out of all food products in central Africa, dried fish was a strong source of protein that was not perishable. It could last months and was easily transportable from one area to another without going bad, fetching a high price. The fishing technique and technology have been modernized in the twentieth century, making this activity one of the major economic activities of the area.

Your Turn:

1. How many phases does the agricultural revolution in central Africa have? Briefly explain the main characteristics of two of these phases

2. What characterized the later Iron Age in Central Africa?

3. Identify two important items in the growth of trade in Pre-colonial Central Africa and briefly explain how they contributed to this growth.


A. Kingdoms of Central Africa

Historical records show that there was no centralized power uniting all the population of Central Africa before the arrival of Europeans in the early 16th century. However, there were some exceptional cases of well developed political societies (like the Kongo, the Bakuba and the Luba-Lunda kingdoms) governed by kings and councils who demonstrated exemplary governance. This section will study three of the main pre-colonial kingdoms of central Africa before the European came: the Kongo, the Bakuba and the Luba-Lunda kingdoms.

Kingdoms of Central Africa

Kingdoms of Central Africa


I. Kongo Kingdom

The Kongo Kingdom was founded in the thirteenth century. It developed into the most centralized of all the pre-colonial kingdoms in Central Africa. As shown on the map the Kongo Kingdom was located on the western coast of Central Africa and covered an area between the current countries of Angola in the South, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to as far North as southern Gabon.

Central Africa, unlike other parts of the continent, had very little contact with the Muslim, Berber, and Arab traders from North Africa or the coastal regions of east Africa before the 19th century. As a consequence, the Bantu-speaking peoples who migrated to the area were not influenced by Islam as were Bantu-speaking migrants who had migrated into East Africa during the same era. This relative isolation from the outside world ended in the fifteenth century, specifically in 1483, when the Portuguese landed on the western shores of the Kongo kingdom. Life for the Kongo people and their rulers was never to be the same again.

King Afonso

King Afonso

Manikongo Afonso I of Kongo

King Afonso was an important figure in the history of the Kongo kingdom. It was during his rule that the kingdom had first contact with Europeans.

As you will recall from the discussion in Module Seven B in the late 15th century CE, the Portuguese began a quest to sail around Africa with the goal of making it to India, (south and south-east Asia) the source of the spice trade that was so important at the time in Europe. As Portuguese expeditions gradually circumvented the coast of Africa, they came into contact with various societies along the west coast of Africa. The most important and long lasting of the contacts that the Portuguese made in West Africa was with the Kongo Kingdom

It all started with an incident that happened when Diego Cao, a Portuguese naval officer, decided to explore the interior of the Congo River in 1482. He wanted to navigate further up on the river and commissioned four of his companions go to the Kongo to visit the king. However, his companions were captured by the ManiKongo (title of the king), who was at the time, Afonso’s father, Nzinga Kuwu. The Manikongo had captured these men because he wanted to learn more from them about the Portuguese Kingdom.

On his trip back down the river Diego could not find his companions anywhere. He concluded that they had been captured by the Kongolese. In retaliation he forcibly captured four of the Kongolese young men and took them back with him to Portugal. There, they were educated in church schools, became fluent in the Portuguese language, and converted to Christianity. These four Kongolese young men can be regarded as the first ambassadors of the Kongo to Portugal. When they returned to their kingdom after nearly a decade in Portugal, they brought gifts from the King of Portugal to the Manikongo, who in return, as a gesture of goodwill, released the four Portuguese captives.

How did Afonso come to power?

Afonso was appointed governor in the northern province of Nsundi after a disagreement with his father Nzinga Kuwu. He remained in Nsundi for about ten years before deciding to return, following the death of his father, to Mbanza Kongo, the capital of the kingdom, in 1506.

Kongo was highly politically centralized compared to neighboring Central African societies. This level of organization was best exemplified in the elections of new kings. After the death of Joao I (Afonso’s father) a council of eight men and four women were selected to elect the new monarch from among the children of the dead king. Afonso was expecting to be appointed king but to his disappointment, his brother was appointed king by the council. Their choice put a hold on his secret goal to use the power of the position to spread the Catholic faith if he was chosen as king. This decision did not stop his determination to become King. Leading a group of 37 Christians in July 1506 he attacked the forces of the Manikongo (his brother). Afonso was victorious, killed his brother and renamed the capital city Sao Salvador (the Savior) because he believed God helped him overthrow his brother.

Afonso’s Reign

There are three key aspects of Afonso reign that are worth mentioning: his international relations, his determination to develop his kingdom, and his fight against the slave trade.

One of the first decisions taken by Afonso when he took power was to appoint his cousin Don Pedro de Souza as ambassador to Rome. His goal was to spread Catholicism in his kingdom, and as part of his strategy to realize this goal, he sent young, 12 year old boys (including his own son Henrique) to study in different monasteries in Italy. Henrique became a bishop in 1518 and officiated in Rome for two years before returning to Kongo where he was appointed by his father to lead the local church.

