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On the Trail of Voodoo: African Christianity in Africa and the Americas

  • John K. Thornton (a1)

Scholars have long taken interest in the conversion of African slaves to Christianity in the New World which have mixed, to one degree or another, African religious forms with Christianity. The process has been studied in greatest depth by sociologists, such as Roger Bastide, anthropologists like Melville Herskovitts or art historians such as Robert Farris Thompson. Although the most devoted of the scholars concerned with this have not been historians, and much of the basic research has been in current practices rather than historic origins of African and Afro-New World religions, all scholars share some vision of the historical process. In this vision African and European religions and world views meshed in a past which is far beyond the memory of modern informants and probably dates back to the early days of Afro-European contacts.

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1 Perhaps the most subtle of these approaches is Roger Bastide, in many works, but especially in African Religions of Brazil: Toward a Sociology of the Interpenetration of Civilizations (trans. Helen Sebba, Baltimore and London, 1978), originally published in French in 1960.

2 See, among others, The Myth of the Negro Past (New York, 1941).

3 Thompson also has a large bibliography, see Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York, 1983).

4 I have examined Kongo’s conversion and the development of the Church there in ThorntonJohn K., “The Development of an African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1491–1750,” Journal of African History 25 (1984):147–67.

5 See de ZuraraGomes Eannes, Cronica dos feitos da Guiné (ca. 1447), cap. 8. There are many editions of this work, the best being that of Lisbon, 1978.

6 da MostoAlvise, “Novo Mondo” variorum edition of four recensions in Gasparrini-LeporaceTullia (ed.), Le navigazione atlantiche di Alvise da Mosto (Milan, 1966), pp. 56–8. This title for the work is taken from one of the fifteenth century recensions.

7 Diogo Gomes, “De Prima Inuentione Guinee” (ca. 1490) in FernandesValentim, “Descriçã de Çepta e sua costa,” (MS of circa 1506–1509), mod. ed. BaiãoAntónio, O Manuscrito ‘Valentim Fernandes’ (Lisbon, 1940), fols. 279–79v.

8 MünzerHeironynmous, “De Inventione Africae Maritimae et Occidentalis …” (23 November 1494), revised edition with Portuguese translation, BrásioAntónio (ed.) Monumenta Missionaria Africana (2d series, 5 vols., Lisbon, 1958–81) 1: 247, 249–50.

9 On his career and fate, see da MotaAvelino TeixieraD. João Bemoim e a expedição portuguesa ao Senegal em 1489,” Boletim Cultural da Guiné Portuguesa 26 (1971): 63111. Also issued as a separata by the Agrupamento de Estudos de Cartografia Antiga, Secção de Lisboa, series separata 63 (Lisbon, 1971).

10 The events are described in one independent source, da PinaRuiChronica del Rei D. Joham Segundo … ”(ca. 1505), revised edition in Brásio, Monumenta, 1st series, (14 volumes, Lisbon, 1952–85) 1: 56–9.

11 RyderAlanMissionary Activity in the Kingdom of Warn to the Early Nineteenth Century,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 2 (1960): 126.

12 The original report, written sometime around 1585, “Relação da Gente que vive desde o Cabo dos Mastos té Magrabomba na Costa da Guiné,” fols. 352–3, published as an appendix in Avelino Teixeira da Mota Ε.H. Hair (eds. and trans.), Descrição da Serra Leoa e dos Rios de Guiné do Cabo Verde (1625) by André Donelha (Lisbon, 1977), pp. 331–57. Early Jesuit work is described in GuerreiroFernão Relaçam annual das cousas que fizeram os Padres da Companhia de Jesus nas partes da India Oriental etc (Lisbon, 1611, republished in 3 vols, with modernized spelling by ViegasArtur Coimbra, 1930–42), passim. Other documentation has been published in Brásio, Monumenta, ser. 2, vols. 3–5.

13 The most detailed survey now is SaccardoGraziano [da Leguzzano], Congo e Angola con la storia dell’antica missione dei Cappuccini (3 vols., Venice, 1982–3).

14 See the comments of BoxerC.R. in The Church Militant and Iberian Expansion (Bloomington, 1982)

15 See among others, RodneyWalter A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545–1800 (London, 1970), pp. 7194.

16 Universitatsbibliotek Leiden, Biblioteca Publica Latina, MS 927, “Aenwijsingese van diversche Beschrijvingen van de Noort-Cust van Africa” (ca. 1654), fol. 12v. The text specifies that “Portuguese” must receive gifts before trading can begin.

