Battle of Mbwila Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Hostilities between the Kingdom of Kongo and the Portuguese colony of Angola erupted into war. At the Battle of Mbwila, King Antonio I of Kongo and Kongolese noblemen were killed, leading to the decline of the kingdom.

Summary of Event

The Battle of Mbwila was an epic culmination of the intrusion of the Portuguese colony of Angola Angola into the rivalries that characterized the relations between Kongo Kongo and its neighbors in central Africa. Colonization;Portuguese of Angola The Portuguese were not the only ones whose dealings interfered with the hegemonic designs of the Kongolese in central Africa. There were others—Loango, Ndongo, and Imbangala, and other Europeans, such as the Dutch, who were equally meddlesome in Kongo’s affairs—but it was the Portuguese, however, who were arguably the most obsessive in their determination to impose their will on Kongo, creating conditions that led to the Battle of Mbwila. [kw]Battle of Mbwila (Oct. 29, 1665) [kw]Mbwila, Battle of (Oct. 29, 1665) Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 29, 1665: Battle of Mbwila[2230] Angola;Oct. 29, 1665: Battle of Mbwila[2230] Mbwila, Battle of (1665)

Looking at the arrival of the Portuguese in central Africa, one would not have imagined that they would unleash events that would lead to the decline of Kongo. When the Portuguese arrived in central Africa in the fifteenth century, they found that Kongo was one of the most powerful states there. The kingdom was stable, and it was ruled by the manikongo, or king. Captain Diogo Cão, Cão, Diogo the leader of the first Portuguese expedition into central Africa, was so impressed with the power and prestige of Kongo when he arrived there in 1483 that he immediately sent “gifts and messages” to the manikongo of Kongo, Nzinga Nkuwu Nzinga Nkuwu . This event laid the foundation for more contacts between the Portuguese and the Kongo kingdom.

By 1491, Portuguese presence in Kongo had increased significantly, as mercenaries, traders, and missionaries operated in the kingdom. Seeking to exploit their presence, the manikongo Nzinga Nkuwu converted to Christianity and took the name John. Through a strategic alliance with the Portuguese, Kongo expanded its tentacles and occupied many territories in the region. The expansion of Kongolese power moved in tandem with increasing Portuguese presence in the region, enhancing Portuguese status just as much as it was consolidating Kongolese power. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese ceased being merely instruments of Kongolese imperialism; they became rivals at the very time when the slave trade was becoming a major aspect of European mercantilism and a source of friction among various nation-states.

During the sixteenth century, Portuguese missionaries, traders, and technicians who came to the kingdom engaged in, to the chagrin of Kongo, activities that were inimical to the interests of Kongo. Portuguese interference in Kongolese internal politics became common. When King Afonso I Afonso I (king of Kongo) (Nzinga Mbemba) died in 1543, the Portuguese and other interested parties tried to consolidate their positions in the kingdom by placing their own candidate on the throne, leading to violent power struggles. Several kings came and went in rapid succession, and instability was endemic.

In 1567, Alvaro I Alvaro I (king of Kongo) came to power. Within a short time, Alvaro formally placed Kongo under the control of the Portuguese, in exhange for their military assistance against the Imbangala Imbangala (the Jagas), who had in 1568 invaded Kongo and forced King Alvaro and his supporters to flee for their lives to an island in the middle of the Congo River. The Imbangala invasion thus consolidated the Portuguese presence in Kongo. However, although the formalization of this relationship provided the Kongolese with a formidable ally against its hostile neighbors, it unpalatably reminded them of the extent to which they had lost power and had become dependent on others for their own protection.

In 1576, the Portuguese moved to consolidate their presence along the coast of central Africa by establishing a new colony around the mouth of the Kwana River and naming it Angola. The Portuguese used this base to interfere in the affairs of Kongo, and many conflicts ensued between the Portuguese and Kongo. Quarrels over land, especially on the lower Bengo and Dande Rivers, were common. Confrontations occurred over things such as mining rights. When King Alvaro sent a Portuguese subject who had attempted to assassinate him to Luanda for punishment, the would-be assassin was given rewards and set free.

Still, the kings of Kongo, including Alvaro I, did not lose hope of regaining their traditional power and reining in the Portuguese, especially at their base in Angola. When Alvaro I died in 1587, he was replaced by Alvaro II Alvaro II (king of Kongo) , who tried to expand his power while controlling the activities of the Portuguese and their allies. Diplomatic overtures were made to the Vatican, and maneuvers for technical and commercial assistance were made among other European nations. When Alvaro III Alvaro III (king of Kongo) came to power in 1615, his reign was similarly consumed by Kongolese relations with Portuguese Angola, and a brief war was fought between the two nations in 1622.

The war of 1622 marked the end of uneasy peace between Kongo and the Portuguese in Angola. It signaled the collapse of measures taken earlier by Kongo rulers Alvaro II and Alvaro III to control Angola, and it foreshadowed a deterioration of relations that would be dramatized by the outbreak of the Battle of Mbwila in 1665. The war of 1622, moreover, exacerbated political and commercial fissures that had been brought under control by Alvaro II. During the next nineteen years, Kongo was ruled by six kings in quick succession. Various factions competed for power, often with deepening involvement of the Portuguese with ulterior motives. By the end of the first half of the seventeenth century, Kongo teetered precariously on the precipice of destruction, and no king remained in power long enough to provide the kingdom with stability and protection against the depredatory activities of the Portuguese, especially those based in Angola.