Afonso’s ambition was also to develop his kingdom. For that purpose he asked King Manuel I of Portugal to send him missionaries, masons, carpenters, physicians, and architects to train and work with local artisans. However, only a few missionaries and technicians were sent by the king of Portugal. Among those who were sent were former convicts who had little interest in working on educational and development projects. Indeed, a few months after their arrival, these new missionaries and technicians became involved in initiating the capturing and trading of slaves. Many Kongo were seized and then shipped to Brazil (Portugal colony in South America) where they were sold into a life time of slavery. Upset by the devastation caused by the raiding for slaves Afonso asked the Portuguese King Manuel I for legal and military assistance but the latter sent only a book of laws and an ambassador as a military adviser; a corrupt adviser who asked for payment for his services.

Although slavery existed among the Kongo, its practice was different from the new style of slavery brought by the Portuguese. Traditionally, slaves held in Kongolese society, once acquired, were not sold again and often were integrated into the families that ‘owned’ them, and they had defined rights. The Portuguese slave raiding and trading in comparison, was brutal and harsh. In their search for slaves many people were killed and villages were decimated. Moreover, individuals captured as slaves were shipped off to South America where they were permanently separated from their families.

Afonso I appointed a committee that was charged with stopping the kidnapping and selling of slaves. Unfortunately, the first attempts in stopping kidnapping were not successful as some of the Portuguese moved into the interior of the kingdom and continued their hunt for captives. His failure to control the activities of the Portuguese slavers was facilitated in part by silence of the Pope (whose help Afonso I solicited twice). Moreover, the slave trade weakened Afonso’s authority and negatively impacted his credibility with some of the nobles who governed districts within the kingdom who lost faith in his power and ability to rule, increasingly ignoring his edicts.

The Portuguese were also very interested in minerals and sent prospectors in to the interior of the kingdom searching for minerals and precious stones that the believed to be in abundant supply in the Kongo. Fearful of further Portuguese encroachment, Afonso attempted to prohibit prospecting in the kingdom. Afonso’s decision not to cooperate in this endeavor did not sit well with the Portuguese. In retaliation King Joao III of Portugal rejected the Manikongo request for sea-going vessels and shipbuilders that needed to establish their own trade with Europe.

The relationship between the Kongo and Portugal continued to deteriorate to the point that the Portuguese tried, unsuccessfully, to assassinate Afsonso, in 1540. In retaliation he ordered the killing of a number of Portuguese traders and clergy. Three years later, Afonso died after a thirty seven years of reign marked by somewhat mixed results: his son, Bishop Henrique could not build a native clergy and his hopes for a development of the Kongo were undermined by the Portuguese greed and the slave trade. Afonso I in the end could not protect his people. Afonso was succeeded by a number of Manikongos who, as the consequence of the increased slave trade, became weaker and weaker. By the end of the 16th century, the Kingdom of the Kongo was a mere shadow of its greatness a century before.

Your Turn

The relationship between the Portugal and Konga started out with great promise, but was compromised by Portugal’s greed, particularly their desire for slaves to work in the mines and sugar plantations in Brazil. Write a short essay in which you speculate how the Kongo kingdom may have developed had the Portuguese collaborated with Afonso to fulfill his vision for the Kongo and had not engaged in the slave trade.

II. Bakuba Kingdom

Unlike the Kongo kingdom that was located on the coastal area of the continent, the Bakuba kingdom was in the interior of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Founded in the 17th century CE, the Bakuba kingdom was able to prosper in large part due to its innovative and peaceful leader Shamba Bolongongo. In many respects this kingdom exemplifies what Africa could have been without outside influences.

Who was Shamba Bolongongo?

Shamba Bolongongo was a ‘self-made man.’ Because he was born to a slave woman, he lacked status in his own community; few of his peers would have believed that one day he would become a powerful political leader. However he was intelligent, curious, and energetic. Shamba found his village too limited and small and expressed the need to see more of the world. Consequently, along with three other former slaves, he embarked on a series of adventures in a quest for knowledge and new places. Traveling through what is now the central region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Shamba questioned people, observed and experimented with different things. He was able to interact with farmers, craftsmen, herders and musicians. Satisfied with the amount of knowledge he amassed from these places, he left for new adventures with his companions.

In 1620, he made it to the land of the Bakuba. This land was a federation of approximately twenty groups of closely related people who shared the same Bantu language. The federation was dominated by the Bushong, the most powerful among them. Shamba decided to establish himself and was determined to become the next ‘Nyim’ (Bakuba for King). Against great odds he managed to convince the Bakuba to make him king. The major obstacle he faced was fulfilling the Bakuba obligation to have a member of the royal family spit on him. Shamba was aware that no royal family would agree to do this for him. He therefore hid himself under a pile of rubbish near the royal palace and waited until a member of the royal family passed by. His plan worked, when unknowingly a member of the royal family spit on the trash pile where he was hiding. This act led him to the throne.

