Sunday, April 24, 2016

Kongo and the Haitian Revolution

African Roots

The Haitian Revolution was a complex slave led movement that resulted in the abolishment of slavery on the French colonial island of Saint Domingue as well as independence for the mostly black population, completely turning Atlantic society on its head. The question of how a slave army outmaneuvered the French empire has fascinated many scholars. 

Historians Carolyn Fick and John Thornton have argued that one should take a less euro-centric view point when trying to understand the Haitian Revolution. They have made the case that the Haitian revolution had African roots, particularly Kongolese roots, and by studying the ideology of the kingdom of Kongo during the 18th century, it is possible to learn more about the mass movement that took place in Haiti. At the time of the Haitian revolution, nearly two thirds of all slaves on the island of Saint Domingue were born in Africa. It was in Africa where they gained their socialization, and in many ways, this African heritage influenced the Haitian Revolution. Kongo played a key role in the revolution because prior to the revolution in Haiti there was a large-scale civil war in Kongo. Thousands of these Kongolese war captive were traded, enslaved, and brought to Haiti. In fact, slaves purchased from the region surrounding the Kingdom of Kongo made up the majority of slaves brought to Haiti for two decades before the revolution.

Voodoo and Kings

Enslaved Africans brought cultural traditions with them across the middle passage and often times created updated meanings for these practices in their new Atlantic lives. On the island of Saint Domingue, religion and politics, both influenced by West African and Kongolese ideology, played a large part in the revolution. 

Christianity was brought to the Kingdom of Kongo in 1491 when king Nzinga a Nkuwu and his nobles adopted the religion. Nzinga’s son King Afonso I created a syncretic version of the Roman Catholic Church during his rule combining preexisting local beliefs with Catholic theology. Christianity was spread throughout the region, thus by the 18th century most of the Kongolese slaves who were brought to Haiti were exposed to Christianity, if they were not Christian themselves. Voodoo was a religion practiced by many slaves in Saint Domingue. Voodoo in Haiti, much like Christianity in Africa, was a blend of African Gods paired with Christian saints. It makes sense that slaves from Kongo, would influence and participate in voodoo ceremonies, which allowed them to maintain their old Cosmology and understanding of the world along with aspects of Christianity that were already familiar. One can look to the voodoo ceremony that took place in Bois- Caiman to understand the importance of voodoo to the revolution. Boukman Dutty an African Voodoo priest led a meeting that set in motion the slave uprisings in the north. While not Kongolese himself, Boukman was referrerd to by the Kongolese nickname Zamba, (most likely the term Kikongo word for nzamba or elephant in reference to his large structure) and many of his followers were indeed Kongolese. From this voodoo meeting, which was both both spiritual and strategic in nature, slaves attacked northern sugar plantations- burning fields, destroying machinery, and killing whites.

                                                 Artist: Ulrick Jean-Pierre Cayman Wood Ceremony

Kongolese political ideology also influenced the alliances slaves chose to make in the Haitian revolution. In his article “I Am the Subject of the King of Congo” African Political Ideology and the Haitian Revolution John Thornton describes both the early involvement of the Kongolese in the revolution and Kongolese political ideology through a quote from Macaya, a Konogolese leader at the start of the revolution. In response to commissioner Etienne Polverel’s request to return to the French Republic, Macaya said, “I am the subject of three kings: of the King of Kongo, master of all blacks; of the King of France who represents my father; of the King of Spain who represents my mother.” This quote is telling of the 18th century Kongolese political climate which was heavily influenced by the civil war. Thornton discusses that during the civil war, which many of the enslaved Konoglese in Haiti fought in, there were two questions to be asked- who was the king and what were his powers. These questions and thoughts on the ideological role of the king were brought to Haiti as well. 

Many Haitian slaves viewed the monarchy, in both Spanish and French forms, as a means to abolish slavery and limit the power of the Republic which was perpetuating the slave-plantation system. Even within their own slave communities many Haitian slaves who had come from Africa elected their own kings and queens. For Kongolese, whom amongst themselves debated over the role of the kings, kingship was not tyrannical as the French viewed it but a means of order and centralization. From this we can gain another level of understanding about the slaves’, particularly the African born slaves’, resistance to work alongside the Republic. Creole slaves who had been born in Haiti did not necessarily share the same political ideologies as Kongolese born slaves, but they needed to work with them in order to fight against the French, as many of the Kongolese slaves who had been civil war captives had desirable military experience. The blending of the Creole slaves’ new world mentalities along with African slaves political ideologies created a complex group that had different goals and methods of achieving those goals. Despite their differences their unification ultimately led to the abolishment of slavery and to independence from colonial rule. We can view this revolution as both an extension of African beliefs and ideologies as well as a response to New World realities.

Lasting Legacy

I've described some of the affects the Kingdom of Kongo had on the Haitian Revolution, but to look at the affects the Haitian Revolution had on the Kingdom of Kongo I went to the Trans Atlantic Slave Database. The Haitian Revolution brought the end of slavery in the territory in the region. I wanted to see the decline in slaves brought from the Kingdom of Kongo to Haiti.

