The earliest inhabitants of the region today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo were most likely Bantu tribesmen who lived along the major rivers in the region, including the Congo River. This area along the Congo River became one of the most active areas of social and political development in central Africa. Over the centuries as tribes increased, early states were formed. Most famous among these early states was the Kingdom of Kongo founded in the 14th century. The people living in this region participated in broad trade networks specializing in copper, raffia cloth and nzimbu shells and the increased development of commerce helped to further the stability of the kingdom. The Kingdom of Kongo and the Democratic Republic of Congo are very similar regions except that the Kingdom of Kongo is a smaller region along the western coast of Africa while the Democratic Republic of Congo is more inland.
The first European explorers to arrive in this region of Africa came from Portugal in 1483. They were impressed with the organization and structure of the Kingdom of Kongo and began establishing political and economic ties with them in exchange for trading privileges. The Kongo government was very centralized and provided strong continuity from the 14th until the mid 17th century. At the top of the government were the kings. They oversaw military, judicial and financial matters. Under this central government were six provinces, each administered by a separate governor. The governors ruled over districts made up of many small villages. These villages were ruled by tribal chiefs.
The Portuguese provided much support in terms of military power for securing the kingdom and also brought artisans and priests to Kongo. The early Kongolese kings converted to Roman Catholicism which they saw as a way to gain further favor with the Portuguese. In return the Catholic Church offered strong support for the monarchy. The most famous of the early kings was Afonso, who ruled for 37 years and who established Catholicism as the official religion.
However, the relationship between Portugal and Kongo began to disintegrate, mainly due to the slave trade. In exchange for the military support the Portuguese wanted access to copper, ivory and most importantly, slaves. The Kongolese kings started to object to the slave trade and so to get access to slaves the Portuguese bypassed the central government and formed alliances with local leaders. This action undermined the authority of the kings and eventually led to the decline of the Kingdom of Kongo. A series of conflicts and wars between Portuguese traders and Kongolese rulers led to the disintegration of this early European interest in this area. It was not until the early 19th century that other European nations began to take an interest in the territory of the Congo.