As the Nyim he proved to be a peaceful and innovative ruler and helpful to farmers. Shamba introduced products like maize, cassava and tobacco that were imported from the Americas to his farmers. Cassava became one of the most important foods for the Bakuba, with its root that can be pounded into flour. Maize presented the advantage of being able to be stored and preserved, making it useful during droughts. Sorghum and millet, which were already grown in other parts of the continent for centuries, were also introduced. The increased availability of food resulted in population growth and the expansion of the Bakuba kingdom.

Good governance was one of Shamba’s major concerns; he divided Bakuba into provinces, and appointed councilors and ministers for each province. He appointed a prime minister and a great council for the capital of the kingdom. Shamba implemented a participative governing system in which every citizen felt respected and important in the governing of the society. He also encouraged and promoted the production of music and art in the kingdom.

Shamba had many wives but could not have children. This meant that he had no direct heir to take over as Nyim when he died. It was a testimonial to his political skill and commitment to good governance that there was no succession crisis after his death. Indeed, based on the traditions of governance created by Shamba the Bakuba kingdom remained influential long into the 18th century, long after his death.

III.  Luba-Lunda

The Lunda kingdom is the third example of a pre-colonial kingdom in Central Africa. It is actually a kingdom built on the demise of the Luba state. (See map)

The Luba state originated around the 11th century CE when the Sonye, a group of Bantu speakers from the savanna lands of Katanga settled on the Lubilasha River (among the Kalundwe communities near Lake Kisale). Oral tradition indicates that there they found the Kalundwe, a people without centralized strong leadership even though they had a tradition of a queen who weakly governed the people. The Sonye, who had a tradition of strong chiefs, were able to manipulate the local political system when one of their own married the Kalundwe queen. With the support of other Sonye, he used his position as ‘queen husband,’ (the Kongolo) to introduce changes in the political system that resulted in greater centralization under the control of the Sonye. He became influential in every aspect of the administration of the Kalundwe communities including the social, political, military and the religious life of the community. The newly integrated and expanded society became known the Luba Kingdom with a new capital at ‘Mwibele’ near Lake Boya. The Luba flourished under the authority of the Kongolo who delegated many of his responsibilities to his subordinate officials.

According to their traditions, the Kongolo lost power the same way they gained it. Around the middle of fifteenth century a Bantu group called Kunda from the north settled east of the Kisale Lake. Chief Mbili, the Kunda leader visited Kamwana, the then current Luba Kongolo. The King gave Mbili such a warm welcome and offered him two of his sisters to marry. One of the sisters gave birth to a boy that was named Kala Ilunga. Ilunga who grew up in his uncle’s (the Kongolo) palace, became a power hungry warrior who claimed the Luba leadership by matrilineal descent. This action drew his uncle’s wrath, who then tried to kill him. He escaped to his father’s community (Kunda), where he gained support, and then he came back to fight and defeat his uncle. He managed to kill his uncle and declared himself king. Kala Ilungi started a new dynasty that would rule Luba until the nineteenth century

The Kunda dynasty followed the end of the Luba kingdom. It expanded so much that it became the Mwata Yamvo kingdom, an empire that developed from the enlarged Lunda kingdom.

Kala Ilunga had an overwhelming influence on the kingdom. He introduced a centralized authoritative and autocratic system of governance with a hierarchical structure and the abandonment of the hereditary system. This proved to be effective; disputes over succession became almost non-existent. The king (Mulopwe) was on top of the hierarchy followed by the vice-king (Nsikala), the ministers (Mwite) and the sub-chief (Malopwe). The king was very powerful and engaged in expansionist conquests. His administrative system and power could not, however, please everybody at the same time.

Kibinda Ilunga, a prince and dissenter broke away from the Kunda dynasty under the authority of Ilunga Walefu around the sixteenth century and established his own independent state on the banks of the Kasai River among the Lunda people. The Lunda were mostly farmers, iron smelters and fishermen who did not have any centralized authority like the Luba people.

Ilunga and his military were warmly welcomed by the Lunda. Genealogically, the foundation of the Lunda Kingdom can be traced back to Lusenji who was Kibinda Ilunga’s son born from a second marriage. Kibinda Ilunga first married Lueji who could not give birth so he married Kamonga who gave him a son in the name of Lusenji. Lusenji became a leader through his mother lineage.

Around 1600, Maweji succeeded his brother Lusenji. His reign was likely the most impactful in terms of changes and territorial expansion. Maweji laid foundations for what became known as the ‘Mwata Yamvo’ Empire. He changed the title of the King to Mwata Yamvo (‘Lord of the Viper’ or ‘Master of Wealth’) and through conquest and -possibly- peaceful persuasion was able to expand his kingdom to the point where it became known as the Mwata Yamvo Empire.

