The Kingdom of Kongo, CA. 1390-1678

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Kongo Kingdom as example of African Social Formation

Transcript of The Kingdom of Kongo, CA. 1390-1678

Monsieur John K. Thornton

The Kingdom of Kongo, ca. 1390-1678. The Development of an African Social FormationIn: Cahiers d'tudes africaines. Vol. 22 N87-88. 1982. pp. 325-342.

Rsum J. K. Thornton Le royaume du Kongo, ca. 1390-1678. Dveloppement d'une formation sociale africaine. L'abondance et l'anciennet de la documentation concernant le Kongo permettent d'analyser son volution par les mthodes du matrialisme historique. Le royaume apparat alors comme une formation sociale combinant deux modes de production : un mode esclavagiste centr sur la capitale, et un mode villageois dans les zones rurales. La priode 1390-1678 correspond au dveloppement et la prdominance du mode esclavagiste. Elle s'achve quand ce mode est dtruit par la guerre civile. La contradiction centrale rside dans le fait que, alors que les forces conomiques concentraient leur domination dans la capitale, une comptition constante pour le contrle de cette ville opposait les lignages. Quand la traite atlantique provoqua le dveloppement d'une deuxime ville dans la province de Sonyo, les vaincus de la lutte pour la capitale purent y trouver refuge. Ainsi, lorsque les troupes portugaises infligrent une dfaite temporaire au Kongo (1665), il se produisit une situation crise dans la capitale, conflit entre ses lignages et ceux de Sonyo qui entrana la guerre civile et la destruction de So Salvador.

Citer ce document / Cite this document : K. Thornton John. The Kingdom of Kongo, ca. 1390-1678. The Development of an African Social Formation. In: Cahiers d'tudes africaines. Vol. 22 N87-88. 1982. pp. 325-342. doi : 10.3406/cea.1982.3380


THORNTON 1390-1678

The Kingdom of Kongo ca

The Development of an African Social Formation

Etienne Balibar theoretical work has suggested that the continu ity of history be replaced by discontinuity succession of momentarily invariant states of the structure which modify themselves by sudden change Balibar 1968 II 83 These states are modes of production and the history of society is reducible to discontinuous succession of modes of production ibid 84).1 The history of individual social formations should thus be reducible to that of the modes of production dominant at any given time Since this method claims universality the evolution of one central African social formation that of the kingdom of Kongo can be examined in this way as we shall show It is not always simple however to convert sweeping theoretical generalizations into concrete analysis but the importance of attempting to deal with specific societies within unifying framework is worthwhile if one tries to tran scend simple description and encompass analysis Vilar 1973 The fact that the Kongo history is fairly accessible through contempo rary documentation provides an opportunity to combine the careful analysis of source material with the theoretical concepts elaborated by writers such as Balibar What we will attempt to show is that the classic period of history ca 1390-1678 was one in which the Kongo social formation was dominated by single mode of production although others played significant role in the structure) whose establishment and dissolution defined the beginning and ending of the period Its inception in about 1390 was central to the constitution of the social formation of Kongo while the complex activity between its various levels and relations led to its eventual destruction and the break-up of the social formation after 1678 to be replaced by new one made up largely of the elements that composed the kingdom during its classic period but combined in new way In order to understand the Kongo development it is easiest precise method of rendering this succession of modes of production has been rightly criticized as being teleological by HINDESS HIRST 1975 312-320 Cahiers tudes africaines 87-88 -4 pp 125-342




