1706: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, the Kongolese Saint Anthony

On July 2, 1706, Kimpa Vita, a Congolese noblewoman also known by her baptismal name Dona Beatriz, was burned as a witch in Evululu.

This remarkable woman claimed to be a medium for the spirit of Saint Anthony of Padua, a popular saint in the Catholicized Kingdom of Kongo, and attracted a mass movement in the midst of civil war and social breakdown in the proud Kongo state.

Executed Today is pleased to mark this occasion with an interview with Boston University Prof. John K. Thornton, author of The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706.

This is a very unfamiliar story to most, as you point out in The Kongolese Saint Anthony. So let’s begin with some orientation — the Kingdom of Kongo is in the midst of a ruinous civil war. Why?

The civil war in Kongo was basically a dynastic affair, that is, a battle between branches of the royal family for control over the throne. Kongo had a very highly centralized political structure, the king and his council had a lot of power not only over who held high office, but also who got what income, because a lot of income derived from holding office. So controlling the kingship and its related patronage was very important.

This story is very complicated, I try to lay it out as simply as possible in Chapter II of my book. To make matters short, by D Beatiz’ day it had two branches duking it out — the Kimpanzu and the Kinlaza, with Pedro IV, conveniently descended from both these families, as a sort of conciliatory figure.

And it’s a highly Catholic country. How did that come to be?

Pretty remarkable story.

Actually I think it’s the only real missionary victory that the Catholic church had in the early modern period. By that I mean that they spread the faith to a completely independent country and not just by conquest.

Officially, it was a series of miracles that both Catholic priests and Kongo elites witnessed in 1491 that led Nzinga a Nkuwu, the king of Kongo to become a Christian and be baptized on May 3, 1491 (my birthday is May 3, 1949 which I have taken to be a sort of sign that I should be studying Kongo).

However, it was Nzinga a Nkuwu’s son Afonso (ruled 1509-1542) that really established the church. Afonso provided for the funding of the church, created schools for teaching literacy and Christian religion for the nobility, had children educated in Portugal and returned to the country, and working with his own educated people and Portuguese priests also figured out how to blend the two traditions into a religion that was acceptable in the country. It’s no wonder the Church called him the “Apostle of Congo”.

The kings who followed elaborated and extended what Afonso started, especially by creating a network of schools all over the country. By and large Rome and Portugal collaborated and blessed the project, so the Pope allowed Afonso’s son Henrique to be the first Sub-Saharan African bishop in 1518, and assigned him to extend the church in Kongo (Henrique died in 1531). In 1596 the Pope made Kongo’s capital city the seat of the Bishop of Congo and Angola.

The Church grew again in the late sixteenth century when a series of kings named Alvaro (I and II, father and son, in particular) went a lot farther than Afonso had in Europeanizing Kongo. They gave the nobles titles of nobility in European fashion (Counts, Dukes and Marquis), the brought in relics from Europe (bones of martyrs, for example), established an embassy in Rome, renamed the capital city as Sao Salvador, and so on. The Kongolese ambassador to Rome, Antonio Manuel, who died in 1608 and is honored in a wing in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, left personal papers when he died now found in the Vatican archives. They show the sort of culture a person educated entirely in Kongo could show, in addition to a fascinating array of Kongolese administrative documents — the only ones we have. He also studied Carmelite mysticism, and had correspondence from many different people all over Europe. He was clearly at home among elite Europeans and was regarded by those who met him as a cultured individual in a period when extra-Europeans were not always seen that way.

The Jesuits established a college in Kongo in 1624 and it provided advanced education along European lines until it was close just about the time that Beatriz was active. Kongo had a library, in fact, though no trace of it exists any more, found on the second floor of the Jesuit college.

So in short, the answer is that the political elite of the country decided in the sixteenth century to make their country a Catholic one, and they took vigorous steps to make it happen.