This empire had a well-defined political organization that equaled or resembled the Luba’s centralized system with few nuances. Mussumba became the capital city of the kingdom and the king had only a small army that was mainly devoted to protecting subordinate chiefs and helping them to collect taxes. Taxes were collected in the form of goods like ivory, copper, slaves, salt and labor that were traded with the Portuguese and the Swahilis. The kingdom remained intact up until the arrival of the Belgian and British colonial powers at the end of the 19th century.

Diagram Of the hierarchical organization of Mwata Yamvo (Luba-Lunda)

The histories of these pre-colonial kingdoms in central Africa clearly demonstrate the region had strong and dynamic centralized states with sophisticated political systems that were supported by diversifying economies supported by long distant trade, well before the arrival of intrusive European trade and colonial conquest in the late 19th century.

Your Turn:

A. The Kongo

1. You have learned in this section that some of the missionaries sent by the Portuguese King were former convicts.

  • Why did it matter? Explain
  • What differences would it have made if they were regular people?

2. What in this section demonstrated that Afonso I had the will to develop his kingdom?

3.  Slavery became a serious issue for King Afonso I. How did he fight against it? Was he successful?

B.  The Bakuba

1.  You have read in the text that Shamba Bolongongo was ‘smart.’ What in his story demonstrates that he was a smart man?

2.  The story of Shamba is that of a leader. Do you know of any great leaders? What do you think make her/him a great leader? Having read Shamba’s story, identify the qualities and virtues that make a great leader. Compare and exchange your responses with another group. What was the most common characteristic(s) cited by either of you? Do you think Shamba was a great leader?

C.  The Luba Lunda

1. What does ‘Mwata Yamvo’ mean?

2.  In this section you have read that the ‘Mwata Yamvo’ empire had a ‘well defined political organization.’ Do you agree with this statement? Justify your answer.


The Colonialization of Central Africa

The story of colonization in Central Africa has much in common with the colonization of other regions in sub-Saharan Africa. However, with the exception of the colonization of the interior of southern Africa by Cecil Rhodes and his British South African Company, in no other region was colonization so closely identified with specific personalities. Three important late 19th century European men played a central role in the colonization of central Africa: King Leopold of Belgium, the German chancellor (prime minister) Otto von Bismarck, and the French colonialist, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza.

King Leopold

King Leopold

Otto von Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck


Pierre Savorgnan

Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza


These three historical personalities were crucial to the colonial venture of their respective countries (Belgium, France and Germany) in the region. [For an overview of the Scramble for Africa visit Module Seven B Activities Two and Three. Module Nine Activity Four addresses the economic aspects of colonial penetration, and Module 10 Activity Three deals with political systems and processes that supported colonial rule in Africa]

From 1886 (the conclusion of the Berlin Conference) to 1908, the Congo Free State (as the colony was known) was ruled as the private domain of King Leopold II of Belgium. Using the guidelines for colonization established by the Berlin Conference, Leopold employed personal aides and representatives who used deceit, thuggery, and violence to gain control of the Congo as his own personal fiefdom. As a consequence, in the eyes of Europe, all of the natural resources (including land) belonged to Leopold and all of the peoples of the Congo were his personal subjects. Leopold, through his representatives, put in place a barbaric system similar to that of the plantation in the Americas, where human beings were degraded, brutalized and denied any human rights.

To finance this enterprise, the King leased nation-size lands to private companies. These companies had the license to make a profit, but in return had to pay taxes and tribute to the king. Companies like the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company, and the Antwerp Company took over the exploitation of rubber in the tropical rain forests. These companies forced local inhabitants to collect wild rubber without compensation for their labor. Able-bodied men were given a quota of rubber that they were expected to collect and turn into the companies. Failure meet the quota had dire consequences—one of the hand’s of the ‘defaulter’ was cut off (see photo below).

For an detailed and accurate account of the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State check out from your local library (perhaps your school library has a copy) a copy of King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild.


Congolese Chopped off Hands

Congolese showing chopped off hands

One of the rivals of the Belgian King in having colonies was Otto von Bismarck, the German Chancellor. Most of the colonies claimed by Germany were outside the central African region. But the Germans were able to control the old kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi to the east of the Congo river basin and the Cameroon in the far western part of Central Africa. Bismarck viewed these Germany colonies as important to Germany prestige in Europe and as way to block the expansion of Belgium and France in the region. However, the German colonial endeavor in all of Africa was relatively short. As a consequence of its defeat in World War One Germany lost control of all of its colonies in Africa, including Rwanda, Burundi, and the Cameroon.

In addition to Germany and Belgium, France was another important power in the region. Unlike the short-lived German presence in central Africa, the French presence was more lasting and led to the creation of a large colonial empire comparable to its West African territories which they called French Equatorial Africa. The French colonial presence in Central Africa was the result of the work of a French explorer (who later on will become a governor) Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. The French presence in the region started with Libreville (Gabon), where they established a refuge for freed slaves—hence the name Libreville—similar to the British haven for freed slaves in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Brazza’s grand plan was to join the coastal enclave with the middle stretch of the Congo River. Brazza also aimed at claiming territories for France as far east as the upper Nile river valley in current Uganda and Sudan. This made the French the rival of both King Leopold of Belgium and also of the British. The French lost the contest to control the Nile but were compensated with the Ubangi-Shari land located in the Northern Central Africa, which later became the Central Africa Republic. French Equatorial Africa had its administrative capital in Brazzaville that was located directly across the Congo River from Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) the administrative capital of the Congo Free State—renamed the Belgium Congo after 1908.

