Slave Religions

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Slave Religions

When captive Africans reached the various shores of the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade, they brought their cultures with them. In addition to artistry, familial patterns, agriculture, and cuisine, they also carried beliefs about worlds seen and unseen, permeating all other aspects of life. Scholars acknowledge that enslaved Africans in the Americas were cultural carriers. But there is debate over the ways in which African cultures changed in the Americas because of contact with European and Native American cultures, enslavement, and separation from Africa. What follows embraces the premise that cultures are dynamic in nature and change over time and in connection with other cultures. However, the context of slavery is critical to understanding how African cultures, and specifically African religions, changed in the Americas.

At least three forms of religious activity were undertaken by enslaved Africans and their descendants. The first involved beliefs and practices that were clearly African but that also underwent some alteration in the American setting. Whereas the assumptions that such activity was more prevalent with native-born Africans than their offspring and that the intensity of such practices lessened with the passing of time are both reasonable, they are not necessarily verified by the historical record. The second form of religious activity concerns Christianity, and here there was a wide-ranging response to Christian teachings on the part of the enslaved. A third form of activity in fact brings together the first two, so that some slaves sought to practice some form of Christianity while maintaining their belief in African deities and rituals. At times Christianity and African religions melded, while at other times they were kept separate. Precisely how religion was pursued was not unrelated to powerful, slaveholding interests. However, the evidence is clear that the enslaved were perfectly capable of feigning certain beliefs in the presence of slaveholders, while practicing a very different set of convictions in private.

Resurgent African Religions

There are many examples of African religions operating throughout the Americas for as long as there was slavery. For example, Islam arrived early by way of captive Africans

and was practiced in various parts of the Americas through much of the nineteenth century. As early as 1503 Hispaniola's governor, Nicolás de Ovando, complained that African ladinos (persons who had acquired facility in either Spanish or Portuguese) were colluding with the Taíno population and fleeing to the mountains to establish Maroon, or runaway, communities. Two decades later these same ladinos would be accused of leading an insurrection on the island, the first recorded revolt of Africans in the Americas. The ladinos, in turn, were composed largely of Senegambians, some of whom were Muslims. Senegambians would continue to lead revolts in Hispaniola through the middle of the sixteenth century.

Muslims arrived all over the Americas, although they were never in the numerical majority and usually in the very decided minority. In what became the United States, a number of Muslims achieved some notoriety. For example, Ayuba bin Sulayman, or Job Ben Solomon, arrived in Maryland in 1732 but was able to return to West Africa the following year. Another Muslim who received perhaps the greatest amount of attention because of both his Arabic literacy and his possible conversion to Christianity was Umar bin Said, or Omar ben Said (c. 17651864), who came to be known as Prince Moro or Moreau. Initially brought to Charleston, he would wind up in North Carolina. Lamine Kaba, renamed "Old Paul" in America, was held in captivity in at least three southern states. His participation in a Bible-dissemination strategy was a major factor in his manumission and repatriation to Liberia in 1835 after nearly forty years of enslavement. Abd ar-Rahman, known as Prince, arrived in New Orleans in 1788, but like Ayuba bin Sulayman was able to return to West Africa in 1829.

It appears that African Muslims were more numerous along coastal Georgia, where Salih Bilali (known as Tom) lived on St. Simons Island. Initially captured around 1790, he eventually came to St. Simons, where he died in the 1850s. His coreligionist Bilali (d. 1859) lived on nearby Sapelo Island. They were both drivers on their respective plantations.

There were also small but significant Muslim communities in the Caribbean. In Jamaica, for example, Muhammad Kaba (b. 1756) and Abu Bakr (b. 1790) were both well-educated and literate individuals who provided leadership for their fellow believers. In Trinidad was an even larger group of Muslims led by Muhammad Bath, who arrived on the island around 1804. Like Abd ar-Rahman in the United States, these Muslims would repeatedly petition the British for safe passage back to West Africa, some successfully.

