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Revising the Population History of the Kingdom of Kongo

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 August 2021

John K. Thornton*
Boston University
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


Research conducted into the demography of the Kingdom of Kongo some forty years ago, employing baptismal statistics left by missionaries, has been in need of revision thanks to challenges by more recent scholarship. This article revises the estimated population of Kongo by addressing these challenges, drawing on newly discovered documentary sources. Using this new evidence, the estimate for the kingdom's population in the mid-seventeenth century has been elevated from 509,000 to around 790,000. The original article's claims about levels of fertility and mortality have been retained. The article also addresses questions concerning the validity of missionary statistics and the impact of the slave trade, which was small before 1700 but then increasingly large thereafter, reaching very high levels by the early nineteenth century. While a quantitative estimate of the later population is not possible given the limitations of sources for this period, it is likely that the population of the kingdom fell as slave exports peaked.

JAH Forum: Population Change and Demography in African History
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Thornton, J., ‘Demography and history in the kingdom of Kongo, 1550–1750’, The Journal of African History, 18:4 (1977), 507–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 A. Coale and P. Demeny, Regional Model Life Tables and Stable Populations (Princeton, 1966). For the 1977 article, I used East, Level 3 as my model, but have since adopted South, Level 3 on the more secure foundation of the population of Manguenzo. The results are very similar for either one, see Thornton, ‘Demography and history’, 517 for further discussion of methodology. The use of life tables addresses the methodological problems associated with children dying before baptism, but necessarily assumes consistency over time in both age at baptism and infant and child mortality. Where sample sizes are small, extrapolation to the wider population has the potential to magnify the effects of year-to-year variation. The numerical results of this research should be considered estimates as to the order of magnitude rather than any precise numbers.

3 J. Thornton, ‘An eighteenth century baptismal register and the demographic history of Manguenzo’, in C. Fyfe and D. McMaster (eds.), African Historical Demography (Edinburgh, 1977), 405–15.

4 My specific reference was E. Wrigley's Population in History (New York, 1969). The modern name of this region is spelled Soyo, reflecting changes in the phonology of Kikongo since the eighteenth century. In my earlier work of 1977 and 1978, I spelled it Sonyo, to reflect the eighteenth-century pronunciation of the province (usually given in Portuguese as Sonho). Subsequently I have decided to follow the more widely accepted convention of adopting the modern spelling.

5 This was the underlying thesis of my explanation of the civil wars in J. Thornton, The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641–1718 (Madison, 1983).

6 Sakala, I. Matonda, ‘Nouveaux regards sur la démographie du bassin de l'Inkisi à l’époque du royaume Kongo (XVIe– XVIIIe siècles)’, Cahiers d’Études africaines, 56:224 (2016), 845–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Matonda, ‘Nouveaux regards’, 850–1; Thornton, ‘Demography and history’, 518–19.

8 ‘In Savana 2 times 20 days of mission, baptisms 828 . . . in Quioa two times 33 days of mission, baptisms 1454’. My translation. Archivio ‘De Propaganda Fide’ Scritture Originali nelle Congregazioni Generali, vol. 594, fols. 446–446v., Francesco da Troyna to Pope Clement XIV, 27 Aug. 1714.

9 Thornton, ‘Demography and history’, 516.

10 Matondo, ‘Nouveaux regards’, 853; Thornton, ‘Demography and history’, 522n76.

11 Thornton, ‘Demography and history’, 524–5. I described the general method on 521n74.

12 J. Cuvelier (ed.), Relations sur le Congo du Laurent de Lucques (Brussels, 1954), facing 52 at a scale of 1:20,000,000. Fig. 1 is based in part on Cuvelier's map.

13 Published by the Missão Geográfica de Angola. Carta da Provincia de Angola, 1942.

14 My principal source for this was my estimation of the route of Lorenzo da Lucca from Luanda to São Salvador in 1706 and his description of the area around the ‘Alps of Mbamba’ in Cuvelier, Relations, 213. Using it as an example of a terrain feature that blocked transit, I observed cluster densities of the ‘Alps’ on the topographical map and then took clusters of similar density as a definition of a socially significant elevation. I then used such clusters elsewhere on the map to define catchment areas (I physically visited these ‘Alps’ in 2011). My final map with the reconstructed territorial borders, and with socially relevant topography (represented as splash contours), was presented in my PhD thesis (in its most accurate form) and in a less accurate form in Thornton, Kingdom of Kongo. The thesis map was subsequently ‘published’ in Wikipedia in the ‘Kingdom of Kongo’ entry as ‘Kongo in 1641’.

15 Thornton, ‘Demography and history’, 511–15.

16 J. Thornton, A History of West Central Africa to 1850 (Cambridge, 2020), 37–9.

17 Thornton, J., ‘Afro-Christian syncretism in the Kingdom of Kongo’, The Journal of African History, 54:1 (2013), 5377CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thornton, History of West Central Africa, 37–48; Brinkman, I., ‘Kongo interpreters, traveling priests, and political leaders in the Kongo Kingdom (15th-19th century)’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 49:2 (2016), 255–76Google Scholar.

18 For the status of Christianity in later periods, see J. Thornton, ‘The Kingdom of Kongo and Palo Mayombe: reflections on an African-American religion’, Slavery and Abolition, 37:1 (2016), 3–8.

19 Instituto da História e Geografia Brasileiro, DL848/16, anonymous, ‘Descrição das necessidades do reino do Congo sobre assuntos religiosos . . .’, fols. 1 and 2. The document is in a very bad state (pessimo estado) with holes and faded lettering.

