The Congo River

The Congo River, formerly known as the Zaire River, is Africa’s second longest river, just after the Nile. It is 2,900 miles (or 4,700 km) long and is located in west-central Africa.

It rises in northeastern Zambia, between two Lakes (the Tanganyika, and the Nyasa. It begins as the Chambeshi River at a height of 5,760 feet (1,760) meters above sea level, at approximately 430 miles (700 km) from the Indian Ocean.

The river flows through Africa in a counterclockwise arc, before draining into the Atlantic Ocean in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Congo river

Its drainage basin (meaning its “catchment,” or all the land served by the river) covers an area of 1,335,000 square miles or 3,457,000 square kilometers.

This nearly covers the entirety of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as parts of Zambia, Angola, and Tanzania.

When the river was first found by Europeans in the 1400s, they called it the “Zaire,” a mistranslation of the word for “river” in local African languages.
Course and Drainage basin of the Congo River with countries marked
Its name was changed to the “Congo River” in the early 1700s, taken from the Kingdom of Kongo that had been set up along the course of the river.

The river was again renamed the River Zaire during the period 1971-1997 when the actual country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was renamed “Zaire,” but this name didn’t last long, and it never stuck.

The Kongo Kingdom ruled the area near the mouth of the Congo River from the late 1300s all the way to the beginning 1800s. In the kingdom’s last years, it was partially ruled over by Portugal, but remained largely independent for much of its life.

This is because the dense forests of the Zaire River basin weren’t explored often. It wasn’t until the middle of the 1800s that a wave of explorers came from Midland Europe to see what treasures lay undiscovered there: this wave included men like David Livingston, Richard Burton, Henry Morton Stanley, and others.

Though the initial reason for exploring Africa was in the hopes of finding valuable goods to trade, the explorers quickly realized that trading the native Africans as slaves would be much more lucrative (i.e., it would make them more money.)
The Congo River at Maluku.

The river was used to transport slaves across the country once the supply of able workers was taken from the coast.

Even after discovering this valuable trade, Britain did not immediately move to claim the Congo basin as their own, instead preferring to focus on building their colonies in other parts of the world.

This is why, instead of being taken over by English rule, King Leopold of Belgium was given control of the Congo region in 1885.

Seeking to establish an empire there, Leopold began the newly-named “Congo Free State” to receive ivory, rubber, and other natural resources.

King Leopold was not a good leader to the people of Congo, and international protest led to the region being annexed (separated) by the Belgian government, where it was renamed the “Belgian Congo” from 1908 until 1960.

Rulers of the Belgian Congo expanded the rubber trade and made huge plantations of rubber trees to profit off it.

However, there are historical records of civilization existing along the Congo for far longer than the Belgium government’s rule, and for far longer than the Kongo Kingdom had been around.

Bantu-speaking people had lived along the Congo for at least 1700 years before the country was ever taken over, who supported themselves with fishing and agriculture.

Although the Congo River is such a large part of Africa, it was not as culturally important as the River Nile was.

No religions centered around it like the Ancient Egyptians’ did around the Nile, and it was mostly used for functionality rather than anything religious.

However, despite that, it’s clear to historians that the Congo River played a key role in the development of Africa as a continent, and is still an important feature for many countries today.

Facts about the Congo River:

  • The Congo River was first called “the Zaire River.” This name, Zaire, came from a mistranslation of the word for “river” in the local language.
  • It is the second longest river in Africa, at 2,900 miles (or 4,700 km) in length.
  • It runs mostly through west-central Africa, and rises in northeastern Zambia.
  • The Kongo Kingdom ruled the area near the mouth of the Congo River from the late 1300s all the way to the beginning 1800s. They established their kingdom there because the river would be useful to the people for food, hygiene, and defensive purposes.
  • The Kongo Kingdom remained independent and peaceful for much of its life. This is because the dense forests of the Zaire River basin weren’t explored often; they weren’t really intruded upon until the middle of the 1800s.
  • The Congo River was used to transport slaves taken from areas near the Kongo Kingdom and was also exploited for rubber and other natural resources by European explorers.
  • The Kongo Kingdom (and Democratic Republic of Congo in general) were overtaken by Belgian forces in the 1800s and were not freed until after 1960. They were overtaken because of the natural resources the Congo River provided.
  • Evidence has been found that suggests people lived along the Congo River from as early as 100 AD.


  1. What was the first name of the Congo River?

– The Zaire River.

  1. Where did this name come from?

– The language from the areas around the river. It was a mistranslation of the area’s word for “river.”

  1. How long is the Congo River?

– 2,900 miles, or 4,700 kilometers.

  1. What is the name of the Kingdom that formed along the Congo River in the 1300s?

– The Kongo Kingdom/the Kingdom of Kongo.

  1. What European country took over the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1800s, primarily because of the River Congo’s natural bounty?

– Belgium. The first King was King Leopold, and he was a very cruel leader to the native people.