From this graph we can see the large amount of Kongolese slaves coming to Haiti in the 18th century and then the harsh drop off during the revolution. While Kongolese slaves were no longer brought to Haiti after the revolution, a Kongolese legacy is still maintained in Haiti today through religious practices, language, and historic figures like Macaya and Boukman who is still referred to as his Kongolese nickname, Zamba. As many Haitian slaves and gens de couleur looked to France to truly extend the Rights of Man to cover all men, the revolution itself, that led to the the first independent black nation in colonial America, had very deep African roots and was in part led by Kongolese slaves who were less concerned with the French ideals of liberté et égalité and more so concerned with just kings who ruled with authority and ruled for the people. 

Apter, Andrew. 2002. “On African Origins: Creolization and Connaissance in Haitian Vodou”. American Ethnologist 29 (2). [Wiley, American Anthropological Association]: 233–60. http://www.jstor.org.libdata.lib.ua.edu/stable/3095167.

Carolyn E. Fick. "The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. 1990. 

Thornton, John K.. 1993. “"I Am the Subject of the King of Congo": African Political Ideology and the Haitian Revolution”. Journal of World History 4 (2). University of Hawai'i Press: 181–214. http://www.jstor.org.libdata.lib.ua.edu/stable/20078560.

Thornton, John K.. 1988. “On the Trail of Voodoo: African Christianity in Africa and the Americas”. The Americas 44 (3). Cambridge University Press: 261–78. doi:10.2307/1006906.

 "Voyages Database." Voyages Database. http://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Something Old, Something New- Spirituality in Kongo

Cosmology of Kongo 

From its inception, Christianity in Kongo was formed on Kongolese theology, a theology that dates much further back than the Portuguese arrival to the region in the late 15th century. While not much is known about the Kingdom of Kongo before this date, through the syncretic nature of Kongolese Christianity, scholars have concluded that Kongolese cosmology stressed the importance of ancestors and a high god, often referred to as Nzambi a Mpungu. It was Nzambi a Mpungu who existed outside of the living world and created it, and bakulu, or ancestors, who had once been living in the world but now inhabited this other dimension. Kongolese theology also included powerful guardians called simbi who protected certain areas such as rivers, springs, and mountains. These guardians were considered to be the souls of long departed inhabitants or sometimes the original inhabitants. There were also beings that could inhabit nksi or a type of charm. This belief in the power of a nksi would travel across the Atlantic to the Americas through the slave trade. In Kongolese cosmology ancestors, nkisi, or simbi were not inherently good or evil. The nature of supernatural forces depended on the intentions of the person calling them into use.

Dikenga dia Kongo, a Kongolese Cross that symbolizes the cyclical nature of the natural world and the spiritual journey
Crossroads and Cosmologies: Diasporas and Ethnogenesis in the New World

Kongolese Christianity

When Roman Catholicism arrived in the Kingdom of Kongo with Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão in 1483, Christianity was brought into traditional Kongolese Cosmology. Shortly after the Portuguese 1483 arrival there was an exchange in Portuguese-Kongo hostages, and the ruling Kongo king Nzinga a Nkuwu granted missionaries to come into the Kingdom. The missionaries arrived in 1491, first converting the provincial ruler of the coastal province of Soyo, and then heading inward. Nzinga soon willingly converted to Christianity and was baptized that year. After his baptism he took the name João I in tribute to the Portuguese king João II. Nzinga advised his court, other noble officials, and peasants to follow suit with this conversion. Nzinga’s son Afonso Mvemba a Nzinga was stationed at the provincial post of Nsundi. Many missionaries accompanied him there, and unlike his father, who reverted to his previous beliefs before his death, Afonso became deeply embedded with the faith.

After Nzinga’s death in 1508, Afonso and his half brother Mpanzu a Kitma challenged each other for the throne. Afonso was able to overcome his brother in battle and gave credit to the appearance of Saint James the Great. Afonso went to great lengths to establish a Catholic church in Kongo. This process is described in his letters to Portugal. Afonso described his position and laws he put in place against the worship of idols. Afonso made the church legitimate and sustainable by training the kingdom’s schools in religious instructions and providing the church funding through royal assets and taxation. Afonso created a syncretic version of Christianity that would appeal to the people of Kongo. He worked with several Portuguese priests, particularly Rui d’Aguiar who stated that Afonso knew more of the Church’s tenants than he did. Afonso also collaborated with Kongolese who were educated in Europe, including his son Henrique who was named a bishop by the Roman Catholic church in 1518.

Years later, Afonso’s grandson, King Diogo I Nkumbi a Mpudi, created a Konoglese lay organization to account for the lack of foreign ordained clergy in Kongo. Diogo I helped spread the church to rural areas of the kingdom and also arranged missionary activity in the kingdom’s northern territory. Along with the Kongolese lay organization, early missionaries of the Jesuit Order also worked in the kingdom during Diogo’s reign.  Diogo I became increasingly disillusioned with the Jesuit presence as they demanded more and more acknowledgement and often proceeded directly in matters that defied the king’s interest. The church during Diogo’s rule grew strong and the Portuguese began to make attempts to gain control of it. The Portuguese sought to have the Pope place the Kongo church under the bishop of Sao Tomé. In 1540, the bishop of Sao Tomé attempted to exercise his control, but Diogo I refused to renounce his personal confessor, Manuel Afonso, as the bishop requested. The Portuguese made another attempt to secure power of the church in the late 16th century, and then finally attempted to destroy the church by moving the bishop to Luanda in the rival Portuguese colony of Angola and ceased to ordain any new clergy in Kongo.