Brazil probably had the largest number of African Muslims. Muslim groups had different experiences in the Americas, owing to the particular West African area of origin and to specific political developments relating to Islam in those areas, in combination with their relative concentration and treatment in differing American locales. Consistent with the behavior of Muslims in sixteenth-century Hispaniola, but in contrast to their colleagues in North America and the Caribbean, Muslims in Brazil were continuously involved in multiple insurrections. In particular, the northeastern province of Bahia was a hotbed of discontent. The Hausa, Muslims from what is now northern Nigeria, had been implicated in revolts there as early as 1807; a series of subsequent smaller revolts culminated in what has been called the malê revolt of 1835 in Salvador, in the province of Bahia. The revolt involved some five hundred Africans, enslaved and free, led by the "Nagôs," or Yoruba from what is now southwestern Nigeria. Brutally repressed with over seventy killed, the malê revolt revealed the importance of Islam, as well as an impressive level of Arabic literacy among the participants, who wore distinctive clothing, maintained their own religious schools, and observed Islamic rituals such as fasting during Ramadan.

The discussion of Islam reveals that much of what is known about African religions comes from the critical roles they played in resistance to slavery. Thus, consideration of vodou in Haiti, Martinique, Louisiana, and Mississippi during slavery is very much connected with revolution in the former. Voodoo, vodou, or vodun are terms that derive from Dahomean words for "good" and "gods" (as is the term loas ). The Bight of Benin, a leading source of captives for Haiti and other French-claimed territories, exported such groups as the Fon (contemporary Benin) and Ewe (concentrated in present-day Togo and southeastern Ghana). There are many exceptional features of Fon-Ewe cultures, but the numerous and unique gods of the Fon-Ewe further distinguish the region, and include Mawu-Lisa (high god), Aziri (a riverain goddess), Gu (god of iron, warfare), Papa Legba (god of the crossroads, keeper of the gate, a trickster), and Damballah or Li Grand Zombi (serpent god of the sky). Mawu-Lisa, for example, is a composite of female and male characteristics, representing the Fon-Ewe ideal. These beliefs would become central to practices in such places as Haiti, Brazil, and Louisiana.

Vodou was practiced by François Makandal, probably the most famous of the Maroon leaders of Saint Domingue (Haiti). His background is curious, as he was supposedly raised a Muslim in West Africa and was literate in Arabic. Captured at the age of twelve, he was a full-blown Vodou priest by the time he appeared in Saint Domingue. An eloquent man with extensive knowledge of both the medicinal and injurious properties of plants and herbs, he attracted a following of undetermined size and developed a conspiracy to destroy slavery on the island. Carelessness led to his arrest in early 1758 before the revolt could begin, and after a brief but sensational escape, he was recaptured and burned at the stake. Makandal's career, however, set the stage for events forty years later, when the forces of marronage combined with those on the plantation to effect sweeping change. One of the leaders of the 1791 conspiracy was Boukman Dutty, a Vodou priest. Women played important roles as well, and their ranks included Cécile Fatiman, a Vodou high priestess, or mambo. In the dense forest of Bois-Caïman, she and Boukman officiated at a solemn Vodou ceremony for the conspirators that signaled the start of the Haitian Revolution.

Two traditions would develop within vodou. The Rada tradition refers to practices from certain parts of what is now Benin and is called the "cool" side of vodou, as it is concerned with producing harmony and peace. In contrast there is the Petro-Lemba tradition, the "hot" side of vodou, which focuses on healing and the destruction of evil. Petro-Lemba is heavily influenced by rites and beliefs from West Central Africa, specifically what was northern Kongo.

African religion also provided the organizing principles for slave revolts in the Anglophone Caribbean. In Antigua, for example, a 1736 conspiracy engulfing the whole of the island was led by Court (or Tackey), an Akan speaker from the Gold Coast (contemporary Ghana and eastern Ivory Coast). Women were prominent among the Akan, who believed that ancestresses came from the sky or earth to found the first Akan towns in the forests. Matrilineal for the most part, Akan clans each claimed descent from a common mother. Each clan had a male and a female head, and women played critical roles as advisors and heads of the matriclans. The Akan espoused belief in the earth mother Asase Yaa, who together with the high god Onyame (or Onyankopon) created the world. In keeping with most African theologies, the Akan high gods were remote, but the next order of deity, the abosom (who numbered in the hundreds), were accessible. Akan speakers were either a part of the expansionist Asante empire (established around 1680 and ruled by the Asantehene, or king) or they lived in its shadow. The Asante empire was one of the most militarily powerful and structurally complex states in all of Africa, and its political union was symbolized by the Sika Dwa, the Golden Stool.