Colonialism 1914 Central Africa

Colonial Map of Central Africa, 1914


Colonial rule in context

There are three major points to focus on in order to understand the colonial past of Central Africa: the natural resources of the area, Africans’ perception and occupation of the land, and the European definitions of their empire.

One of the implications of colonialism was the creation of new boundaries. In some cases these new boundaries resulted in a reduction of tension between pre-colonial African kingdoms and societies. In other cases, political tensions were created where political groups or language communities were divided by arbitrary colonial boundaries. And, in some situations, economic decline and increased poverty resulted where existing trade routes were restricted or blocked by new colonial borders.

A critical part of the colonial enterprise and for colonial administrators was the low population density of the region. This low density can be explained by the misfortunes that characterizes the population of the region due to the consequences of the slave trade, endemic tropical diseases, and horrific colonial practices such as those initiated by King Leopold in the Congo Free State. Another contributing factor was the relatively poor selection of edible food in the forest areas that made it difficult to support a high density of population.

Overall the success of the colonial enterprise in Central Africa rested on the ability of the colonial administrators to cope with realities of a large geographical area with a small and dispersed population, as it attempted to realize the colonial agenda of exploiting the vast natural resources of the region for the on-going enrichment of the European colonial powers.

Colonial economy by the second world war

Several economic policies were initiated and implemented in Central Africa under colonialism. The region did not produce in the pre-colonial era any commodity of important value to European powers. Consequently most investments were in infrastructure but gains from these investments were very disappointing despite the fact that territories such as the Belgian Congo were naturally rich in copper, cobalt and uranium. The population size unfortunately did not help create the conditions for a stable, prosperous economy. European powers therefore adopted changing policies which at times included the management of the colonies by private companies and the encouragement of export. Changes in the colonial administration policy exacerbated the consequences of the world-wide economic depression of the 1930s, forcing France, for example to incorporate French Equatorial Africa (Afrique Equatoriale Francaise-AEF) into ‘the economy of the metropole.’

With this new vision of the colonies, Europeans’ policy in Central Africa changed. The colonists moved from the coastal area and became more active in the inland export markets, that required innovation and expansion of the transport system. They also introduced new exports products. This new development policy was somehow unbalanced. Some areas like Gabon that has lumber, timber and rubber, and the ‘fertile crescent’ of Cameroon benefited more than other areas that remained poor and in some cases suffered a major decline in welfare. This was one area where the European strategy and the realities of equatorial African often confronted each other.


After the failure of private companies to generate a viable economy in the colonies, the colonial government became more active in promoting the development of an adequate regional and local transportation system. The least expensive way to do this was to build infrastructures on the navigable rivers that dominate the region. However, the task of creating roads and river transportation systems was difficult and costly.

Navigation on the rivers was hindered by ‘rapids and seasonal shallows.’ Similarly, the construction and use of roads was hampered by heavy rains. The shortage of African labor and the absence of ‘pack and draught’ animals due to tsetse flies (which caused sleeping sickness among domesticated animals) further frustrated attempts to construct a viable transportation infrastructure. For imperial strategies, road construction was always second to that of railways. Railways were not built for the growth of internal market but for connecting the export regions of the hinterland with the oceanic ports.


First Locomotive in Leopoldville 1898

An example of colonial development of transportation system: Here is the first locomotive in Leopoldville 1898. (Democratic Republic of Congo)


The politics of development under colonization commonly held that investment in roads and transport would result in the substantial increase in the production of commodities (agricultural and mineral) for the world market. In Afrique Equatoriale Francaise (AEF), however, the spontaneous response expected from the market did not automatically follow the development of transport infrastructure because moving goods in AEF continued to be a problem. Additionally, in contrast to West Africa, AEF had a persistent weak indigenous market, which according to the French, derived from the lack of enterprising spirit among Africans.

Colonial critic Andre Gide asserted that “it is understood that the native never knows the real value of anything. In this whole region there is no market, no supply or demand not a single native owns anything but his wives, his herds, and perhaps some bracelets or spearpoints. No object, no clothing, no cloth, no piece of furniture-and even if he had money, there is nothing for sale which could tempt him.” (Quoted by David Birmingham & Phyllis Martin ‘History of Central Africa’ Vol. 2, N.Y, 1983.p.57)

According to colonial officials, the nature of the local market (dominated by subsistence farmers) hindered the development of an open economy in equatorial Africa. Many western companies that were already operating in West Africa were not able to make it or prosper in Central Africa. Even those who were able to make it could not achieve the kind of profit they were making on other products in West Africa. In spite of these difficulties, by the 1930s there were pockets of colonial economic activity in Central Africa. Examples of an enclave economy were the copper mines of Katanga (Belgium Congo), the timber industry that developed at this time in Gabon, and the cocoa industry that developed in western Cameroon.

