February 9, 2004

Dona Beatriz and African Social Democracy

This is part two of Pedantry's contribution to Black History Month. This series will run a lot longer than February, since there is at least one more post on the history of Kongo before moving on to Grandpa's life there, which will take up quite a few posts and doubtless run months at the present (very slow) rate. Part one is here.

I had intended to talk about the 1885 Berlin Conference and the Congo Free State in this post, but the story of Kimpa Vita seemed worth telling and didn't fit into a post about the economics and linguistics of colonialism. The next post will take up Kongo's (by then Congo) post-Berlin history and some of the interesting linguistic issues this created. It's about half-written, so I'm hoping to get it up very, very soon.

The Kingdom of Kongo had been decimated by the slave trade and was finally extinguished by a war against Portugal in the 1640's. Kongo was still, on paper at least, a state possessed of a monarch and a federal institutional structure. However, the real power had devolved down one, two or even more levels to the provincial capitals, the district chiefs and even down to the village level.

The organisational structure of the village was at the heart of Kongolese politics. Each village had a kanda - a chief who served judicial and executive functions in the community. A Kongolese village was something of a collectivist enterprise. All land was owned by the village and the kanda was empowered to tax any productive activity that took place there. However, tradition required the redistribution of most of this revenue to the community. Someone who was considered a member of the community - by birth or marriage - was entitled to a piece of land to live on and grow food as well as to his share of the tax pool. It was the kanda's responsibility to use his power to grant use rights to land and shares of the village's production to minimise conflict and tension in the community.

This sort of primitive social democracy seems to have worked quite well for them. It met a number of important social goals that were not even considered relevant to government in Europe until centuries later and some of which remain controversial now. It guaranteed villagers access to the means of production and a share of the community's productivity, in return for accepting the legal authority of the kanda who, from what I understand, wouldn't last too long anyway if he couldn't keep the villagers happy. Kongo was hardly a shining light of liberty and progress, but it was quite egalitarian in economic outcomes by comparison to most of the world at the time.

This local social structure persisted long after the disappearance of the top layer of administration. The larger state had acted as a sort of inter-community police force and as a kind of appeals court for those dissatisfied with the decisions of their local hierarchy. Its removal plunged the region into a mass of local conflicts, wars and petty tyrannies. The Manikongo, effectively controlled by Catholic missionaries in the employ of the Portuguese state, had become the puppet ruler of what was little more than a slave factory.

This chaos at the beginning of the 18th century saw in Kongo the first halting steps towards a new, post-colonial African society. The first manifestation of this potential for change came from a young woman named Kimpa Vita - Africa's Joan of Arc.

Kimpa Vita was a daughter of the Kongolese nobility born in 1686. She began preaching in her late teens that God's judgement was coming to Africa. In 1703, after recovering from a long illness, she claimed to be the reincarnation of St-Anthony, who was highly regarded in Kongo as a healer and as someone who worked among the poor.

This gave her a claim to a male identity, something that enabled her to do what no woman in Kongolese society could do: order men around. Furthermore, she said that she had a direct connection to heaven. Kimpa Vita - increasingly known by her Christian name Dona Beatriz - said that God had given her specific orders for the reclamation of Kongo before his final judgement.

Like many Protestants, with whom she had no contact and probably no knowledge, she claimed that the ceremonies and symbols of the church were meaningless and unnecessary fetishes. However, she went one step further than the likes of Martin Luther - she burned both crosses and pre-Christian religious objects that were held to increase the efficacy of prayer. Her message proved quite popular with the Kongolese public, and her influence increased.

Finally, she took her "Africanised" Christianity into the big leagues. Christ himself was recast as an African and as the founder of Kongo, giving her spiritual message a political significance.

The selection of leaders in Kongo was controlled by the Kitomi - a sort of entrenched shamanate held to be able to communicate with the spirits. Since Beatriz could communicate with God, she was held to be rightfully able to select the manikongo. She assembled the Kongolese nobility in order to convince them to recognise her choice for manikongo. This put her in direct conflict with the Portuguese, the Catholic hierarchy and the Manikongo. Like Joan of Arc, she was in the end burned at the stake, nominally for heresy but really for being too popular.

Her new religion - the Antonian Movement is what it is usually called - survived a bit longer but was ultimately reabsorbed by the established church. The potential of the Antonian movement - the popularity of a more African Christianity - persisted despite the lack of an established church or unifying figure, reappearing in Kongo at regular intervals for the next two centuries until Simon Kimbangu identified himself as a prophet in 1921. Like Dona Beatriz, Kimbangu rose quickly, developing a huge following in a very short time. Kimbangu was also sentenced to death for the crime of preaching out against the established hierarchy, but unlike his predecessor, Leopold III commuted his sentence to 30 years in prision. He died in 1951 in prison.

His church, however, outlived him and is now known (in French anyway) as l'Église de Jésus-Christ sur la terre or more conventionally as l'Église Kimbanguiste. It is now legal and generally socially accepted in the Democratic Republic of Congo and appears to be facing a crisis of apostolic succession if this is to be believed. There are a number of "Africanised" churches nowadays that draw on syncretic traditions. This tends to freak Protestants out somewhat less than Catholics, so many of them - the theologically relatively orthodox ones - are considered legitimate Protestant churches.

One is tempted (well, I am anyway) to imagine the possibilities that were burned at the stake with Dona Beatriz. What if she had succeded in reuniting Kongo? As an identity, Kongo was still alive and well in her era. Even today, there are still people fighting for the restoration of a Kongolese state drawn, unlike either state that bears its name, on the traditions and language of the old kingdom.

What if this had happened in 1706? We don't, of course, speak of Africans as primitives and savages these days. And rightly so - they are not now and were not then any more savage than the Europeans they dealt with. But we still have this image of pre-contact Africa as hopelessly outclassed by its European conquerors. However, at the beginning of the 18th century in Kongo, this simply wasn't true. The Kongolese nobility was not illiterate or uneducated. They had and understood modern technology - even guns, which they purchased from the Portuguese and Dutch. They had once been competitive players in the textile industry, which was considered relatively high-tech at the time. They had had a legal system and a functional government comparable to moderately well-developed parts of Europe. They were certainly no more primitive by the standards of the era than India is today. The difference in economic productivity between Kongo and Portugal,despite the collapse of the nation, was probably less in 1700 than the difference between India and the UK is now.

Could there have been a restored Kongo, built around an African Christianity independent of Europe? Could we have seen a black Bismarck build a central African empire able to play power games with European states? What consequences would this have had for the slavery industry? When Haiti was founded in 1803, it created real fear in slave states across the Americas that a successful black nation would encourage rebellions and make slavery impossible. Imagine that there had been a powerful African empire in 1803, with an ocean trade and a navy, instead of the tiny plantation economy of Haiti.

Imagine too if the basically redistributionist economy of Kongo had survived. Dona Beatriz preached social justice and support for the poor. Might we have seen Karl Marx wax poetically about African social justice instead of writing about the inevitable mission of imperialism to industrialise the world? Would we have seen workers' parties in Europe talk about "the African model" the way they used to talk about "the Swedish model"?

Probably not. History sometimes turns on a single event, but not in any predictable way. But it's fun to think about sometimes. Regardless, this too was not in Kongo's future.

Posted 2004/02/09 17:11 (Mon) | TrackBack