They put teachers out all through the country, visiting priests from Europe constantly met these teachers in the rural areas, they were usually literate and possessed a good deal of knowledge of European culture, some had even lived in Europe. These schoolmasters were the soul of the church; they instructed the people (using a catechism in their own language after 1624), prepared them for the sacraments and led weekly prayers at places of worship, usually large wooden crosses erected at key points all around the country.

So there’s a religious penetration that on the face of it might seem to be a religion of colonization, of foreign domination. But that’s clearly not the way most Kongolese thought about it.

It was never a religion of conquest, and for that reason, the Kongos managed to make it their own without feeling they were abandoning or being forced to give up something. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries foreign visitors often commented on how proud the Kongos were, of their country, their language, their food and the like, thinking that they were the best people in the world. “Congo arrogance” was a common epithet that the Portuguese who built the colony of Angola on Kongo’s southern border used to describe them.

And it’s still very true today. I go to Angola quite a bit and have been to Mbanza Kongo twice. You can feel and hear that pride even now. During the colonial period (roughly 1885 to 1975 in that area) the Portuguese tried very hard to replace indigenous languages with Portuguese and to erase African culture in a systematic way, especially after 1926. But the Kongos simply refused to be erased: they continued their language secretly, kept their special foods and taught their children that they were still the best. It worked.

Today in Angola, you see in so many places that Portuguese is the language of daily life — even street kids shout at each other in Portuguese in Luanda and the land east all the way to Malange. But in Mbanza Kongo and elsewhere in the north, the language of daily life is Kikongo, the ancient language of the country. Their pride has been a problem for Kongo, too. In 1992 a lot of them were massacred in Luanda, partially for political reasons that are very complicated, but also I think because other Angolans resent this pride. But enough on that.

Anyway, the Kongolese were proud to be not just Christians but Catholics. The Portuguese tried to invade Kongo from Angola several times, first in 1622, then again in 1657, and finally in 1670. Each time they were decisively defeated. On the other hand, the Kongos were also unable to invade Angola, as they were repelled there also, first in 1580 and again in 1665 (when the famous Battle of Mbwila was fought on the border between the two domains of Angola and Kongo).

This led to great hostility between Kongo and Portugal and especially its governors of Angola. Portuguese were massacred in the wake of the 1622 invasion and after the Battle of Mbwila in 1665, and by the 1670s they had been effectively forced to leave the country, trading their only with Africa servants called pombeiros who represented their interests. (Priests were an exception).

Yet this history didn’t impact on the way Kongos saw themselves as Catholics. King Garcia II (1641-1661) famously wrote a letter in which he proudly stated that they obeyed the Pope, vicar of Christ on earth, even though the Portuguese, whom they hated, had introduced them to the religion. Indeed, the only thing that we see in the correspondence of Kongolese kings that they do say good about Portugal was that it introduced them to the religion.

The idea of a Catholic Kongo was reinforced when Kongo made an alliance with the Dutch. This took place in 1622 in the aftermath of the failed Portuguese invasion. Pedro II, the king, sent a letter to the Dutch States General proposing an alliance in which the Dutch would send a fleet to attack Angola by sea, and Kongo would send an army by land. The first attempt to do this in 1624 failed, in part because the Portuguese went out of their way to conciliate Kongo, but the second attempt, in 1641, succeeded and for a time the Kongo-Dutch alliance (joined by the formidable Queen Njinga of Ndongo-Matamba who was also at war with Portugal) nearly drove the Portuguese out of Angola.

The Dutch hoped to use this opportunity to also convert Kongo to the Calvinism of the Dutch Reformed Church and they even had special literature designed to convert Catholics who spoke Portuguese to Calvinism. But Garcia II would have none of it, and had the books burned (it was the seventeenth century after all), and forced the ministers to leave. He wrote a letter to the Dutch Estates General protesting the attempt and in it he made the statement I summarized in the paragraph above.