Production for export in central Africa followed different phases. First, the colonial policy gave priority to the white settlers and the concessionary society. And then gradually Africans were included in the circles of planters between 1920-1930 through a policy of encouragement of independent African planters. It was a process started by the Germans in their colony of Cameroon. But despite the inclusion of Africans among the planters, they were allowed to grow only selected crops. Just like the Germans, the French also allowed African planters in their colonies after the 1930s especially when forced labor was abolished in 1946.

Before the 1930s, the planting enterprises were concentrated more on large-scale operations. By the middle of the decade they had to shift to smaller-scale operations, due among other reasons, to the consequences of the depression and migration.

Cotton production in the savanna regions of Central Africa slowly developed in the 1930s in response to demand in Europe. However, peasant farmers were not really given incentive to cultivate cotton, rather they were mostly coerced into its cultivation. This explains why the Africans resisted cultivating cotton. Their common attitude was that its production was for the white man (colonizer, concessionary). This feeling was reflected in the slogan adopted by the first Chadian political party: ‘No more cotton, no more chief, no more taxes.’ [Compare to the history of cotton production in Mali—Module Nine, Activity Seven]


The central economic goal of the colonial powers to lower the direct cost of the colonial endeavor was challenged by the realities of the real cost of colonization in Central Africa and the scarcity of revenue generating potential in much of the region. The colonies in Central Africa were different from the colonies in other parts of the continent. With the notable exception of the Belgium Congo and the Cameroon, the region lacked the agricultural and mineral resources that were the basis of colonial economies in other regions of Africa. Moreover, the geographical realities of the region, particularly the presence of the tropical rain forest, required substantial inflows of money (capital) to develop the transportation infrastructure necessary for the exploitation and export of the region’s raw materials—agricultural and mineral. Consequently, unlike other regions of Africa, from early on colonial powers were forced to subsidize the colonial endeavor in some colonies in Central Africa. They did this primarily through loans to their colonies (which they expected to be repaid). These loans were directed to meet the costs of developing transportation infrastructure, police and military, and limited social services (which were almost non-existent in most of the region). However, the French colonial enterprise in the region (AEF) was never able to achieve solvency. Most of the AEF colonies were not able to pay their debt to France.

In order to generate revenues, the colonial regimes, as in other regions of Africa, initiated a system of taxes on the subject population. The most common tax was the so-called head tax that was levied on each adult male in the colonies. This tax is a classic example of ‘taxation without representation’ since the colonial subjects had no voice in colonial system. In addition to generating some revenue for the colonial state taxes were used to generate labor for colonial projects and the production of export crops. In order to pay their taxes in the currency of the European colonial power, as was required, African colonial subjects had two choices: they could sell their labor for wages in mines or on infrastructure development projects (such as railroads), or they could generate cash through the production and sale of export crops such as cotton.

The burden of taxes differed from one colony to another, mostly from one colonial power to another. The Germans in Cameroon levied taxes on the male adult only at a bearable cost compared to the French who levied much higher taxes. The sparseness of the population and the difficulties in expanding exports products made these taxes even harder to collect. But the colonial administration made the effort to collect those taxes from men and after 1909 from women. Moreover, the tax burden in Central Africa was higher than in the more prosperous areas of West and East Africa. Sadly, the only benefit that the African population received from these taxes was the development of a very minimal social service infrastructure, mainly in the form of community schools and clinics which serviced only a tiny minority of the population.


As elsewhere in Africa the question of colonial investment in social welfare was controversial. Mission societies and some colonial officials asserted that the colonial states had an ethical obligation to provide schools, clinics, and adequate sanitation for its colonial subjects. However, most colonial interest groups—mining and trading companies, commercial farmers and the majority of colonial officials did not view social welfare provisioning as state obligations. This perspective was strengthened by the political and economic realities of Central Africa. The colonial states did not have the revenues available to adequately address the varying social welfare needs and they were unable to borrow funds for this purpose. Moreover, given the un-democratic nature of colonialism—the African colonial subjects were given not voice in the political arena—there was no real political incentive to address these needs.

As will be detailed in the next learning activity, when colonial officials did invest money in developing a skeletal public health care system it was based more on its own economic self-interest than it was on an altruistic response to an ethical obligation. In that case, the sleeping sickness epidemic significantly reduced the availability of labor for colonial projects.

