Transatlantic Kongo: New Orleans & its Kongo Roots

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

One of the most tragic chapters in human history; the transatlantic slave trade where at least 12 million enslaved Africans were uprooted from their homelands and taken to strange territories. The Loango Coast is a place that some would argue is responsible for up to half of the Kongolese captives who were sold to plantations across the Atlantic, for example to Haiti, Brazil, Saint Dominique, Louisiana and other countries / states.

Restaging performances and reshaping ideas honed in the Kongo, enslaved central Africans not only preserved the memory of their region of origins, but also crafted empowered responses to enslavement and the colonial system at large (Fromont, 2013). From their African roots, to the port of Loango, to Latin America and Louisiana.

When mentioning Southern cities in the USA, New Orleans stands out from the rest because of vibrant cultural festivities, unique music and theatrical parades. in this blog post, we will unravel the Kongolese origins of much of what we understand to be representative of New Orleans culture today, as Dewulf (2017) argues. Paying particular attention to a unique and historic subculture of New Orleans; the Mardi Gras Indians and their performances of cultural dances, or 'Kongo dances' - "already existed in parts of Africa before Louisiana experienced the advent of African slavery" says Dewulf (2017) in his book 'From the Kingdom of Kongo to the Congo Square'.

The Mardi Gras Indians are a true marvel to learn about. Their name was naturally derived by their paying respect to the native Indians who helped shield runaway slaves at the time, and of course their ancestrally African heritage. At glance, they appear and have been described as "black carnival revelers in New Orleans, Louisiana, who dress up for Mardi Gras in suits influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel". This blog post will focus mainly on the origins of the cultural dances performed by the Mardi Gras Indians particularly on one named the 'Sangamento' - a Kongolese traditional mock war dance which has been revolutionised.

Dancing in preparation for war was so common in Kongo, that dancing a war dance or 'Sangamento' was almost a synonym for declaring war. The term Sangamento or 'Sangarmento' is a local Portuguese term adapted from the Kikongo verb 'kusanga' meaning 'to jump or to leap', referring to the acrobatic moves executed during the performances, these were ceremonial martial dances performed by Kongolese rulers, and were also a symbol of social hierarchies, as Fromont (2011) describes.

Fromont (2011) goes on to paint a picture of the context in how the Sangamento's would be performed "often as a display of attributes of their might" - performers would wear prestige caps and shoulder nets typical of local insignia. In New Orleans among the Mardi Gras Indians, this is upheld, but "seamlessly combined with coats and swords inspired by European symbols of status". Below is an image of a Mardi Gras Indian parade in New Orleans - you can see that the costume is so very symbolic and attentive to the traditional Kongolese origins.

Congo Square

New Orleans doesn't radiate Kongolese culture only by the Mardi Gras, Douglas (2018) spoke about how in 1724 the French colonisers implemented “Code Noir” in the Louisiana Territory. This gave enslaved people Sunday as a “day of rest.” Enslaved people used this day to congregate in remote and public places; they would gather and sing, dance, perform religious ceremonies etc. this was not relaxed until the Spanish rule of Louisiana from 1763 to 1802, when free people of colour were able to set up market stalls and become entrepreneurs, and gather freely on Sunday's with enslaved people. While other Protestant state colonies suppressed African culture, traditions, language and music, descendants of colonial inhabitants of Louisiana aka Louisiana Creoles, did not. This is because they did not necessarily force Africans to assimilate with them. So, the Africans did not in response. They spoke their languages, cooked their foods and upheld their religious traditions, almost like nowhere else in the US.

In the early 1800s, the Haitian Revolution brought an influx of more African, French and Caribbean musical influences into the city, as whites, free people of colour, and enslaved people fled into New Orleans. In 1817, Augustin de Macarty who was the mayor of New Orleans at the time, issued a city ordinance which restricted the gathering of enslaved people, to the back of the town, and not allow them to be free to gather anywhere and on any day. This open area, at the back of the town, "just outside of the city on Rampart Street became known as Congo Square" (Douglas, 2018).

At times, as many as 600 enslaved Africans and free people of colour gathered at Congo Square. it quickly became an attraction for visitors, who came for the African music and dance; it was something that was unheard of in the rest of the US. Among the famous dances were the Bamboula, the Calinda (also known as Kalenda, a traditional Kongolese martial art, brought to the Caribbean by Africans particularly used in Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica today), and the Congo. Somewhere that was located at the back of the town, became the centre of the French Quarter. The Sunday music and dance from Congo Square radiated across the city up until 1838, "influencing generations of musicians who lived around it. Congo Square became the musical heart of New Orleans" (Douglas, 2018). This has developed into what is now the Mardi Gras Indian culture, the Second line, New Orleans Jazz and rhythm and blues.

Here is what Congo Square looks like today, still a bustling, vibrant place full of culture, language and freedom of expression. It is often referred to as "the heart of Louisiana".

It's beautiful to know that African culture, particularly those traditions that came with our Kongolese ancestors have not been forgotten about and have been honoured and cherished for centuries now in New Orleans.

I'm sure there are many more subcultures and traditions that represent our African ancestors across the world. feel free to comment below and talk about any ones that you know of!

If you want to read the thread on this post on Twitter, you can view it here

If you have not read my blog post on the Kongolese influence of Capoeira on Afro Brazillians, you can read it here


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- SS


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