Such background helps to explain the activities of Court and his accomplice Tomboy, a Creole. For example, they were assisted in their conspiracy by Obbah (Aba) and Queen, both Akan women who provided critical leadership in facilitating the "Damnation Oath," a ceremony derived from Akan traditions in which the insurrectionists committed themselves by drinking rooster blood, cemetery dirt, and rum, among other elements. Court had been crowned by two thousand of the enslaved as the "king of the Coromantees" (a reference to the Akan), the basis of which was the Akan ikem ceremony, a tradition preparing participants for war. Queen, in turn, may have been Court's principal advisor, playing the same role as the queen-mother, or ohemaa, in Akan society. Although the conspiracy was exposed before it could be executed, planters were astonished that not only the enslaved but many free blacks and "mulattoes" were also implicated. Some eighty-eight enslaved males were executed and forty-nine expelled from the island.

Of course, religion was important in the lives of the enslaved beyond serving as a basis for insurrection. By religion the enslaved throughout the Americas understood life, death, birth, old age, disease, health, misfortune, and serendipity. This was certainly true of the Yoruba-based religions of the New World, transported from what is now southwestern Nigeria through the Bight of Benin by those whose lives tended to be more centered on their respective towns and therefore urban. The Yoruba orishas, or deities, include Olodumare (high god), Oshun (goddess of fresh water and sensuality), Ogun (warrior god of iron), Eshu-Elegba (or Ellegua, trickster god of the crossroads), Shango (god of thunder and lightning), and Yemanja (mother of all orishas and goddess of the oceans). The best known of the Yoruba-based religious communities were and are in Brazil and Cuba, though they can be found elsewhere in the Americas. Enslaved Africans entering Brazil borrowed ideas from one another while retaining the concept of distinct ethno-linguistic groupings or communities, or nações ("nations"). As the black population became predominantly crioulo (Brazilian-born) and stratified along lines of color gradation during the nineteenth century (with prêtos, or "blacks," and pardos, or intermediate shades, as the basic divisions), persons born in Bahia and elsewhere began to choose a nação. This was significant, as those who made such choices were also choosing an African identity and an African religion. The various nações, such as the Nagôs (Yoruba) and Jêjes (Aja-Ewe-Fon), maintained distinctive religious traditions, which can collectively be referred to as Candomblé. The various African traditions, associated with specific nações, were centered upon sacred spaces known as terreiros, where rituals were held. Originating in private houses, the terreiros expanded to facilitate the pursuit of Candomblé as a way of life with minimal outside interference. As such, the terreiros became epicenters of not only African religion but also African culture. Women were the principal leaders of Candomblé, and perhaps the most famous of the terreiros in Bahia, Ilê Iyá Nassô or Engenho Velho, was founded around 1830 by women from the Yoruba town of Ketu.

All of these various Candomblé houses were associated with irmandades, brotherhoods and sisterhoods that were mutual aid societies, providing burial benefits, unemployment assistance (for those who were free), and in some instances passage back to Africa. Examples include the Bôa Morte ("Good Death") sisterhood and the Senhor dos Martírios ("Lord of the Martyrs") brotherhood of the Nagôs, and the Bom Jesus das Necessidades e Redenção dos Homens Prêtos ("Good Jesus of the Needs and Redemption of Black Men") of the Jêjes. The affiliation of the brotherhoods/sisterhoods with specific terreiros underscores an important feature of Candomblé: its connection to the Catholic Church (more on this below). Other African-centered religions include West Central African macumba near Rio de Janeiro, and elsewhere the practice of umbanda. Together with Candomblé, these religions feature the common elements of African spiritual entities, sacrifice, drumming and singing, and spirit possession.

