How many historical African Heroes can you name? Heroines? Do you ever wonder why even eyewitness accounts of African history are usually presented with a distinct European bias? Or why we we aren’t taught about more African role models from history? It surely isn’t a lack of candidates. It is bias. The scars of hearsay defile history. Our confidence in writing, even with obvious layers of translation or the opaque lens of cultural interpretation, is a difficult bias to overcome. Despite context being easily lost in the passage of time or even the subtle perspectives and agendas of authors, we are inclined to trust the written word.
Such deference gives one person’s bias the power to disregard a collective and contextual consensus that more appropriately defines an event – a tragedy of ignorance that may consume the most poignant lessons of our forefathers. Oral traditions, for example, the primary source of indigenous history in Africa, are normally discounted in favor of inherently biased European narratives. This often results in uninformed opinions that would be better understood through the kaleidoscope of race, religion, politics, and tradition that is Africa. Concurrently, African influence on Europe and America is discounted and even ignored, while exaggerations of Europe’s effect on Africa abound.
Christianity and the African slave diaspora
Though most people associate it with Europe, Christianity was well established in Africa prior to its European debut. By the end of the first century A.D., Africa’s close proximity to Palestine meant that Egypt’s nobles and wealthy traders patronized Christian literature, theatre, and missionary activities, helping develop a well- educated Christian society in Africa long before Europe. Even at its inception, though, Christianity’s manifestations were not uniform.
Following the death of Christ, his disciples quickly splintered into factions, often with irreconcilable perspectives. Unlike Islam (which had the Quran as a guide), Christianity had no official sacred texts documenting its teachings. As a result, Jesus’ life was interpreted a myriad of ways and Christians separated by great distances were likely to have very different ideas of what their religion asked or stood for and how to fulfill its ideals.
One early group of disciples, the Gnostics, developed a stronghold in Egypt and collected various writings and studied the works of numerous witnesses and scholars on the life and messages of Jesus. The Gnostics are today considered by many to be the first Christian scholars. Because of their high levels of education and their structured regimen, the Gnostics were well respected and their views on God and Christianity had a certainty and consistency that built credibility over vast areas.
Despite their influence on the early history of Christianity, however, the Gnostics lost prominence when another major faction, based in Rome and influenced by the Apostle Paul, had its creed and practices officially adopted by the Roman Empire, then an expanding power with the foresight to recognize the motivational and political value of religion. The Empire’s far-flung conquests needed a sacred text to unify their kingdom. With the guidance of their official priests, the Romans brought together a specific collection of writings by early Christians and proclaimed them to be inspired by God. More than three hundred years after the death of Christ, the Romans declared these writings the true testament of the life and teachings of Jesus and simultaneously denounced all others as heresy.
The Roman collection, known today as the New Testament, remains a central part of the Bible. Meanwhile, the Gnostic faction of Christianity, slandered as heretics and generally uninterested in waging wars of either religious or military domination, quickly fell out of favor. So while Christianity became both a reason and a tool for Europe to quarrel, the influence of the Gnostics, whom some consider the original Christians, waned into relative obscurity.
Despite this virtual exile, Gnostic-influenced Christianity continued to flourish relatively unchallenged throughout North Africa until the seventh century. But then came Islam.
With its message of equality among races, belief in one God, and acceptance of Jesus as a prophet, Islam quickly spread throughout North Africa. Many Christians converted, and the two religions fought for supremacy, casting their shadows far and wide over Africa on the back of trade. Arab dhows sailed further down the East African coast and European ships ventured beyond known West African ports, searching for viable routes to Asia. Centers of trade and culture sprang up further south along the coasts as opportunists went deeper into the interior, seeking gold, ivory and anything else of value.
Europeans established direct contact and began trading with tribes along the West Coast of Africa, employing Roman Catholic priests to bring the Church’s word to the masses. Their strategy was to convert the rulers of the many kingdoms in West Africa and use that power and influence to convert the citizenry. In this manner, the European colonists could wield influence over the commercial and social activities of kingdoms through the Church.