In light of Portugal’s abandonment of the Kongolese church, like Diogo I before them, Kongolese kings maintained a solid laity. The limited ordained clergy would perform sacraments and the lay organization maintained education. These lay members of the church were called mestre and were salaried workers typically pulled from the nobility and paid by the state who taught literacy and religious education. The Jesuits would eventually return in the early 17th century and would be followed by Italian Capuchins who were sent as a compromise when the Konoglese church requested to the pope that they be split from the Portuguese church for good. The Kongolese Christianity that began in 1491 under king Nzinga lasted in the kingdom for over 200 years.

An African Religion- Syncretism 

As opposed to other areas of the Atlantic world where European Christianity was brought to native populations through oppression and violence, Christianity came to the Kingdom of Kongo relatively peacefully. This is because the Kongo Christianity was an expansion of traditional Kongolese theology. It was viewed as a constructive force rather than a destructive one, as many parts of Kongolese cosmology were accepted and used in this form of Christianity. The Christian doctrine was translated into Kikongo, the local language, as Portuguese missionaries wrote Kikongo dictionaries and translated religious texts with the help of the local literate class of priests formed under the rule of Afonso I. The church established under Afonso was not a reproduction of the Portuguese church but an embrace of Kongo ideology. Many Kongo believed in ancestors who lived in another world, thus the Holy Trinity was described as “three people”. The word ukisi a noun from the same root as the word nkisi (which was meant to describe a sacred charm or idol) was used as the word for holy. Key religious terms were taken from Kikongo words such as the same name for previous priests- nganga and the word for God- Nzambu Mpungu. This care in the creation of the theology developed by Afonso and his advisors, both Kongolese nobles and Portuguese priests, created a Christianity that seemed more native than foreign. This syncretic version of Christianity can be observed in religious Kongo art.

Crucifix, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This carving from the 16th or 17th century, depicts a Kongo icon called the Four Moments of the Sun, which is circled around a roman cross (the cross itself an important motif in Kongo culture). The icon represents the four divisions of day, representing the journey of human life from birth the ancestral afterlife. While this icon is of Kongo cosmology, Christ is portrayed in a European manner representative of European models of the time.

Substance or Superficiality 

There is much scholarly debate over how authentic Kongolese conversion to Christianity was. Many have argued that the conversion was superficial and rejected by the majority of the population. They have cited Nzinga's return to his old faith after his initial conversion, as proof that it was not a genuine conversion, but one done for political gain. While it is true that Kongo’s Christian status helped cement political and economic ties between the Portuguese and the people of Kongo, it does not disprove the sincerity of the kingdom’s adoption of Christianity that lasted 200 years.  The end of the Kingdom of Kongo’s Christianity came in the 19th century when European priests arrived in Kongo during Portugal’s colonial occupation. It is here where they rejected the local form of Christianity. J.K. Thorton discusses that the disappearance of Christianity in Kongo in the nineteenth century was due the changing definition of Christianity among European clergy, including Rome. Thorthon cites the 200 plus years that the Catholic church acknowledged Kongo’s syncretic Christianity as Orthodox. In doing so Thorton speaks to the scholars of the 1960s and 70s like David Birmingham who viewed Kongo Christianity as a façade. It is clear to me that 200 years of religious practice is much more than a superficial, political ploy. Perhaps Nzinga converted to Christianity in 1491 under some other pretext, but the implications of this conversion were very real, not only in the Kongo but also in the new world as Kongolese Christianity played a role in both the Afro-Brazilian Quimbana religion as well as the formation of Voodoo in Haiti.

Birmingham, David. "Central Africa from Cameroun to the Zambezi." The Cambridge History of Africa 3 (1975): 519-20.

Crucifix. 16th-17th Century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Democratic Republic of the Congo; Angola; Republic of the Congo.Metmuseum. Web. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/acko/hd_acko.htm>.

Fennell, Christopher C., and Kevin M. Bartoy. "Crossroads and Cosmologies: Diasporas and Ethnogenesis in the New World." African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter 11, no. 4 (2008): 33.

Heywood, Linda M. Central Africans and cultural transformations in the American diaspora. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

MacGaffey, Wyatt. "Religion and society in central Africa: the BaKongo of lower Zaire." (1986).

Thornton, John. 1977. “Demography and History in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1550-1750”. The Journal of African History 18 (4). Cambridge University Press: 507–30. 

Thornton, John K. "Religious and ceremonial life in the Kongo and Mbundu areas, 1500-1700." 
Central Africans and cultural transformations in the American diaspora (2002): 71-90.

Thornton, John. 1984. “The Development of an African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1491-1750”. The Journal of African History 25 (2). Cambridge University Press: 147–67.