to begin at the point when the system was functioning at its height the period around 5.2 This has the advantage of allowing to observe its constituent elements and forces in full mature operation using the best source material available i.e the numerous reports of the Capuchin missionaries who came to Kongo after 1645 Understanding the opera tion of the system at its climax enables us to trace its various tendencies back the past and thus helps illuminate the less adequate descriptive sources available for earlier periods At the same time careful evalua tion of the functioning of system in the mid-iyth century allows much more sophisticated analysis of oral traditions since they conform in the i7th century the period of their collection) to the then prevalent forms of society while revealing in their own way the origins of those forms The dominant mode of production in mid- th century Kongo was slave mode of production centered on its capital town of Salvador It co-existed with another variant of the so-called lineage mode of production Meillassoux 1960 Terray 1969 Rey i975)3 found in the rural regions This division into two modes of production was presented as sectoral and ethnic difference Thus Bernardo da Gallo Capuchin visitor to Kongo wrote that it is necessary to know that two peoples are found in this kingdom one outsiders and the other .4 The outsiders were invaders arrived as conquerors with the first king and inhabitants of the royal city Salvador while the peasants indigenous to the country were found in the countryside While the idea of conquering outsiders and actual ethnic differentiation is probably not historically true MacGaffey 1974 422-425 Ekholm 1972 157) the social division that this distinction implied was very much alive during the period of the height But these ethnic-sectoral differences town versus village masked the real structural differentiation between the two modes of production that were combined in the social formation.5 In the countryside the dominated sector village economy common to many rural African societies prevailed land was owned communally and harvests were divided between the households which regulated the production and distribution of all goods This economy produced social surplus which was appropriated through rent in kind by smallscale consuming class composed primarily of village rulers and their Ph The detailed description of Kongo in 1650 is drawn from the analysis in my thesis i979a 50-172 My method of proceeding here starting with the full development and then going on to original and final tendencies is the approach used in classic study of mode of production 1967) For good critique of these somewhat heterogeneous studies see HINDESS HIRST 1975 41-78 Bernardo da Gallo Conto della Villacazione missionale 12 dicembre Archivio de Propaganda Fide henceforth APF) series Scritture Originali riferite nelle Congregazione Generale henceforth SOCG) 576 fol French transia tionnot always accurate in JADIN 1961 449-488 In this respect social formation is rather like that of Gyaman recently described by TERRAY 1975 85-135




households and staff whose social origins are unclear and religious figure called the kitowi.6 Although villages were largely self-sufficient there was substantial market system and trade conducted locally suggesting some specialization of labor and commodity production The rural ruling class levied tax on this trade but their prime source of sub sistence was the rent they drew from the village probably through family-based or endorsed relationships which permitted them to control to some extent the union of producers and their means of production.7 In general however the village ruler played little or no role in productive decisions and normally appeared to take portion of production only after the process was complete Carii Guattini 1732 i68 Carli 1687 67) The economy of the towns like that of the villages was largely selfsufficient many goods Salvador was surrounded by plantations worked by slaves and these took care of the need for food as longdistance transport of bulk goods was difficult The slaves produced surplus by means of labor rent the evidence suggests that they worked large fields for the nobility while being permitted to establish their own self-supporting households Merolla 1692 155-156 .8 Thus they were only partly separated from the means of production the importance of slavery resulting more from the concentration of unattached persons than from masters complete control of the labor process Indeed the density in Salvador area exceeded that of rural regions by ten or even fifteen to one Thornton 1977 518-522 The nobility was able to force production of certain crops and to control their distribution but beyond that the slaves were simply integrated into villages like those of the rural regions.9 Despite the apparent independence of the two modes of production the urban or slave one was dominant Rural areas Much of what is known about rural economy comes from the 17th-century observations of Dionigio de Carli da Piacenza who lived in Mbamba province south west Kongo in 1667-68 He left two slightly different versions of his diary CARLI 1687 CARLI GUATTINI 1732 The kitami not mentioned in account was supported either from dues collected by himself personally or by share in the surplus to the village ruler Buenaventura de Cerolla Relasion de los ritos gent li cos ca APF SOCG 249 fol 337 and GAVAZZI1687 no 179 On the concept of rent used here derived from MARX 1967 III 790-813 see HINDESS HIRST 1975 I88-I93 The 17th-century data provide no picture of life sufficient to deduce the possibility of elder status being used to extract surplus On the importance of at least potential ability to separate producers from the means of production see HINDESS HIRST 1975 234-259 and their auto-critique of this work 1977 63