In seventeenth century Sub-Saharan Africa, magic, warfare, and the endless thirst for slaves drove political and personal reality. At the very heart of a vast jungle, where the canopy of trees hid even the most horrific crimes from the light of day, a once mighty kingdom was withering. Kongo, once among the most powerful empires in Africa, gasped under crippling greed and corruption, both political and religious. While its brave soldiers fought with the ideals of their king and church in their hearts, the goal of warfare increasingly became the capture of slaves. On the Continent where Christianity first spread, colonial priests perverted Jesus’s most basic messages. Fear gripped every mind and subversive thoughts ran rampant.
In the rainy season of 1684, as thunderous clouds delivered their burden, a girl was born that would give Africans equality before God. The daughter of a nobleman, Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, as she would come to be known, enjoyed a privileged childhood. As she absorbed the wisdom of her elders, so did she sympathize with their sorrows. Hungry for knowledge, Kimpa Vita excelled in learning. She was also recognized at an early age for extraordinary supernatural potential and invited into the secret society of Shamans, where she quickly won acclaim for her healing prowess. Her fame and influence grew and her counsel was increasingly infused with both politics and religion. With expanding influence, the frustration of helplessness and disenfranchisement increased.
After two failed marriages and, in the prime of her life, Kimpa Vita fell gravely ill. Her family watched helplessly as Kimpa Vita slipped into unconsciousness and presumed at the end of her life. Before the tears for her passing were dry, however, Kimpa Vita appeared, glowing and without sickness, at the threshold of her parents’ room. She spoke in a different voice and offered details of how she was resurrected by, and then made the reincarnation of, Saint Anthony. Amid surprise and disbelief, Kimpa Vita declared her mandate to lead her people and reoccupy their abandoned capital. So began her crusade.
Kimpa Vita preached Catholicism, but confided in her people that the Capuchin priests had the details wrong. Jesus came from Nsundi, she told people and heaven was full of Africans, who live alongside European men and women with full equality. Combining magic, religion, and political acumen, Kimpa Vita’s influence continued to solidify and she was perceived by many to be a viable alternative to Kongo’s political and religious powers. Shrugging off the Church’s contempt, Kimpa Vita prophesized glorious gifts from God and the re-awakening of the once great kingdom of Kongo.
With entire villages following in her footsteps on the path to M’Banza Kongo (the former capital of the Kingdom), trails in the jungle became highways of anxious feet. In villages along the way, Kimpa Vita extolled the glory of her visions and the divinity of the tasks at hand. She won sympathizers by making hope seem real and even likely. Finally, and with much fanfare, she arrived to reoccupy Kongo’s once glorious capital city. Although Kimpa Vita promised prosperity to all, the first year was difficult. Still, people continued to arrive and what seemed like an ad-hoc gathering soon became a village, and looked like it would make the transformation to city.
The Church, meanwhile, led by a formidable priest known as Father Bernardo, lobbied the royal court to crush what seemed a growing rebellion. The Monarch’s faith was exploited to create a moral predicament in the royal chambers. With each prophecy Kimpa Vita made, Father Bernardo finds more support for his contention that she was a heretic.
King Pedro, baptized a Christian and fearful of God’s wrath, was sympathetic to Kimpa Vita, however, and resisted the Church’s calls for disciplining her and her followers. While he was interested in appeasing the Church, the King feared a revolution in the newly found political will of his subjects. As King Pedro pondered his dilemma, Kimpa Vita’s power and influence continued to grow, even as her incredulous claims remained difficult to believe. Father Bernardo awaited his opportunity.
Kimpa Vita exploited the King’s indecisiveness and tried to catalyze his inaction to the benefit of her movement and people, even promising him leadership of the unified Kingdom. Though the King was tempted, he was only prolonging the inevitable. It wasn’t long before Father Bernardo made the case to King Pedro that Kimpa Vita was a heretic and that, unless she was publicly called out as such, the very existence of the Kingdom was in jeopardy. King Pedro was finally forced into making a choice and, for the love of the cross and the fear of the Church, he carried out the sentence. By 1706, the twenty-fourth year of Kimpa Vita’s life, it was over. Like most true believers, Kimpa Vita’s reward would not be granted on earth.
Though she was burned at the stake for heresy, the Antonian movement Kimpa Vita began outlived and outgrew her. Kimpa Vita’s story is an important part of African history and, especially since so many American slaves came from the region she lived in, an integral part of the American persona. She would one day be called the “African Joan of Arc” for having started something so powerful and enduring that her influence could be discerned thousands of miles, and hundreds of years, away.