17 JobsonRichard The Golden Trade (London, 1623), p. 30 and passim. Colorful details of the life of these communities can be found in a series of contemporary Portuguese documents as well.

18 To take just two examples, Tinoco’s visit of 1575 as related in “Relação,” fols. 352–52v in da MotaTeixeìra and Hair (eds.), Descrição da Serra Leoa, and the CapuchinFrench de Saint-Lô’sAlexis in 1635, published as Relation du Voyage au Cap Verte (Paris, 1637), pp. 1317.

19 Cf. among others, “Relação de Lopo Soares de Albergaría sobre a Guiné do Cabo Verde,” (ca. 1600), Brásio, Monumenta 2d series, 4: 35 ; Saint-Lô, Relation, p. 1314.

20 Cf., Baltasar Barreira to Jesuit Provincial, 20 February 1606, in Brásio, Monumenta, 2d series, 4: 110–12; “Relação,” fols. 352–52v in Teixeira da Mota and Hair (eds.), Descripção.

21 See the basic account of this mission in Carlos de Hinojosos and Atanásio de Salamanca, n.d. (ca. July 1662), in Brásio, Monumenta, ser. 1, vol. 12: 378–85. See the mention also of the local Catholic community in “Journal du voyage du sieur Delbée … aux Isles, dans la coste de Guynée pour l’etablissment du commerce en ces pays, en l’année 1669 … ,” in Clodoré Relation de ce qui s’est passé dans les Isles et Terre-Ferme de l’Amérique (Paris, 1671), p. 446.

22 Sieur [Nicholas] Villault, sieur de Bellefond, A Relation of the Coasts of Africk called Guinée (2d ed. London, 1670, first French edition, 1669), pp. 85–6.

23 Thornton, “African Catholic Church.”

24 See Biblioteca da Sociedade de Geografia, Lisbon, MS, Manuel Alvares, “Etiopia Menor e Descrição Geografica da Provincia de Serra Leoa” (1616), fols. 15v–16, 25–25v, 65v, (my thanks to Ρ.E.H. Hair for lending me his copy of the transcript of this MS made by Luis de Matos and Avelino Teixeira da Mota) and Hinojosos and Salamanca in Brásio, Monumenta ser. 1, vol. 12, pp. 379–80 among others.

25 The catechism is reprinted in facsimile with a transcription, partial linguistic interpretation and analysis in LabouretHenri and RivetPaul Le royaume d’Ardra et son évangélisaton au XVII siècle (Paris, 1929). See pp. 31–5 for the significance of terms in the modern religion of the area.

26 Much of the spiritual practice and considerable observation about local religion is found in de NaxeraJose Espejo mystico en que el Hombre Interior se mira (Madrid, 1672), pp. 35–6, 96. For use of the terms in the catechism, see Labouret and Rivet, Royaume de Ardra, p. 4.

27 Thornton, “Development,” pp. 156–7. For the definition of Nzambi in modern Kongo cosmology, see MacGaffeyWyatt Religion and Society in Central Africa: The Bakongo of Lower Zaire (Chicago, 1986), pp. 7576.

28 Jean Mongin à une personne de condition du Languedoc, St. Christophe, May 1682, in ChatillonMarcel (ed.) “L’évangellisation des esclaves au XVIIe siècle. Lettres du R.P. Jean Mongin,” Bulletin du Société d’histoire de la Guadeloupe 60–62 (1984): 86.

29 Jean Goupy des Maets, published in DebienGabrielLes Origines des esclaves des Antilles,” Bulletin de l’Institute Foundamentale de l’Afrique Noire, ser. Β, 26 (1964): 178–80, 182.

30 For a thorough examination of the Capuchin mission, see Saccardo, Congo e Angola. For the religious and political situation in Kongo at the time, see ThorntonJohn The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641–1718 (Madison, 1983), pp. 8496.

31 da PiacenzaDionigio Carli Il Moro trasportato nell’inclita città di Venetia (Bassano, 1687), p.23.

32 Anonymous, “An Account of the Negroe Insurrection in South Carolina,” (1739) in CandlerAllen D. NorthernWilliam J. (eds.) Colonial Records of the State of Georgia (Atlanta, 1904–16, reprinted New York, 1972) vol. 22, pt. 2, p. 233.

33 Oldendorp, Geschichte des Missionen der Evangelischen Brüder auf den Inseln S. Thomas, S. Croix und S. Jan (Barby, 1777), partial English translation in BrownSoi-Daniel W.From the Tongues of Africa: A Partial Translation of Oldendorp’s Interviews,” Plantation Society 2 (1983): 51.