Health Center in Central Africa

An Example of a Health Center in Central Africa. This picture show the health center of Mitzic in 1962 (Gabon) (Copyright:


The colonial educational policy everywhere in Africa centered on the debate of whether formal education (that is schooling) should be extended to Africans or not. It seems undeniable that education is important to the development of any nation. But this belief was not shared by all of the colonial actors. While mission societies were generally strong advocates for schooling (they believed that literacy was essential to the spread of Christianity) some colonial actors thought that education for Africans was a dangerous drug that should be dispensed in minute quantities to avoid untoward consequences. This group was convinced that education would result in an African population that would no longer be docile subjects of colonial rule, but who would resist the many negative aspects of colonialism. However, regardless of perspective on the desirability of educational access the economic realities of the colonial system greatly restricted public funding to education. Yet, differences in perceptions lead to differences in colonial policies across the region, ranging from limited access to education to an almost complete denial of education for Africans.

The limited educational systems that were allowed to develop in the colonies were modeled on that of the metropole (colonial power) and the content of schooling was heavily Europeanized (based on European education models). Consequently, school curricula in the colonies were oriented towards Europe and seldom focused on Africa; students fortunate enough to attend school learned about the history, geography, and environment of Europe but not of Africa. Students who completed primary or secondary school had the skills to assist the colonial state or mission societies, but were not equipped to address the economic and social problems confronting their own communities.


The French, who controlled most of Central Africa, and Belgium investment in the region in the 1930s was low and their political involvement was reduced to maintaining minimal colonial regimes. This approach was called minimalist colonialism. The minimalist approach to colonialism changed as a result of the increased strategic importance of the colonies as a consequence of the end of the world depression and the outbreak of World War II. As a result of the region’s increased importance the actual practice of colonialism in Central Africa came under increased critical scrutiny that led to calls for political reforms advocating expanding the capacity of the colonial state and its ability to address the economic needs of the metropole which were in great need of financial stimulus after the depression and World War II. However, the suggested reforms did not address the political aspirations and the social welfare needs of its African citizenry. Indeed, the increased capacity of the colonial state facilitated its ability to intrude and make demands on their colonial subjects. Increased state intrusion, in turn stimulated the first expression of anti-colonialism among the people which eventually result in full-fledge nationalist movements in the 1950s.


Many changes occurred in Central Africa after the Second World War. One of the changes brought to the colonies came with the 1946 constitution for French Equatorial Africa. Under its provision, Africans lost their subordinate status as subjects; the indigenat and the corvee were abolished [See Glossary at the end of this activity for the definition of these terms]. The gradual and incremental expansion of Africans participation in the colonial administration was outlined in the constitution. Africans were granted, in stages, the right to elect representatives to territorial assemblies and to the National Assembly in Paris. But this participation was very limited and did not lead to political autonomy. African leadership under the colonial regime was subordinated to the goodwill of the colonizer.

The political progress achieved in the colonies under the late colonial regime was the result of the interplay between four major factors: the metropole (constitutional change), the colonial state (carried out reform), the white settlers (protect their economic interest and capture some of the power devolved in the colonies) and the politicized Africans. (See David Birmingham & Phyllis Martin ‘History of Central Africa’ Vol. 2, N.Y, 1983 p.88)

Radical nationalism did not develop in the French colonies of Central Africa. This was a clear victory for French who were almost confident by the mid 1960s that their long-term goals in Africa would not be threatened by African leaders. Many of these leaders who were anti-colonialist in the beginning ended up being pro-French in the post independence era and advocated special political and economic ties with their former metropole.

Your Turn:

1. In the section above it was mentioned that colonial powers had to resort to concessionary companies to rule and govern the colonies; can you say why? Imagine you are an African of the concessionary years. What would your response be to the demands made by the concessionary companies?

2. You have learned in the earlier section that one of the key issues under colonization was whether to extend the colonial education to Africans or not. Do you think that it was a good idea to let Africans have access to colonial education? Why?

3. The prior section also mentioned the moral responsibility of the colonizer to invest in health care infrastructure. Do you think that was the only reason why they invested in the health care system? If not, why else was it important for the colonizer to invest in the colonial health care system?


A.  The Road to Independence

[see Module Seven B Activity Four]

The previous sections have described the very harsh conditions under which many African nations were colonized. Facing such harsh political and economic conditions, many Africans resisted the most brutal aspects of colonial rule. In the post World War II era, resistance coalesced around nationalist movements, which by the 1950s were advocating political independence from Europe. However, unlike the situation of the European settler dominated colonies in southern and east Africa, the nationalist movements in Central Africa did not have to resort to mass civil action or violence to achieve independence. Indeed most of the colonies in this region gained independence peacefully in 1960.

Central Africa Independence Map

The territory of French Equatorial Africa was a base for the Free France’s Forces during the Second World War. Right after the war, many of the leaders of these territories started asking for the autonomy of their territories to the point that in 1946, the Oubangui-Shari, Gabon, and the middle Congo became overseas territories in the year 1958. In the same year, French President Charles de Gaulle granted internal self-government to many of these territories. The self government did not last long; within two years after the decision almost all of these territories became independent states, giving central Africa the configuration we have today.