Kongo tried to make contact with Dutch speaking Catholic countries in the aftermath of the third failed Portuguese invasion in 1670. It seemed like a good compromise though the Dutch never did come back to Angola to fight, and the Catholic parts weren’t part of the Dutch program.

So, that’s background — now, who is Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita?

She was the daughter of a noble Kongo family from the region right around Kibangu, a flat-topped mountain that lays some distance east of the capital of Mbanza Kongo (on a clear day you can see that mountain from Mbanza Kongo).

She seems to have had spiritual gifts even as a youth, and had dreams of playing with angels and visions and the like. Not surprisingly, she turned to religious pursuits, becoming a nganga Marinda, a spiritual person whose role the Catholic missionaries did not like, but was widely accepted in the Kongo as legitimate. She was probably too spiritual and independent to be married, since she had two failed marriages by the time she began her prophecy.

Her movement combines both a religious renewal and a national restoration. Should one think of her as a religious person whose cause happened to have political implications, or someone who’s very intentionally trying to alter the balance of power? Is it even right to separate the secular and the religious dimensions?

I think Beatriz was trying to end war as much as anything else. This was at the height of the slave trade: thousands of people were being exported annually to Brazil, to the Spanish Indies, to Suriname, and some even to South Carolina.

The slave trade was one of the byproducts of war (along with death and destruction), and because slavery was lucrative, it helped to continue the wars in a vicious cycle. As Beatriz understood it, the solution was to end the civil war and restore the kingdom. None of the pretenders to the throne seemed able to do that.

She thought that he had sent Saint Anthony do to that, and he had come to earth and chose to be incarnate in her. It harmonized with Kongos’ belief that they were God’s chosen people (he had created Kongo himself, sending his angels to create the rest of the world), and he would intervene to set things right.

And who exactly are her followers?

Beatriz had followers from all ranks and walks of life. Pedro IV had her burned, but his own wife Hipolyta became a devotee. Pedro was intrigued by her message himself. A number of the top contenders also were either tempted or became her followers. The most notable of her followers was Pedro Constantinho da Silva, one of Pedro’s generals who saw allying with her as a chance to become king. Along with the political guys was a great mass of peasants, who really hoped for a better time and thought that Beatriz’ movement could restore the kingdom.

It was the politics of her movement that got her in trouble. Once Beatriz threw herself in with Pedro Constantinho she was doomed because the other contenders became her enemies. It was Pedro IV who managed to capture her, and he had her burned as a heretic and witch. Before she went over to Pedro Constantinho, Pedro IV had been very interested in her mission and protected her.

Dona Beatriz? Kimpa Vita?
What’s In A Name?

Kongos in those days usually had at least two names.

The first one was a zina dia santu (Saint’s name), given as a Portuguese name though often pronounced as in Kikongo and always incorporating “Dom” or “Dona” as part of the name. So someone named Joao would be called Ndozau, and someone named Miguel would be Ndomigel.

Their second name was a Kikongo name, like Mpanzu, Nkuwu, Vita, Nzinga and so on. As far as I can tell people got both names from their parents when they were born, and they probably started using the zina dia santu even before baptism. If people had two Kikongo second names, the second one was the father’s first name, sort of like the Scandanavian system where a Johan’s child is named Johansson.

Beatiz’ second names mean “scheme” or “plan” (Kimpa), and “war” (Vita). It might be because she was born in a war and this was added, or it might just be her father’s first Kikongo name. King Antonio I had Vita as an element in his name; some people use this as evidence she was descended from this king who was killed in the Battle of Mbwila in 1665. I think such a fact would have been noted at the time and I doubt it.

Nowadays, people in Angola and DRC tend to look down on the zina dia santu, which they view (wrongly, I believe) as a remnant of the colonial past. Many Angolans believe that somehow the Portuguese organized all that Christian stuff in Kongo and the local people resisted or rejected it.