The Brazilian experience parallels that of Cuba, where research is revealing the importance of such clandestine religious organizations as the Abakuá, a society originating in the Cross River area of southeastern Nigeria and Cameroon. Cuba is also a center of Yoruba or Lucumí influence, apparent in the practice of Santería. Divisions among the African-born and their descendants, which like Brazil eventually became a matter of choice, were equally preserved in Cuba's system of naciones, supported as they were by the respective cabildos, the functional equivalents of the Brazilian irmandades. Yoruba-based religion can also be found in Trinidad in the religion of Shango, in which the Yoruba gods Shango, Yemanja, Eshu, and Ogun are worshiped along with deities of Trinidadian origin.

Christianity Africanized

Mention of Candomblé and Santería provides a segue to the second and third forms of religious activity mentioned at the article's beginning. Practitioners of these African-based religions often functioned as members of the Catholic Church as well. There is debate as to what this actually meant: Some scholars maintain that Catholicism was simply a convenient mechanism by which African religions could be concealed, whereas others argue that practitioners of Candomblé and Catholicism approached the two religions as interrelated and mutually reinforcing. One reason for the ability of worshipers to either merge or conceal their beliefs can be found in the multiplicity of both the orishas of Candomblé, such as Eshu, Yemanja, Oshun, and Shango, and the equally numerous saints and principal figures of Catholicism. Furthermore, the areas for which the Catholic saints were responsible and could be petitioned were analogous to those of the orishas. Finally, consideration of the long historicity of Yoruba-based religions in Cuba and Brazil, or indeed African religions in Suriname, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, goes against the common view that African religions decreased in strength with the passing of time. If anything, these religions have grown stronger since slavery ended.

Such correspondences underscore the observation that African religions and Christianity were not necessarily incompatible or significantly divergent. All posited a supreme deity, the existence of a spirit world, the possibility of communication with that world, the belief that witchcraft caused disease and disaster, that some kind of talisman (whether a Muslim amulet or a Christian cross) was necessary and efficacious in combating evil, and so on. But there were also differences, such as the concept of heaven and a summing up of all human history, or the idea that one religion was meant for all of humankind, concepts introduced by Christianity (and Islam).

Consideration of West Central Africa, source of more than one-third of all captives exported via the Atlantic and therefore well represented throughout the Americas, from Brazil to New Amsterdam (New York), raises the point that some Africans (in addition to those in Ethiopia, Nubia, Egypt, and North Africa) had converted to Christianity before their sojourn in the Americas. Communities throughout West Central Africa had long believed in a supreme deity, often referred to as Nzambi a Mpungu, and related spiritual entities. They also embraced the conviction that spirits of the dead who had led good lives resided in mpemba, a subterranean realm separated from the living by a large body of water, or kalunga. Since the deceased changed color within ten months of their demise, becoming white, they viewed Europeans initially as departed spirits, having crossed the kalunga of the Atlantic. Some also came to see Europeans as witches, a judgment equally applied to African rulers complicit in the slave trade.

But by the fifteenth century, a tradition of Christianity had also been established in West Central Africa, the result of Portuguese commercial activities. The social history of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Kongo, for example, arguably revolved around the exchange between Christianity and Kongolese religion, giving rise to an Africanized Christianity best symbolized by the life of Dona Béatrice Kimpa Vita (16821706), leader of a political movement of reconstruction. A prophet-priest, or kitomi, her claim to be the incarnation of St. Anthony, combined with her teachings that Jesus, Mary, and the prophets were all Kongolese, are examples of the way Christianity was reconfigured to accommodate West Central African values. She would be burned at the stake for heresy.

The relative percentage of and degree to which those from Kongo and other parts of West Central Africa were Christians is a matter of scholarly contention. What can be safely stated is that some number were practicing Catholics, others knew of Catholicism but were not adherents, and yet others were unaffected by Christianity. The example of Dona Béatrice demonstrates, however, that those who adopted Christianity were deeply informed by antecedent African beliefs. The question becomes, was this yet Christianity, or had it been subsumed by a preceding conceptual framework?

