Ethnography and the Closing of the Frontier in Lower Congo, 1885-1921
It was not so much the slave trade that devastated the Congo (then known as BaKongo); it was perhaps the suppression of the slave trade and its replacement that devastated the country. Slavery had been the basis of the economy and the political system since the 17thcentury and when it came to an end in 1880, it continued in spurts for another 20 years by the Portuguese, but there was no longer any guaranteed organization for the transportation of slaves through the Congo to the coast, a procedure in which communities structured around trader-chiefs had engaged slaves from the heart of the continent while passing along their own menaces.
The end of the slave trade posed a difficult social and economical issue for the BaKongo people. In 1881, then men, for the first time, began working for actual wages and by 1887, 20,000 men were working as porters for the river transportation.
In November 1893 a “Belgian officer, Planck, known as Mapeka (‘the Traveller’), was killed by the BaBwende near the Nganda mission, which had just baptised its first convert”. 300 soldiers were sent to destroy the nearby villages near Vungu. “The large village of Kasi, near Mukimbungu, was burned to the ground after a ‘revolt’ in 1894, brought on by the ‘merciless’ brutality of the local administrator, whom the insurgents killed. Several punitive expeditions were sent to the area, which remained hostile and unsettled for years afterwards. In 1896 troops raided Mbanza Nsanga, near Diadia, where a poison ordeal had been held. They did not necessarily require such a reason, however, and are reported as having got out of hand at Mukimbungu in 1897, and even as having burned a mission school near Kibunzi at the request of locals opposed to it. In 1911 four men took oath together and killed the government chief Bindele Bikwanga while he was out collecting taxes near Manianga. Before killing him they asked, in a parody of Christian teaching, ‘Do you think you are going up above or down below?’”
In the upper Ludima valley, the African people resisted the European forces as late as 1921. However, the French soldiers moved and the rebels fled. The Europeans assured the leaders that they wanted peace and started to convert some of the natives into teachers.
The closing of the frontier occurred when the teachers in the missions spoke out about the unfair treatment that they were receiving from the white Europeans who treated them as though they were second or third class citizens. In addition to this, there was an epidemic of sleeping sickness occurring in the lower regions of the Congo at the time that the Belgium government was trying to keep under wraps, and detaining large portions of the natives in camps. King Leopold ordered the frontier to be closed.
The closing of the frontier was met by a silence of the native people living within her borders; the Europeans attempted to quieten the voices of the BaKongo people by only allowing “articles of an ‘instructive and edifying’ nature” to be published. It is only now that we are hearing their voices.
MacGaffey, Wyatt (1986) Ethnography and the Closing of the Frontier in Lower Congo, 1885-1921, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Edinburgh University Press.