Portugal’s strategy of religious-based subjugation achieved its greatest success in the central West African Kingdom of Kongo, where they were forced to turn by French and English supremacy in other parts of Africa. Before long, Portuguese contacts were established along the great river Congo in the area of modern-day countries such as Angola, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. From Kongo’s first contact with the Portuguese in 1483 to the establishment of permanent Portuguese missionaries in 1491 and the Catholic baptism of King Nzinga ANkuwu, who sent his son to receive a Catholic education in Portugal, religion was the tool of the colonialists. Upon his return and ascendancy to the throne, the young ruler adopted a Portuguese Christian name, Alfonso, and the Christian alliance with Kongo’s rulers was sealed for decades to come.
King Alfonso developed ever closer trading and cultural relationships with Portugal, permitting missionaries to open schools across the Kingdom. These missionaries were charged with bringing the word of their God to the population and often chastised the Bakongo for practicing indigenous religions, using shame, manipulation, deceit, bribery and any other means available to advocate their position. They also had a distinctly commercial purpose.
Although the relationship between Portugal and Kongo held the outward appearance of a sovereign-to-sovereign link, the introduction of the European slave trade in the seventeenth century removed any illusions of equality. Initially, the Portuguese did not personally raid the Christian Kongo for slaves, instead encouraging the Bakongo to make forays into neighboring non-Christian populations to find captives that could be sold to the Portuguese who could, in turn, sell them on the international market. This strategy worked well and created efficiencies for the Portuguese. A trickle of slaves, captured in wars of scant political purpose, soon became a steady river. The very heart of Kongo was being exorcised in a physical operation that paralleled the spiritual efforts of thousands of missionaries on the ground. This insatiable appetite for slaves weakened the Kingdom of Kongo to the point of collapse.
Although it had been the wealthiest and most powerful statein the Atlantic region of Central Africa for hundreds of years, Kongo finally collapsed under internal and external pressures. Antonio I, the last great king of the unified Kongo, was killed by Portuguese troops at the battle of Mbwila in 1665. By the turn of the eighteenth century, the capital city of the unified Kongo, Mbanza Kongo (also known as São Salvador), had been abandoned and the Kingdom broke into small territories ruled by warlords and members of the former Kongolese nobility. The glory and might of the Kongo became a memory.
And while it was technically still a unified monarchy, Kongo’s power andarmed forces localized into villages and small provinces with little or no control by any king. Several kings and queens aspired to rule a unified kingdom, and many small and medium-scale wars were fought in the struggle for power and supremacy. Wars meant captives and captives meant slaves; slaves meant money to trade for more arms.
Converted to a religion in whose name death and slavery were being condoned, the Kongolese saw more and more of their friends and family taken away never to return. While some Church leaders argued that the Bible supported slavery, even those who did not openly support the trade were controlled by their colonial overlords and did nothing to articulate a conscience against it.Indeed, many churches directly profited from the trade, making their incentive to end the practice minimal.
During those days, a great number of the slaves brought to America came from the Kongo. Their perspectives on God, resulting from their experiences, oral history, and beliefs in their kingdom as a collective entity, directed their attitudes in the New World and among their fellow slaves. These first African-Americans necessarily interpreted the Bible very differently from their European captors, and Christianity in the New World struggled to reconcile the differences. Still, both slave and master had a common God and a similar set of religious guidelines.
It is against this background, and the ensuing mix of politics, greed, coincidence, misfortune, and human misery that the story of Kimpa Vita and her sacrifices changed the face of African religion while simultaneously helping shape the destiny of North American culture, religion, and a new nation’s collective persona. It is a story with a specific time but with a timeless context.
At the time, the Church downplayed her achievements and ignored her pleas for inclusion, yet Kimpa Vita’s message invigorated a kingdom, even as it terrified the secular and non-secular power structure. People began to believe that God could reach Africans without speaking through the Church or a monarch.Great religious texts and ideals will always be construed,
interpreted, misconstrued and misinterpreted to the benefit of a particular cause. There will always be people who use religion as a tool to help themselves and others and greed and profit at the expense of others remains a constant temptation for anyone offered such opportunity. The ubiquitous need to belong has so often catalyzed its unfortunate corollary: the need to exclude. In the midst of this confusion, struggling for authority, are those who purport to speak directly for God.