Although at least some in West Central Africa were Christian, it does not follow that the Portuguese, Spanish, or French were heavily invested in the conversion and catechizing of slaves early in the history of slavery in the Americas. Emphasis on the spiritual welfare of the enslaved ebbed and flowed over the centuries, and differences could be noted between urban and rural settings. Evidence from Inquisition records reveals concern over the religious practices of the enslaved in the sixteenth century, as much of it was condemned as brujería (witchcraft). Catholicism became more routinized with the passing of centuries and a growing Creole or American-born population of African descent. However, greater familiarity with Catholicism did not necessarily translate into a rejection of African religion, as is evident in the cases of Brazil, Cuba, and elsewhere throughout Latin America.

Likewise, Christianity, predominantly in the form of Protestantism, was slow to make headway among the enslaved in colonial North America. Indeed, there is evidence that slaveholders, who for the most part could hardly be described as faithful churchgoers themselves, were wary of Christianizing their slaves, fearing that conversion would legitimate demands for manumission. By the 1830s, however, southern slaveholders began a systematic campaign to convert the enslaved to a complacent, docile version of Christianity reinforcing slavery, reacting to the use of Christianity as an abolitionist weapon. Blacks who responded to Christianity's appeal preferred its message of liberation, altering the worship style to allow for freedom of movement and the full expression of the Holy Ghost, within which dance and ceremony were in every way consistent with African notions of spirit possession. The ring shout, featuring worshipers moving counterclockwise in an ever-quickening circle, was derivative of West Central African and West African practice and was widespread in North America. In these and other ways, Christianity itself was first converted, facilitating the subsequent conversion of the African to its main tenets. Even so, it has yet to be demonstrated that most blacks in the American South were Christians by 1865. Whereas some may not have subscribed to any religion, others followed traditions derived from Africa, including those designed to improve health and material conditions by manipulating the spiritual world, practices collectively known as hoodoo.

The influence of African religions in the English-speaking Caribbean, where Protestantism also prevailed, was even more palpable. There, Christianity was often infused with substantial African content and connected with Obeah, the use of supernatural powers to inflict harm, and Myalism, the employment of spiritual resources and herbs to counteract witchcraft and other evil. The religions of convince and kumina also developed, the former involving respect for the Christian deity, but also an active veneration of the spirits of African and Maroon ancestors by practitioners known as Bongo men. Kumina, otherwise known as pukumina or pocomania, also venerated ancestors, who rank after sky gods and earth deities. Sacrifice, drumming, and spirit possession were part of these practices.

Beliefs were also shaped by ethno-linguistic groups like the Igbo from the Bight of Biafra (southeastern Nigeria), who made up large percentages of those brought to such places as Jamaica and Virginia. Among the Igbo, Ala (or Ana) the earth mother was functionally the most important deity, although the high creator god was Chineke, or Chukwu, who like the Fon-Ewe's Mawu-Lisa was a blend of male and female components (chi and eke ), and from whom sprang powerful spiritual forces known as the alusi or agbara, as well as the personal guardian spirit, or chi, of each individual. The ancestral dead, the ndichie, added to the realm of the disembodied. Likewise, groups from Sierra Leone brought extraordinary ability to organize clandestinely, as they had maintained such "secret societies" as the female Sande or Bundu and the male Poro. Secrecy was critical to slave religion, Christian or not, as it tended to be practiced stealthily, away from slaveholder gaze.


The various religions practiced by enslaved peoples in the Americas were deeply influenced by beliefs and practices initially developed in Africa. Depending upon the precise locale in the Americas, such beliefs would have been continually reinforced throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the steady arrival of new African captives. All aspects of life, from such everyday concerns as health and family and subsistence, to spectacular displays of resistance in the form of revolt, were significantly informed by religious considerations. In many ways insistence upon adhering to beliefs and perspectives that were fundamentally African in character and derivation was itself an act of defiance repeatedly undertaken throughout the history of slavery in the Americas.

See also Abakuá; Candomblé; Catholicism in the Americas; Muslims in the Americas; Obeah; Orisha; Religion; Santería; Voodoo; Yoruba Religion and Culture in the Americas


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