A Forgotten African Catholic Kingdom

A year before Columbus discovered America, the king of Kongo led his people to Christianity.

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When Kongo was deprived of clergy by the Portuguese bishops, they turned to the laity, and noblemen, educated in the country's schools, served as the prime interpreters and teachers of religion. These mestres de escola, as they were called in the official Portuguese documents of Kongo, continued the tradition, and the Capuchins were relegated to performing the sacraments, since these could be done only by priests. Capuchins wrote in their reports of performing tens of thousands of baptisms and thousands of marriages and confessions during grueling tours of parishes. They taught and they preached, but they could not force the religion to change.

If Kongo resisted Portuguese attempts to enslave its people, unfortunately, it also engaged in the practice through civil war. Succession to Kongo's throne was often hotly contested, and the country's history was littered with internecine conflict. In such wars, the losers, branded as traitors by the victors, were often sold to slavery wholesale.

These wars became frequent in the 1600s, and after 1665, when a succession crisis was triggered by a military setback on the Kongo-Angola frontier, civil war became a near-permanent fixture of Kongo's history. Thousands and tens of thousands of losers in this endless struggle for the throne were captured and exported to French, English, Dutch and Portuguese shippers and spread all over the Americas.

About 1 in 5 Americans of African descent come from Kongolese stock, with the greatest percentages being concentrated in South Carolina and Louisiana. They carried their religion with them, as well; the Stono Rebellion in 1739, the largest slave uprising in the U.S. before independence, was led by Kongolese Catholics anxious to escape slavery in Protestant South Carolina to freedom in Catholic Florida.

In some parts of the Americas, Kongolese actually created their own missionary activity. George Christian Andreas Oldendorp, a Moravian missionary, reported that Kongolese slaves in the Virgin Islands baptized and catechized incoming slaves from non-Christian Africa; the Brazilian Inquisition examined the activities of Pedro Congo, who dressed in priestly garb and said Mass to a congregation drawn mostly from non-Christian parts of Africa.

This complex story reveals an important aspect of the African-American past: that 20 percent of African Americans descend from Africans who came to these shores from a region that had sustained its own version of Christianity for four generations before the first Africans arrived in Virginia. In Kongo's case, internal dissension as much as European activities and demands led to massive enslavement and deportation. Twentieth-century colonialism erased the kingdom.

John Thornton is a professor of history and African-American studies at Boston University and specializes in the history of the Kingdom of Kongo. Linda Heywood is a professor of history and director of the African-American Studies Program at Boston University. She specializes in the history of Angola. They are the authors of Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660 (New York:Cambridge University Press, 2007). 

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