Kongo experienced a temporary respite from these problems when the Dutch invaded and occupied Angola in 1641. Garcia II Garcia II (king of Kongo) , who came to power in Kongo the year following the Dutch invasion, took the opportunity to reassert Kongolese hegemony. Although Dutch interests in the region often conflicted with those of the Kongolese—especially as the Dutch were also involved in the slave trade—they created room for Garcia to try to maneuver Kongo out of the clutches of the Portuguese. Adeptly blending international and local diplomacy and Christian and traditional religious practices, Garcia consolidated power and emerged as one of the greatest kings of Kongo. Centralized power reemerged. Garcia’s exploits earned him the nickname kimpanku, the sorcerer. His reign, from 1642 to 1661, brought stability, and for a time it seemed as if conflicts that had wracked Kongo had been curbed. In retrospect, Garcia’s reign marked the last phase of effective Kongo unity.

By 1648, the Portuguese had defeated the Dutch and were back at their base in Angola, determined to teach Kongo a lesson for supporting the Dutch. Garcia tried to forestall war with diplomacy, but his maneuvers did not succeed, as tensions rose between the Portuguese and Kongo. Salvador Correia de Sá e Benevides Sá e Benevides, Salvador Correia de , the governor of Angola and a military commander, rejected Garcia’s diplomatic overtures and demanded that Mbwila, Dande Valley, and Luanda Island be transferred to Angola as payment for damages incurred during the Dutch occupation. He demanded tax exemption for all Portuguese goods and the right to control gold and copper mines in the whole of Kongo. He demanded the right to oversee all Kongo’s international relations, especially those with Europe. Although Garcia accepted most of these terms after much hesitation, he refused to cede his mines. He refused to budge even as the Portuguese and their allies continued to threaten him. During the next decade, these disputes between the Portuguese and the Kongolese simmered. By the time Garcia died in 1661, the relations between the Portuguese and the Konglese were so bad that it was only a matter of time before war would erupt.

When Antonio I Antonio I (king of Kongo) replaced Garcia as the new king, he inherited the provocative Portuguese demands on Kongo. Looking to provoke Kongo further, the Portuguese in Angola started to extend their territory into the Dembos, an area Kongo considers its own. Sometime in the mid-1660’, a Portuguese force clashed with the Kongolese over the leadership of Mbwila, with Antonio supporting the ruler and the Portuguese supporting the ruler’s opponent. Mobilizing men from every province, Antonio decided to retaliate and avenge the humiliation his kingdom had suffered since the Portuguese had arrived in the region two centuries before. By October, 1665, the armies were ready to confront each other. According to some sources, the Kongolese army consisted of 70,000 soldiers reinforced by about 200 musketeers. Other sources suggest the army numbered more than “100,000 soldiers . . . about 800 shield-bearers, and 190 musketeers.” The Portuguese deployed around 6,000 to 7,000 bowmen and 466 musketeers. Crucially, King Antonio himself was in command of the Kongolese troops.

Fighting started on October 29, 1665, with the Kongolese on the attack. All seemed to be going well for the Kongolese when disaster struck. At a critical moment in the battle, the Portuguese musketeers launched a fusillade of shots, and Antonio was fatally wounded. The death of Antonio in the battlefield threw the Kongolese army into a panic. Demoralized, the soldiers retreated in disarray. More than five thousand Kongolese soldiers were killed, including a number of Antonio’s sons and nephews, four of the seven governors of Kongolese seven provinces, and many members of the nobility.


After the death of Antonio I, Kongo was never again stable. In retrospect, Garcia’s reign between 1641 and 1661 was the last time Kongo remained a united state. With the death of Antonio, many factions emerged and competed for power. Civil wars became common once again, especially during succession to the throne, and famine and epidemics exacerbated the misery. Kongo was beset by many problems. Virtually every king who came to the throne after Antonio I did so by military means.

During the latter half of the seventeenth, and throughout the eighteenth centuries, various factions fighting for power split the kingdom into various separate regions. In 1709, after numerous wars, Pedro IV came to the throne, but his ascension did not stop the decline of the Kongolese state. His successors continued to witness a steady deterioration of the power of Kongo during the eighteenth century. By the end of the eighteenth century, the power and influence of Kongo had virtually disappeared. Although many factors, such as the lack of proper instruments for managing succession, contributed to the decline of the Kongo kingdom, one cannot ignore the impact of the Portuguese in the region, the slave trade, and the interference of the Portuguese colonies of São Tome and Angola.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Birmingham, David. “Central Africa from Cameroon to the Zambezi.” In The Cambridge History of Africa, edited by J. D. Fage and Roland Oliver. Vol. 4. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. A discussion of the region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Broadhead, Susan H. Historical Dictionary of Angola. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1992. A compendium of useful information, including descriptions of proper names, a chronology, historic maps, a table comparing colonial and modern names, and a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duffy, James. Portuguese Africa. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. A study of Portugal’s territories on the African continent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hair, P. E. H. “Discovery and Discoveries: The Portuguese in Guinea, 1444-1650.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 69 (1992): 11-28. A broad look at the Portuguese in West Africa, including Angola, with helpful historiographical information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thornton, John K. The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641-1718. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. Thornton examines the Kongo Kingdom from the perspective of its internal battles, beginning in 1641.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thornton, John K. Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500-1800. London: University College of London Press, 1999. A more wide-ranging history of wars and warmaking along the West African coast.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vansina, J., and T. Obenga. “The Kongo Kingdom and Its Neighbors.” In General History of Africa, edited by B. A. Ogot. Vol. 5. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. A modern study of the Kongo Kingdom and the surrounding region.
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