The Journal of African History

Research Article

Family and Kinship among the Kongo South of the Zaïre River from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries1

Anne Hilton

The article considers the changing pattern of kinship relations amongst the Kongo south of the Zaïre river and west of the plateau in the region once dominated by the nuclear Kongo kingdom. It argues that the normative pattern of kinship and family relationship was probably established in the early years of agricultural settlement by the ideology of the kanda, the exogamous matrilineal descent groups which controlled access to land. This ideology dominated family and kinship relationships as long as agricultural production was the dominant economic factor. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries the evolution of the trade-based kingdom of Kongo modified the normative pattern established by the kanda, and in the late sixteenth century the acquisition of large numbers of slaves and the use of Christianity as a legitimating ideology effected more profound change. In particular, the elite developed a system of patrilineal descent categories which were used to control trade-based wealth and to organize political relationships. Freedom came to be related more to patrilineal descent category membership and less to kanda membership, whilst the economic and political position of all but the most eminent women deteriorated. When, in the late seventeenth century, changing patterns of trade caused the kingdom of Kongo to disintegrate, the Mwissikongo of the centre adopted a cognatic mode of descent which enabled them to control both agricultural and trade-based wealth. Certain eminent women seized the political opportunities afforded by the crumbling of male-dominated centres of power whilst the definition of slave and free became increasingly problematic. In the north-western province of Sonyo, increased trade-based wealth enabled the dominant patrilineal category to establish itself as a corporate group and to monopolize all positions of power. In the eighteenth century power disintegrated throughout the region and land again became the primary economic asset. The ruling elite sought legitimation in terms of the ideology and descent system of the kanda. The former slave groups sought to establish rights in the same way. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries all groups legitimized their holding of land, primarily in terms of the ideology of the kanda and secondarily in terms of the concept of Mbanza Kongo.


1 Anyone familiar with Wyatt Macgaffey, Custom and Government in the Lower Kongo (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1970) [Google Scholar] will appreciate the extent to which I am indebted to the insights contained in that outstanding work. I am also very grateful for the many helpful comments made by means of the S.O.A.S. African History Seminar (1981) and the Conference on the History of the Family in Africa (1981) on earlier drafts of this article. Needless to say neither MacGaffey nor the members of the seminar and conference are in any way responsible for its deficiencies.