If the transition from colonies to sovereign states was peaceful in the French colonies, the story of independence in the Belgian Congo was quite different. The Belgian government planned for the territory to become gradually self-governing and free from the influence and power of the metropole, resulting in complete independence at least a decade later than its neighbors. However, the many Congolese were not pleased with this plan. Two prominent leaders became active along with their political formations in demanding political independence. These were Joseph Kasavubu and Patrice Lumumba. They were, respectively, leaders of the ABAKO party and the Mouvement National des Congolais (MNC). In 1959, anti-colonial riots started in the major urban centers of the Congo. In response, the colonial administration early in 1960 organized a conference gathering the opposition leaders and the colonial administration. The opposition parties were united and adamant in their demand for immediate independence. The Belgians responded by setting June 30, 1960 for independence. On this day Kasavubu became the first president and Lumumba became the first Prime Minister of the independent Congo.

For many European powers, it became impossible to resist the ‘winds of change’ that were blowing on the continent from the north to the south and from the west to the east. Social and political pressures led many of them to grant independence to several African countries by the year 1960.

But taking on national sovereignty was not an easy task for central African countries. Soon the former colonial subjects realized that the ‘flag independence’ was little more than an illusion. While independence fulfilled the longtime high aspirations of Africans, despite their natural riches, many of the newly independent states of central Africa faced a series of problems that ranged from social to political unrest and economic crises. For a full discussion on the negative impact of the colonial legacy on newly independent African nation-states see Module 10, Activities Three and Four.

B. Post independence era

It has been nearly 50 years since the formal colonies of Central Africa gained their political independence. Much has changed in these five decades, however the region continues to confront many of the social, economic, and political problems that confronted the newly independent countries at the time of independence. Historians of contemporary Africa suggest three major reasons for the region’s inability to adequately address these issues: the on-going legacy of colonialism, the impact of the Cold War, and a failure in leadership.

While it is important that we don’t blame all of the issues confronting Central Africa today on colonialism, its legacy has had a powerful impact on the region—as is the case in all of Africa. For an overview of the social and economic legacy of the colonial experience re-read Module Nine (African Economies) Activities Four –Eight. And, for a review of the political impact of colonialism visit Module Ten (African Politics) Activities Three and Four. In reviewing the issues raised in the sections it is important to remember that the colonial experience in Central Africa was exemplified by both brutality (in the early colonial period) and neglect (in middle colonial period). These factors exacerbate and prolong the negative legacy of colonialism in the region.

The Cold War tensions between the United State and its Western Allies and the Soviet Union and its Eastern allies were played out in Africa as well as in Asia and Latin America. The competition between the U.S. and the USSR was very strong in Central Africa, particularly in mineral rich Congo and neighboring Angola where civil wars and internal conflict were stimulated by the both sides in the Cold War. Indeed, the current conflict in the Congo that has resulted in the deaths of nearly two million people in the past decade, has its roots in the Cold War. For a more detailed analysis of the impact of the Cold War on Africa review Module Ten (African Politics) Activity Six .

Finally, the lack of social, economic, and political progress in the region has also been caused by a failure in leadership. Corruption, nepotism and authoritarianism have characterized governance in a number of the region’s states in the post-colonial era. This factor, of course, is directly related to the legacy of colonialism and the impact of the Cold War, however, African dictators, as do dictators in other regions of the world, have to be held accountable for their actions.


Your Turn:

1. Patrice Lumumba was the first prime minster of independent Congo. Within a year of taking office he was tragically murdered. Using web resources find out why he was assassinated and the impact of this event on the history of post-colonial Congo.

2. Complete the following table based on your understanding of the above section:

Central Africa Heads of State Blank Table
4. In the above Section about Decolonization ( see A. The Road to Independence), you have read about the ‘flag Independence.’ What exactly does this term mean? What is needed to achieve genuine independence?3. In this section you have read about the post independence international relations of some Central African countries. Some leaders decided to keep friendly relationship with the former colonizers, while others decided not to greatly reduce their ties with the former colonizers. In your judgment what is the best approach? Should the former colonies maintain friendly and close ties with their former colonizers? Be sure to give reasons for your answer.

Web sources:

The film on this site will give you an insight on how the continent of Africa was gradually colonized by the Europeans:




Indigenat: It is a French word that derives from the word ‘indigene.’

Indigene means a Native-born or an indigenous. ‘Indigenat’ thus is a system designed to create a set of rule applicable only to indigenous populations.


1. unpaid labor for one day, as on the repair of roads, exacted by a feudal lord.
2. an obligation imposed on inhabitants of a district to perform services, as repair of roads, bridges, etc., for little or no remuneration.

Paysannat: This word is coined from the word ‘Paysan’ that means ‘Peasant’.

‘Paysannat’ is thus a set of rules that relate to the conditions of ‘Peasants.’ Note that these rules and conditions are only applicable to Africans’ peasants under the French Colonization

Go on to Activity Three or select from the other activities in this module: