Central African Religions and Culture in the Americas

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Central African Religions and Culture in the Americas

"Central Africa," more properly "West-Central Africa," is the huge region inland from the Atlantic coastline delimited in the north by Cape Lopez in present-day Gabon and in the south by the Kunene River, now the border between Angola and Namibia. People from Central Africa formed a significant proportion of Africans in most black communities of the Americas throughout the period of the slave trade. Of the 11.1 million persons embarked as slaves from Africa to the Americas, 44 percent were from Central Africa. People from this area formed 89 percent of those sent in the early decades of the trade (15191650). Their presence declined to 29 percent in the period 16511725, then rose to 41 percent in 17261825 and 50 percent in 18261867.

Of all major slave-importing areas, the British Caribbean exhibited the lowest proportion of Central Africans among incoming bondspeople: about fifteen percent. At the other extreme were Brazil and Saint Domingue, where Central Africans constituted respectively about three-fifths and half the total. Cuba and Guadeloupe were intermediate cases, with a little under one-third of the newly enslaved from Central Africa. In French/British/Dutch South America and British North America (including Louisiana), the proportion was somewhat over one-fourth. Within each of these societies there were variations over time and by subregion. An extreme case is Brazil's Southeast after 1810, where three-fourths of forced migrants were Central Africans. In the American South, Louisiana and South Carolina received proportionately more Central Africans than other areas.

The cultural impact of Central Africans in the Americas may have been more than commensurate to their numbers. Central Africa was a relatively uniform "culture area," compared to the regions of West Africa. Then too, even after 1750, when the trade in human beings extended far into the interior, at least a large minority of enslaved Central Africans still came from closely related peoples near the coast: in particular, the Kongo (Bakongo) from the lower Zaire basin, the Mbundu from the hinterland of Luanda, and the Ovimbundu from the highlands behind Benguela. Thus, Central Africans sold into Atlantic slavery from different origins often quickly found that they had much in common, from language (all were speakers of West Bantu tongues, many mutually intelligible) to cosmology. In sum, their numbers, their general similarities, and the large core group among them from closely related cultures probably hastened the formation of new Central African communities in the Americas and strengthened their hand in negotiating differences with other displaced Africans.

A significant minority of Central Africans also brought with them an unusual resource for their encounter with European and Creole cultures: a prior knowledge of Christianity, acquired in their homelands. The Kingdom of Kongo, in the lower Zaire basin and northern Angola, adopted Christianity as the state religion in the early sixteenth century, and the Portuguese introduced it a century later into their spheres of influence in Angola. In the former region, lay catechists linked to the nobility were important in bringing Christian rituals and knowledge about Christ and the saints to the local level, even in the absence of missionaries. This was a Christianity reinterpreted from a Central African perspective, as one would expect in a part of Africa where religious movements have commonly experimented with foreign rituals and symbols, while subordinating them to indigenous understandings.

Among Central Africans carried to the Caribbean and to British North America, people shipped from the Zaire and points north generally predominated. The same applies to Central Africans carried to Brazil during the early decades of the trade and (to a lesser extent) after about 1820. In these cases, then, Kongo and near-Kongo culture left a strong imprint. Brazil during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries received Central Africans predominantly through Luanda and Benguela. Thus, in this period the Kongo influence in Brazil was weaker, but the Portuguese colony was strongly marked by the presence of enslaved people from the Kongo-related Mbundu and Ovimbundu.

Emblematic of the encounter of enslaved Kongo, Mbundu, and Ovimbundu is the name they attributed to shipmates in the Middle Passage, regarded as siblings: malungu, meaning "ship" (literally "gigantic canoe") or, by extension, "partner in misfortune." Reflection on malungu and its referent, the slave ship, a vehicle of physical and social death, would have led bondspeople from these core Central African groups to discover that they shared the concept of kalunga, signifying "ocean (or large body of water)," "death," "the otherworld," and "the interface between this and the otherworld." Through kalunga, in turn, these people would have recognized a common cosmology, centered in a concern to propitiate ancestral and tutelary earth and water spirits (the latter called bisimbi, plural of simbi, among the Kongo) to maintain community health; in the diagnosis of individual and social disorders as frequently the product of witchcraft; and in the recourse to ritual specialists in "cults of affliction" (a phenomenon widespread in Central Africa) to counter witchcraft and effect cures, usually through the use of consecrated medicines (among the Kongo, minkisi, plural of nkisi ) that captured the force of specific spirits. Among the Kongo at least, these holy objects were often spiritually empowered by being tied intricately with rope or thread; symptomatically, their verb for "tie" (kanga ) was used to translate the Christian concept of "save" (as in "Christ saves").

In conversing about "cults of affliction," newly enslaved Kongo, Mbundu, and Ovimbundu would have realized that they all perceived drums to be eminent mediators with the spirit world, particularly the single-skin, long cylindrical drum made of a hollowed-out log, called ngoma by the Kongo. The subject of ngoma (at least among Kongo and Mbundu) would have led to reflections on dancing, which was commonly accompanied by drumming and call-response singing and practiced in a circle of participants that moved in a counterclockwise direction. Dancing, in turn, would have evoked ritual kick fighting, also practiced within a similarly moving circle. This counterclockwise motion and certain movements in kick fighting made explicit reference to what scholars have called the "Kongo cosmogram": a "cross" inscribed in a circle or reclining oval, with the horizontal east-west line representing the kalunga interface and the vertical north-south line connecting the high noon (masculine power) of this life, above, with the midnight (feminine power) of the other world, below. In this symbol of the cosmos, the outer circle or oval described the counterclockwise movement of the sun, when seen from the southern hemisphere. Ritual kick fighters, within their moving circle, purposely adopted inverted positionssupporting their weight on their hands, with their feet in the airthereby symbolically mirroring kalunga to draw on its power. More broadly, in Central African warfare "dancing" was deemed part of a spiritual preparation to confront the enemy, not just a means of honing one's combat skills.

In the Americas, abundant evidence indicates that some combination of Kongo, Mbundu, Ovimbundu, and related cultures was indeed at the core of most Central African communities. Malungu, as a metonym for "shipmate," entered European languages: directly in Brazil (Portuguese malungo ), in translation in Haiti and Cuba, respectively as batiment ("ship") and carabela ("caravel"). More significantly, in Cuba the extensive ritual vocabulary of the "lengua congo" has been shown to be basically Kikongo, the language of the Kongo. In southeastern Brazil, the ritual vocabularies of Macumba and Umbanda, African-Brazilian religions described in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo from the early twentieth century on, show considerable resonance with Kikongo and Kimbundu (the language of the Mbundu). The lexicon of the Cabula, a cult described around 1900 in Espírito Santo, is even more clearly related to these languages. The vocabulary of Petro cults in Haitian vodou includes clear references to Kongo spirit names (among them, simbi ).

In Cuba, evidence of the heritage of Central African "cults of affliction" can be found in the Palo Monte cults and their practice still today of making prendas : spiritually empowered charms, commonly made in a pot, which clearly resemble in form and function Kongo minkisi, even to the point of being bound with thread in intricate patterns. In nineteenth-century Brazil such objects were also present, as were anthropomorphic charms (in the Cabula called baculo, the Kikongo word for "ancestor"). The Cabula itself had much in common with a community cult of affliction among the Kongo (most commonly referred to as kimpasi ), in the delimitation of its sacred space (a Kongo cosmogram) and in the ritual death and rebirth through trance experienced by both its male and female initiates. During and after slavery in Saint Domingue/Haiti, North America, and Brazil, there are abundant references to small amulet-charms containing medicinal substances empowered by tightly wound thread, called paquets congo in Saint Domingue and French Louisiana. In Brazilian Macumba and Umbanda, as well as in Haitian vodou and Cuban Palo Monte, ritual marks drawn on a consecrated ground, on banners, or on charms (marks known in Brazil as pontos riscados drawn "knots" or "stitches"), which demand esoteric knowledge to be interpreted, seem inspired by the Kongo cosmogram.

With respect to dance, the jongo/caxambu/batuque in Brazil's Southeast is performed to the rhythm of the single-faced drum mentioned above, as well as sometimes to that of the friction drum (puíta ), an instrument known to the three "core" Central African peoples. (Both drums are also found in Cuba, where they are associated with the "Congo" community.) The dance's variable choreography in western São Paulo and in the Paraíba Valley (respectively with and without the umbigada, the sudden meeting of the navels of the dancing couples), corresponds to the variants observed in the mid-nineteenth century among the Mbundu and Kongo, respectively. In the Paraíba Valley, its opening rituals, its performance within a circle of observers-participants moving counterclockwise, and the riddles posed by one master singer to the otherpontos de demanda, or challenge "knots" demanding to be "untied"indicate its origins in Central African religious precepts. Capoeira, the now-secularized Brazilian kick dancing, whose performers still commonly assume "upside-down" positions, must initially have had similar religious connotations, as probably did its relative, "knocking and kicking," centered in South Carolina. The dancing engaged in before battle by African slave rebels in South Carolina's Stono rebellion (1739), most of them from the region of the Kingdom of Kongo, almost certainly had this religious dimension.

Central Africans of diverse provenance in many, perhaps most areas of the Americas were able to form new, enlarged communities that provided them with a sense of cultural continuity, as well as a set of shared outlooks to confront the challenges of slavery. Yet, they also soon began building bridges to Africans of other origins, often aided in this by the discovery of significant shared understandings. The American ring shout is a case in point; although scholars have emphasized its Central African origins, they have also shown that counterclockwise movement in a circle (with participants keeping their feet constantly in touch with the ground) was typical of religious dancing in West as well as Central Africa. That it was not typical of dances of European origin further contributed to the ring shout's evolution as a central element of African-American identity. Another example is the Candomblé Angola in Salvador, Bahia. Here the deities have the attributes of those of the Candomblé of Yoruba origin, but Central African names (the spirit of thunder is Nsasi, which means "thunder" in Kikongo); furthermore, drum rhythms are identical to ones documented among the Kongo. A third example is Haitian vodou, which has separate Rada and Petro forms (reflecting strong initial influences, respectively, from Dahomey and Central Africa) yet an essential unity of ritual and cosmology.

Finally, the reinterpreted Christianity of many Central Africans also played a role in the formation of New World cultures and identities. It provided Africans (and Creoles) with polysemic symbols and rituals that could alternately provide an avenue for integration into a European-dominated society, a way of feigning such integration, a resource to reaffirm Central African identities (after all, the 1704 Antonian movement in the Kongo Kingdom appropriated Saint Anthony and Christ as native-born Kongolese), or even a common ground for unity between different African groups (something that has been argued for the case of pre- and postrevolutionary Saint Domingue).

See also Africanisms; Candomblé; Capoeira; Jongo; Social Dance; Voodoo


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Central African Religions and Culture in the Americas

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