I think the reason for this is twofold: first, because that’s what the Portuguese claimed during the colonial period, that they really more or less created the Kingdom of Kongo, which is totally untrue. A second reason is because most Angolans with any nationalist feeling don’t like to be identified with Portugal and so look to a non-Portuguese past. Hence, D Beatriz is rather militantly known as “Kimpa Vita” in Angola and one does not often hear her Christian name, though of course people know it.


Dona Beatriz rejects or alters a number of religious practices we might think of as essentially Catholic, like the iconography of the cross, but she’s not doing it in the name of rejecting Catholicism — she’s doing it in the name of Saint Anthony of Padua. Was there simply a pent-up need for renegotiating the way the faith worked for Kongolese? If so, did it happen in some other way after she was executed?

I think she was concerned that Christianity was too European, and one of the things she chided the missionaries about was that they did not represent any black saints.

She had direct revelation from God on her side, she died every Friday and spent each weekend in Heaven conferring with the Heavenly Father about the affairs of Kongo and so what she got there was pretty much undeniable. From these sessions in Heaven she learned the stories about Jesus being born in Nsundi, baptized in Sao Salvador and Mary being a slave of a Kongo marquis. There was probably a lot more richness to these stories that our accounts tell us.

Kongos were pretty sure, I think, that God was an African and their pride also gradually placed stories in Africa, so in this way Beatriz was confirming what people believed or wanted to believe. After her death, we find a lot of art objects, particularly crucifixes, in which Jesus is shown as an African (his features are African) and is wearing a cloth with a specifically Kongo design. Cecile Froment has recently competed a wonderful Ph.D. thesis at Harvard on this art which I think will really demonstrate how much the Church in Kongo incorporated Kongo concepts. I don’t know if Beatriz’ movement inspired this art directly, but her movement and the art together represent what many people were thinking.

An aside here. From Afonso’s time onward, there was a desire to make an independent Kongo church under its own bishop and with its own clergy. They had the educational resources to support this, so they felt they should. Alvaro II entertained ideas that he could control such a church, that the king was “vicar of his kingdom” and could appoint clergy at will. This wasn’t canonical and the church didn’t support it, even going to far as to try some of those who advised him on this through the Inquisition. But even when Kongo got its own bishop in 1596, the kings of Portugal managed to get control of appointment and put Portuguese in there.

This was the cause of endless conflicts between the kings and the bishops, particularly because of the hostility between Portugal and Kongo over Angola. Finally, a compromise was worked out. While the bishop ended up residing in Angola, and he refused to ordain many Kongolese, the priestly needs of Kongo were to be met by missionaries, who weren’t really there to spread the faith (it had already spread) but to perform the sacraments that an ordained priest could. Because Portugal didn’t want Kongolese clergy, and Kongo didn’t want Portuguese clergy, the compromise was to chose Italian clergy who were from neutral states (mostly Florence, but others as well). These priests came from the Capuchin order, a strongly Counter-Reformationist order that wanted to purge Kongo’s Catholicism of its local elements in the name of purifying the faith. That didn’t go so well, and the struggle over just how Kongo the church could be was waged along these lines.

Beatriz came into this struggle on the Kongo side. While not denying the Capuchins their place as priests, she contended with them over the theological questions. She lost this round, mostly for political reasons and not theological ones. Maybe the African Jesus of Froment’s thesis was the theological victory of Beatriz or at least her followers.

She occupies the ruined former capital. What’s the significance here? Had she remained unmolested, what trajectory might her movement have been on?

I think that messianic religious leaders like her in a politically charged environment don’t have much chance unless they are very astute or their supporters are strong. Of course occupying the capital was vital. It had been abandoned in 1678 and was in ruins, yet it was the very symbol of Kongo. The kings were all buried there, the cathedral was there. Holding the city was in effect restoring the kingdom and presumably ending the civil war.

She could only have remained in power if she had stayed with Pedro Constantinho and if his forces had been enough to protect her and to fend off the inevitable attacks that the other two primary contenders, Joao II of Bula and Pedro IV of Kibangu, would mount. Pedro ended up beating both of these two, first Pedro Constantinho in 1709 and then Joao. So with Pedro Constantinho as patron she could not have survived.

