Currently called the Democratic Republic of Congo. Previously known as, in order, the Congo Free State, Belgium Congo, Republic of the Congo, and Zaire.
Settled communities are established in the land mass now enclosed by the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the first millennium BCE as Bantu-speaking people begin to migrate into the region from the north.
Over time a complex mix of differing cultures and social systems develops, from small hunter-gatherer communities in the rainforests to large, centralised chiefdoms on the savanna. By the 16th Century CE a handful of competing states have come to dominate the region, including the Kongo, Lunda, Luba, Kuba and Tio tribal systems. The mix is further complicated by the impact of Arabs in the east and Europeans in the west, both of who are attracted to the area by its commercial possibilities, particularly the slave trade.
The Portuguese navigator Diogo Cao reaches the Congo River in 1483. Commerce between the coastal Kongo Kingdom and Portugal quickly develops, with the trade in slaves soon coming to dominate all other exchanges. The Dutch begin to arrive in the 17th Century, to be followed by the French and British.
The Congo becomes one of the principle sources for slaves destined for markets in Arabia, the Middle East and America, supplying up to 15,000 individuals a year by the late 17th Century. The trade is run by European, Arab and African merchants, and results in increasing levels of social dislocation, making the region more and more vulnerable to colonial intrusion. By the 18th century the Kongo Kingdom has effectively ceased to exist.
As the influence of the Europeans steadily moves inland, the Congo River basin is raised in the imagination of the West, with the exploits of 19th Century explorers such as David Livingstone receiving wide publicity. Livingstone goes missing for two years and is famously found by the journalist Henry Morton Stanley in a village on the banks of Lake Tanganyika in 1871.