20 Ibid.


21 This is calculated by using 40,000 by 100 ÷ 3.5 as a multiplier, as explained for children under one in Thornton, ‘Demography and history’, 518.

22 Calculated using 40,000 by 100 ÷ 6.1 as a multiplier. See Thornton, ‘Demography and history’, 522.

23 Thornton, ‘Demography and history’, 515–16. Note that the curates discussed here were secular clergy; the Jesuits did not conduct baptisms.

24 This estimate calculates the area of these two small provinces, which were not served by priests in 1623 but formed part of the kingdom, as 900 square kilometers, although both had some of the rugged terrain that pushed averages down in the Kwilu valley region

25 F. Pigafetta, Relatione del Reame di Congo et delle circonvicine contrade (Rome, 1591), 39–40. The 30-kilometer limit is estimated by ‘flying’ over the region on Google Earth, while tilting the view and exaggerating the elevation. In this view it is easy to see the low ranges of hills around Mbanza Kongo that would naturally break the population.

26 Reports on the state of the diocese of São Salvador routinely gave its population at 10,000 households. See A. Vieira, ‘Interrogatoria de Statu Regni Congenses’ [1595], in A. Brásio, (ed.), Monumenta Missionaria Africana, Volume III, 15 Volumes (Lisbon, 1952–88), 502; this is followed by accounts in 1609 (Monumenta V, 526) and 1621 (Monumenta VI, 571). One report, made in 1604 (Monumenta V, 76) only gives the population at 2,000 households, however.

27 Afonso I to Manuel I, 5 Oct. 1514, in Brásio, Mounmenta I, 312–13.

28 Afonso I to João III, 6 July 1526, in Brásio, Monumenta I, 470.

29 João III to Afonso I, n.d., in Brásio, Monumenta I, 525–7. Brásio supplies a date of 1529 based on internal evidence of events in Europe.

30 Thornton, J., ‘Early Kongo-Portuguese relations: a new interpretation’, History in Africa, 8 (1981), 193–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thornton, History of West Central Africa, 52–5.

31 Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Firenze, Manoscritti Panciatichiani 200, fol. 171, anonymous untitled manuscript probably written around 1595 by a Carmelite or someone associated with the Carmelite mission of 1584–7; Pigafetta, Relatione, 59–60 (on the large scale sale of slaves).

32 Heywood, L., ‘Slavery and its transformation in the Kingdom of Kongo: 1491–1800’, The Journal of African History, 50:1 (2009), 122CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thornton, History of West Central Africa, 128–36.

33 Thornton, History of West Central Africa, 128–33 (1622–3 war); 182–3 (1665 war); 184–5 (1670 war).

34 L. Heywood and J. Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660 (Cambridge, 2007), 226–36.

35 Thornton, History of West Central Africa, 197–213, 241–9.

36 Ibid. 280, for the term.


37 Heywood, ‘Slavery’, 16–22.

38 The database is set up to calculate exports from various ports along the coast. However, the Kingdom of Kongo did not contribute people to some ports, such as Benguela, and only contributed partly to the export from Luanda, the single largest place of export. Ambriz, located right in Kongo's territory, and Congo River (typically Boma), also received people enslaved in Angola and points east. Other ports north of the Congo River received slaves from Kongo, but also from areas north and sometimes east of Kongo. It is impossible to disambiguate the data for those going to Luanda, the largest export port, in particular. Domingues da Silva, D., ‘The Atlantic slave trade from Angola: a port-by-port estimate of slaves embarked, 1701–1867’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 46:1 (2013), 105–22Google Scholar, esp. the data on 121–2.

39 The routes and their carriers were identified in J. Miller, Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830 (Madison, 1988), 197–203, 208–26.

40 Domingues da Silva, Atlantic Slave Trade, 75–86 (overview and methodology), and 88–93 (Kikongo-speaking people), based on table A.1, 172. I have included the people labeled as Kongo, Madimba, Mbamba, Mbembe, Mpangu, Nsundi, Solongo, and Zombo as being geographically from Kongo. I excluded Danje from the list, as the region he appears to mark for this was outside of Kongo's jurisdiction (and spoke Kimbundu, with high rates of bilingualism), as were most of the areas on the eastern end of his map, such as Nsonso or Yaka, though they speak dialects of the Kikongo Language Cluster. I am also suspicious of the very high number (46,103) assigned to Nsundi, as the former Kongo province of Nsundi had subsequently occupied a region far to the north of the Congo River and much of it was never under the authority of the traditional Kingdom of Kongo, but for this evaluation I retain them.

41 Thornton, J., ‘As guerras civis no Congo e o tráfico de escravos: a história e a demografia de 1718 a 1844 revisitada’, Estudos Afro-Asiáticos, 32:1 (1997), 5574Google Scholar. Castello de Vide's report, in a series of letters, is found at Academia das Cienças de Lisboa (ACS) MS Vermelho 296, Rafael Castello de Vide, ‘Viagem do Congo . . .’ (online edition with original pagination marked at

42 Thornton, ‘Guerras civis’, 59–62. On entrepreneurial nobles, see Thornton, History of West Central Africa, 280–1, 342–4.

43 Thornton, History of West Central Africa, 280–1; ACS MS Vermelho 296, Castello de Vide, ‘Viagem do Congo’, 291–4.

44 ACS Vermelho 296, Castello de Vide, ‘Viagem do Congo’, 291.

45 Ibid. 262.


46 Thornton, ‘Guerras civis’, 63–7.

47 Ibid. 66–8.


48 Matonda, ‘Nouveaux regards’, 859, citing further evidence from W. Randles, L'ancien royaume du Congo des origines à la fin de XIXe siècle (Paris, 1968), 147.

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