kIMPAvITA the Mother of the African Revolution

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Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita (1684 – 2 July 1706), was a Kongo Empire prophet and leader of her own Christian movement, Antonianism, this movement taught that Jesus and other early Christian figures were from the Kongo Empire. The name “Dona” indicates that she was born into a family of high Kongolese nobility; she was later given the name “Beatriz” after the Catholic Saint. Her teaching grew out of the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church in Kongo, and caused her to upbraid the Catholic priests for not believing as she did. Dona Beatriz believed she was the reincarnation of St. Anthony and used this claim to attempt to restore the ideal of Kongo as a unified Christian Kingdom. Kimpa Vita is seen as an antislavery figure and is known as a prefigure to modern African democracy movements. While the role of Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita is widely overlooked, the years of her movement are some of the best documented in Kongo’s history.

Beatriz Kimpa Vita, also referred to as Beatrice of Congo,[1] was born near Mount Kibangu in the Kingdom of Kongo, now a part of modern Angola around 1684. She was born into a family of the Kongo nobility, probably of the class called Mwana Kongo, and was probably baptized soon after, as Kongo had been a Catholic kingdom for two centuries. Some modern scholars believe that she was connected to King António I (1661–65), who died at the battle of Mbwila (Ulanga) in 1665, because his Kikongo name Vita a Nkanga connects with her name. However, she cannot have been a child of his, given her birth date, and the naming theory is not supported, nor does any contemporary document mention it.

At the time of her birth, Kongo was torn by civil war. These wars had started shortly after the death of António I and had resulted in the abandonment of the ancient capital of São Salvador (present day Mbanza Kongo) in 1678 and the division of the country by rival pretenders to the throne.

According to her testimony, given at an inquest on her life and reported by the Capuchin missionary Bernardo da Gallo, Beatriz had visions even as a youth, and her high spirits and otherworldly outlook caused her two youthful marriages to fail and led her deeper into a spiritual life. Kimpa Vita was trained as nganga marinda, a person said to be able to communicate with the supernatural world. The nganga marinda was connected to the kimpasicult, a healing cult that flourished in late seventeenth century Kongo. However, sometime around 1700, she renounced her role and moved closer to the views of the Catholic Church.

Beatriz went to live among colonists sent out by King Pedro IV, one of several rival rulers of Kongo, to reoccupy the ancient and now abandoned capital of São Salvador. There was a great deal of religious fervor among these colonists who were tired of the endless civil wars in the country, and many had become followers of an old prophet, Appolonia Mafuta, who was preaching that God would punish Kongo.

During an illness in 1704 she claimed to have received visions of St. Anthony of Padua, and when, as she reported to Father Bernardo, she died and St. Anthony entered her body and took over her life. She began to preach, and Appolonia Mafuta supported her, claiming that she was the real voice of God. From that point onward, she believed she was St. Anthony reincarnate and had a special connection to God, among other things. She died each Friday and spent the weekend in Heaven talking with God, to return to earth on Mondays. While in this state, she learned that Kongo must reunite under a new king, for the civil wars that had plagued Kongo since the battle of Mbwila in 1665 had angered Christ. She was ordered to build a specific Congolese Catholicism and unite the Congo under one king. She destroyed “idols”, the various Kongo Nkisi or charms inhabited by spiritual entities, as well as Christian paraphernalia. When she took her message to King Pedro IV, he considered it, but refused to hear her. She then went to visit his rival João II at Mbula (near the Congo River close to modern Matadi), who also refused to hear her. However, in short time she was able to gather a significant number of followers and became a factor in the struggle of power. Her movement recognized the papal primate but was hostile against the European missionaries in Congo. Three months after he vision of Saint Anthony Kimpa Vita led her followers to the abandoned capital of Sao Salvador where they would call to the people in the countryside and rapidly repopulate the city. This was recognized by the Italian Priest Bernardo de Gallo, who believed Kimpa Vita to be possessed by the devil, to be an incredible act and led her to be adored and acclaimed as the restorer of Kongo.

While she was in São Salvador, which she and her followers occupied in 1705, she built a special residence for herself in the ruined cathedral, and also called the formerly ruined and abandoned capital to be reoccupied by thousands of mostly peasant followers. However, she soon won noble converts as well, including Pedro Constantinho da Silva Kibenga, the commander of one of Pedro IV’s armies sent to reoccupy the city. Since he chose his devotion to Beatriz as an opportunity to rebel, Pedro IV, who had been guardedly neutral to her, to decide to destroy her, all the more as his own wife, Hipolita, had become an Antonian convert. “Having become pregnant, she left Sao Salvador to have her baby in a bush, as was customary in Kongo.”[2] Upon her return to Sao Salvador, she was captured by her enemies and taken to the mountaintop court of Pedro IV. Here she was accused of heresy and burned at the stake in July 1706. She was seen by many as a Champion of the People for rallying the Kongolese peasants into Sao Salvador. “Dona Beatriz was reinterpreting those foreign elements [of Christianity] in order to create a version of Christianity that seemed more authentically Kongolese.” [2]

Beatriz sent out missionaries of her movement, called Little Anthonies, to other provinces. They were not successful in the coastal province of Soyo, where the Prince expelled them, but they were much more successful in the dissident southern part of Soyo and Mbamba Lovata, which lay south of Soyo. There they won converts, especially among partisans of the old queen Suzana de NóbregaManuel Makasa, one of these partisans also became an Antonian and moved to São Salvador.

The real Virgin Mary in copper alloy produced within the Kongo Kingdomduring the 18th century

Much of her teaching is known from the Salve Antoniana, a prayer she adapted from the Catholic prayer Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) into an anthem of the movement. Among other things, the Salve Antoniana taught that God was only concerned with believers’ intentions, not with sacraments or good works, and that Saint Anthony was the greatest one – in fact, a “second God.” In addition, she taught that the principal characters in Christianity, including Jesus, Mary and Saint Francis, were all born in Kongo and were in fact Kongolese.

Execution and its aftermath of Kimpa Vita

Kimpa Vita was captured near her hometown and burned at the temporary capital of Evululu as a heretic in 1706 by forces loyal to Pedro IV. She was tried under Kongo law as a witch and a heretic, with the consent and counsel of the Capuchin friars Bernardo da Gallo and Lorenzo da Lucca.

The Anthonian prophetic movement outlasted her death. Her followers continued to believe that she was still alive, and it was only when Pedro IV’s forces took São Salvador in 1709 that the political force of her movement was broken, and most of her former noble adherents renounced their beliefs and rejoined the Catholic church. Some hint of the strength of her teaching may be glimpsed by the fact that eighteenth century Kongo religious art often shows Jesus as an African, and that Saint Anthony, known as “Toni Malau” was very prominent. More recently, some see present day Kimbanguism as its successor. Traditions circulating in Mbanza Kongo (formerly São Salvador) in 2002 also place great significance in the role of Beatriz’ mother as an inspiration for the prophet and also as playing a role in its continuation, and in fact, her mother was present in the aftermath of her death.

Literature on Kimpa Vita

  • R. S. Basi, The Black Hand of God, themarked; 2009, ISBN 978-0-9841474-0-3
  • António Custódio Gonçalves. La symbolisation politique: Le prophetisme Kongo au XVIIIe siècle. (Munich: Weltforum, 1980)
  • John Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684–1706,, Cambridge University Press; 1998, ISBN 0-521-59370-0
  • Robert Harms, Africa in Global History with Sources; ISBN 978-0-393-92757-3

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