34 Ordenaçoes do Senhor D. Manuel, Book IV, title 99, 24 March 1514; and Pope Leo X, Eximiae devotionis, 7 August 1513 and Praeclarae tuae, 10 January 1516, all in Brásio, Monumenta, ser. 2, 2: 63, 69, 115–17.

35 See the observations of BowserFrederick The African Slave in Colonial Peru, 1560–1650 (Stanford, 1974), pp. 235–6.

36 de SandovalAlonso Naturaleza, policía segrada i profana … de todos Etiopes … (Seville, 1627), modern edition, ed. ValtierraAngel Instaurando Etiopia Salute: El mundo del esclavitud negra en America (Bogotá, 1957), pp. 347–72.

37 Bowser, African Slave, pp. 3638.

38 Sandoval, Instaurando (ed. Valtierra), pp. 372–77, 380. Jean Mongin made a similar survey in 1682, but was somewhat more pessimistic about the results, though even he agreed on the issue of Central Africans. Mongin to personne de condition, 1682, pp. 86–7.

39 One can judge the percentage of slaves from the Gulf of Guinea region by examining the table of ethnic origins in Bowser, African Slave, pp. 4144 (drawn largely from bills of sale on the Lima market).

40 Thornton, “Development,” pp. 164–6.

41 An Italian translation dated 24 January 1671 of the original survives in the Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá, cited as “BN Colombia, Claver Inquest.” The inquest was convened on 2 April 1658 and headed by the Jesuit Diego Ramirez Fariña.

42 BN Colombia, Claver Inquest, Witness 9, Andrea Sachabuche, 22 October 1658, fols. 102–103.

43 ibid., Witness 1, Fr. Giovanni del Valle, S.J., 18 May 1658, fol. 32v.

43 Ibid., Sachabuche, fols. 103–104.

45 PacconioFrancisco Gentío de Angola sufficientemente instruido nos mysteries de nossa Sancta Fé (ed. António do Couto, Lisbon, 1642). Pacconio probably composed the catechism shortly after founding the mission in Ndongo, principal kingdom of the Mbundu speaking people, in 1626. António do Couto, who has often been mistaken by bibliographers as the author of the text, was born in the kingdom of Kongo (and hence had native proficiency in Kikongo) and probably edited a MS that was long in use.

46 ValtierraAngel Peter Claver: Saint of the Slaves (trans. Janet Perry and L.J. Woodward, Westminster, Maryland, 1960), p. 116.

47 BontinckFrançois and NsasiD. Ndembe (ed. and trans.) Le catéchisme kikongo de 1624: reédition critique (Brussels, 1978).

48 BN Colombia, Claver Inquest, Witness 19, Giuseppe Monzolo, 22 October 1658, fol. 140v.

49 Ibid., Witness 25, Emanuele di Capoverde, fol. 150v.

50 Ibid., Witness 36, Francesco Jolofo, fol. 177.

51 Ibid., Witness 20, Francisco di Giesu, fol. 143–143v.

52 Hinojosos and Salamanca, Brásio, Monumenta ser. 1, vol. 12: 378.

53 Labouret and Rivet, Royaume de Ardra, pp. 20–4.

54 LeiteSerafim História da Companhia de Jesus no Brasil (10 vols., Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro, 1938–50), 7:274.

55 Bastide, African Religions, pp. 60–2. The Aja group includes Aliada, Yoruba and Dahomey. Kongo and Mbundu would be contained in Bastide’s “Bantu” group.

56 BN Colombia, Claver Inquest, del Valle, fol. 40.

57 Thornton, “Development,” pp. 157–58.

58 CirueloPedro, Reprouacion de las supersticiones y hechizerias (Seville, 1530), mod. ed. EbersoleAlva from Salamanca edition of 1547 (Valencia, 1978), pp. 6772 and passim.

59 Biblioteca da Sociedade de Geografia, Lisbon, MS, Alvares, “Etiopia Menor,” Book 2, Caps. 19–24.

60 See the detailed examination of the records of the Mexican Inquisition in PalmerColin, Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570–1650 (Cambridge, Mass., 1976).

61 See, among others, BarreiraBaltasar, “Dos Escravos que saem de Cabo Verde” (1606), Brásio, Monumenta, 2d series, 4: 195–6 and de AlmadaAndré Alvares, “Tratado Breve dos Rios de Guiné” (1594) in ibid. 3: 263, 295, 332. For American testimony, see Mongin to personne de condition, May 1682, p.77.

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