Kongo in the Age of Empire, 1860-1913: The Breakdown of a Moral Order (U Wisconsin Press, 2017) traces the history that led to a violent insurrection that erupted in the town of São Salvador, then capital of the Kongo Kingdom in 1913. The rebels were chiefs who sought to depose the King on account of his inability to prevent the violent means by which their followers were being recruited to work in Portuguese plantations. Jelmer Vos explains how the origins of the insurrection date back to the years that followed the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, when Portugal increased its political and economic presence in northern Angola and, to that end, sought the cooperation of the leaders of the Kongo kingdom. This was the latest iteration of an almost two-hundred year long relationship between the two states and marks the beginning of Portuguese colonial expansion in the region. The book offers a detailed and layered account of how the new relationship between the Portuguese and the Kongo elites allowed the latter to re-invigorate the economy of the Kingdom and reinforce their hold on power. The Portuguese, on their part, gained greater access to labor and other resources through the cooperation of Kongo leaders who effectively acted as intermediaries between the Portugal and the people of Kongo. The decline of the rubber trade and the creation of a plantation economy changed the nature and intensity of Portuguese demands and put increasing pressure on Kongo leaders to recruit workers for the plantations. This ultimately led to violence and the increasing discontent that erupted at the rebellion of 1913 when it was clear that the moral order that the King was charged to uphold and represent had broken.
Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia is an associate professor of history at Montclair State University.