Beatrice of the Kongo 1686–1706
Beatrice of the Kongo
The relative paucity of clergy in African religions, imputable to their decentralized and non-proselytizing modes of worship, may have obscured women's leadership in the spiritual realm. When missionaries brought Christianity to Africa, women sometimes resolved to combine selected aspects of the imported religion with the previous system of beliefs—in which they occupied key positions as founding ancestors, oracles, mediums, rainmakers, healers, midwives, and initiation moderators—and emerged as larger-than-life prophets of a new syncretic faith propagated through an independent church.
Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita was such a charismatic woman who, at the turn of the eighteenth century, spearheaded a messianic movement in the name of Saint Anthony and on behalf of Kongolese peasants of both sexes. She was born into aristocracy in 1686, two centuries after the conversion of the king of the Kongo, João I, to Catholicism under Portuguese influence (1491), and twenty years after the defeat of Mbwila (or Ambuila, 1665) in which King Antonio I was killed by the Portuguese army. Kongolese political factions soon began vying for succession in a series of civil wars that left the capital city, San Salvador, depopulated, and the region open to European slave traders. This religious and political context informed Beatrice's push for the restoration of a unified Kongo and for the Africanization of Christianity.
Beatrice began her religious career as a nganga marinda, a priestess specializing in the social dimension of illness. In 1704 Saint Anthony possessed her and revealed her new mission: He instructed her to save Kongo from its current chaos. Beatrice, who claimed direct communication with the divine, established her headquarters in San Salvador where she attracted flocks of followers with her sermons and miracles. Bernardo da Gallo, one of the two Italian Capuchins whose diaries record Beatrice's epic, thus acknowledged her popularity when he wrote: "… The false saint became the restorer, ruler and lord of the Congo, and was acclaimed, adored and esteemed as such by everyone" (Thornton 1983, p 109, note 60).
Much of her power resided in the hybrid nature of her teachings and mission. She proposed a rich vision of a new kingdom of Kongo where Christianity would be the instrument of liberation from foreign yoke and internecine strife. Her symbolic death, dream, and communication with a "lesser spirit" through possession were in line with African religious experiences. Her sense of entitlement in nominating the king among rival lineages similarly derived from a local notion of high priesthood. She also insisted on relocating the founding episodes and major actors of Christianity into sacred Kongolese sites: Jesus was born in San Salvador and Mary in Nsundi. Moreover, Beatrice readily reenacted specific moments of Christianity, such as Christ's death, the foundation of a church, the establishment of a dogma, and she dispatched emissaries, the "little Anthonies," to preach her Gospel throughout the land. Yet she rejected both the "fetishes," including the cross (that had indeed been appropriated by ngangas under the Kongoized name kuluzu) and the main Christian sacraments (namely baptism, confession, and even marriage), and often revised official prayers.
Beatrice's fate was sealed when she unsuccessfully approached King Pedro IV for national reconciliation and nominated to the throne Pedro Constantinho da Silva, who provided the ever-growing Antonine movement with an army. Concerned over the effect of Antonianism on Catholicism and the colonial project, Capuchin missionaries colluded with politicians to arrest Beatrice and her newborn child, whose existence challenged her claim to sainthood. While the infant was whisked away by the priests, the "false Saint Anthony" was burnt at the stake as a heretic and a witch on July 1, 1706, and her remains were reburnt the next day.
In spite of Pedro's two campaigns in 1709 and 1715, the Antonian movement survived probably until the 1720s in rural strongholds. Many of the prisoners taken during the Kongolese civil wars were deported as slaves to South Carolina and Saint-Domingue (later Haiti). Kongolese veterans, Catholic and Antonian alike, may then have contributed to the Stono rebellion (1739) and to the Haitian revolution (1791).
Beatrice's project of Africanizing Christianity is reminiscent of the Donatist movement in the third century in North Africa. It was also a blueprint for Kimbanguism in the 1920s Belgian Congo. Often compared to Joan of Arc, Beatrice of the Kongo is one of the many African women, such as Nehanda, Nongqause, Mai Chaza, and Alice Lenshina Mulenga, who best exemplify the spiritual dimension of anticolonial resistance.
Balandier, Georges. 1968. Daily Life in the Kingdom of the Kongo from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, trans. Helen Weaver. New York: Pantheon.
Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. 1997. African Women: A Modern History, trans. Beth Gillian Raps. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Thornton, John K. 1998. The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684–1706. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.