Pygmies, arriving from the east, were most likely Congo's first inhabitants. Later several kingdoms of Bantu origin (the Kongo, Loango and Teke among them) arrived and opened trade links across the Congo River basin.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive on the banks of the Congo River, quickly establishing a slave-trade system with partnering coastal tribes. The French had an early presence here, too, and it was Franco-Italian empire builder Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza who led a major expedition inland in 1875, then five years later charmed local rulers into putting their land on the river's right bank under French control.

French Rule

The French government made quick work of acquiring Congo's considerable natural resources such as ivory, tropical hardwoods and rubber, as well as using the local population as slave labour. Because of human-rights scandals perpetrated by the companies running the region, the French government were forced to take a greater role in overseeing things and by 1910, Congo (called Middle Congo) had been formally streamlined into French Equatorial Africa along with Chad, Gabon and the Central African Republic. Brazzaville was the capital.

Except for initiating construction of the Congo–Ocean Railway (1924–34) the French made few significant changes and locals revolted in protest in 1928. Brazzaville had its moment in the sun when it served as the symbolic capital of Free France between 1940 and 1943. In 1944, genuine reforms such as the abolition of forced labour and the election of local councils were enacted, but ethnic integration was never a colonial priority. Tribal differences continued to fester, and with independence in 1960 the bubbling pot finally boiled over.

Africa's First Marxist State

Congo's first president, Fulbert Youlou, lasted just three tumultuous years before being deposed in a popular uprising that put Alphonse Massamba-Débat in power. Introducing a one-party state and treading a socialist path, he proved to be equally unpopular and was ousted in a 1968 military coup by Captain Marien Ngouabi. The next year Ngouabi formed the Congolese Worker's Party (PCT) and inaugurated the People's Republic of Congo, ushering in Africa's first Marxist-Leninist state.

After Ngouabi was assassinated in 1977, the PCT appointed Joachim Yhombi-Opango as successor but, charged with 'deviation from party directives' and corruption, he was replaced in 1979 by vice president and defence minister Denis Sassou N'Guesso. Sassou's political survivalism proved to be superior to that of his predecessors (he's currently in power) and his pragmatism got results. Congo forged ties with both capitalist and communist countries and gradually moderated its political course. Following the downfall of the Soviet Union's economy and its subsequent collapse, Sassou agreed to allow multiparty elections in 1992.

Civil War

Sassou N’Guesso lost the election to former prime minister Pascal Lissouba, who had been exiled for complicity in the assassination of Ngouabi. Accusations that he rigged 1993's parliamentary elections sparked violent unrest between pro-government and opposition militias (both tribally based) until a 1994 ceasefire. Congo fell under full-scale civil war in 1997. Brazzaville was devastated (most of its citizens were forced to flee to the bush for many months) and Sassou's 'Cobra' militia, with the help of Angolan troops, returned him to power.

The coming years saw sporadic fighting, including more attacks on the capital; peace-agreement signings with some rebel groups; the approval of a new constitution in a national referendum; and Sassou winning another election (in which his main rivals, including Lissouba, were barred) in 2002. In 2003 the main rebel group, the 'Ninjas', finally agreed to a peace accord, but there was no follow through on disarmament and even after another peace deal in 2007 a few Ninjas continue their low-level insurgency in the Pool region, but today they're more interested in banditry than politics.

In the 2007 parliamentary elections, which were boycotted by Congo's opposition, Sassou's allies won a strong majority. Then, in the presidential vote of 2009, Sassou took 79% of the vote. Both elections were widely criticised by international election observers as illegitimate.