It’s the third Friday of Black History Month, and in that spirit we’re highlighting another lesser-known black historical figure. This week, it’s Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, a Kongolese noblewoman, prophet and religious-political leader.
Beatriz was born to noble parents in the Kingdom of Kongo (present-day Angola) in 1684. Europeans had disseminated Catholicism throughout the kingdom about two centuries before, and Beatriz was raised Catholic, but she did not take a passive role in her religion. She did not accept Catholicism as Europeans presented it. Instead, she promoted a Kongolese brand of Catholicism.
During Beatriz’s lifetime, Kongo was in a state of civil war that dated back to Portuguese military upheaval of the region in the 1660s. In 1704, Beatriz underwent a powerful spiritual experience that led her to assume a prominent role in the conflict as a religious and political leader. While ailing in 1704, Beatriz reported having visions of St. Anthony. These culminated in what she called her death: St. Anthony now occupied the body that once belonged to Beatriz, who had been trained as an nganga marinda, a community member who interacts with the supernatural realm in the interest of the community at large. In the body of an African woman, St. Anthony claimed to have a special and interpersonal relationship with God, who commanded that Kongo must be a united kingdom with one ruler. “The Kongolese Saint Anthony” (as they are called by biographer, John Thrornton) appealed to two of Kongo’s kings, but neither heeded the message. Having failed on this score, the Kongolese St. Anthony amassed a peaceful following and occupied São Salvador, the former capital.
In addition to sending missionaries out with their message, the Kongolese St. Anthony created their own religious doctrine, which they asserted was Catholic, but of a specifically Kongolese kind. They rewrote both the Ave Maria and Salve Regina (Salve Antoniana) to reflect Kongolese spiritual needs and priorities. And, particularly noteworthy this month, the Kongolese St. Anthony not only refuted that there were no existing black saints and insisted that Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other major Christian figures were in fact Kongolese, but also admonished priests who argued otherwise.
Predictably, the Kongolese St. Anthony, having undermined the authority of various established powers in the region, was executed for heresy by those loyal to one of the Kongolese kings in 1706. Though their life was cut short, the Kongolese St. Anthony’s approach to religion is an important reminder that, though European colonisers brutally enforced their ways among colonised and/or converted peoples, this process was not just passively received. On the contrary, colonised and/or converted peoples not only reshaped religious movements and doctrine to suit their own ways of knowing, believing and being, but also influenced the ways of life of the very peoples that sought to repress them.
Alexander Ives Bortolot, Dona Beatriz: Kongo Prophet, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001-.) http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pwmn_4/hd_pwmn_4.htm (October 2003; accessed 19 February 2016).
John Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).