She also made the political mistake, which we can only put down to overconfidence or naivete, of going back home to her parents who lived in Pedro IV’s domain to have her baby. Having the baby also upset her, and made her feel guilty since as a saint she should not have done this.

But let’s be a bit speculative and say that Pedro IV didn’t capture her, or he decided to follow her and put distance between himself and the Catholic clergy who were obviously opposed to her. What might have happened? Perhaps he would have re-founded the church in Kongo with a new relationship to Rome, and decided to have Kimpa Vita and some sort of apostolic succession from her ordain priests and bishops. These would clearly have been drawn from the schoolmasters who ran the church in Kongo anyway. A good number of them did become Antonioans and they would have created a new church. It would have had some of its own new traditions, like the stories that Beatriz told about Jesus’ birth in Nsundi and baptism in Mbanza Kongo, or the descent of kings and the like. These might have been written since the chruch was literate and perhaps formed a new scripture. And perhaps they might have found, in time a way to reconcile this with Rome, but maybe not. It would have been an independent church as we see all over Africa now.

What exactly leads to her execution? Cui bono?

Her execution was done following her capture as described above. She was tried in a civil not an ecclesiastic court under Kongo and not church law. Kongo law prescribed punishment for witchcraft and heresy and those were the charges against her.

We don’t know what happened in her trial since the record has not survived (my dream is to find it, since there probably was one once, and who knows, it might have been sent to the Inquisition in Portugal or Angola). But all we know is what the Italian priests, Bernardo da Gallo and Lorenzo da Lucca told us, and they were not invited to the trial (fine by them; they didn’t want to be too closely associated with the results). They questioned her about her beliefs, and da Gallo’s account of that inquiry is our basis for knowing what she believed. But they could do no more on that end than hear the result. They were happy for it since that’s what they wanted too.

Her movement isn’t destroyed by her execution. What happens over the next 2 1/2 years before the Battle of Sao Salvador? And what happens after that battle: What was Dona Beatriz’ immediate legacy? Was she remembered, was her name invoked? What became of her followers?

We know the movement remained very strong in Mbanza Kongo after her death, and that Antonian prayers were shouted out by the defenders of the city in 1709. But there is not documentary mention of them further after that. But don’t read too much into this, since the documentary record becomes very, very quiet after 1710 or so — we just don’t have any details about it from any source. In fact, until I discovered a kinglist written in 1758 (I think by a Kongo) we weren’t sure how long the reigns of the kings were for the next fifty years or even what order they ruled in. It is possible that the movement survived even there.

We also know that the movement had very strong bases in the southwest part of Kongo, in lands belonging the the Kimpanzu faction that had been headed by Suzanna de Nobrega. This faction was not involved in the war in 1709 and thus would not have suffered the inevitable persecution that took place in Mbanza Kongo.

But Manuel II, the king who followed Pedro IV after his death in 1718, came from that faction and region. He had abandoned the Antonians to join Pedro, and perhaps he also suppressed the movement back home. We have a couple of letter from him, written early in his reign and dealing with ecclesiastical matters, but the question of Antonians doesn’t come up in them.

After my book was published, Simon Bockie, a librarian at Berkeley and an excellent ethnographer of Kongo (he’s a Kongo himself) wrote a critical review. He claimed that I had not made use of abundant oral traditions that he had heard in his youth about Kimpa Vita in writing my book and thus I had written an account based on only the testimony of her enemies.*

I had searched published sources in French, Portuguese and Kikongo for traditions that I could relate to Beatriz when I did my research, and I did make as much use of these as I could when I wrote. But at the time I had not been able to do research in Mbanza Kongo and so had to let that aspect go. When my wife, Linda Heywood and I went to Mbanza Kongo in 2002, we specifically asked about traditions concerning Kimpa Vita (as she is usually called today) and were taken to a man who claimed to be the local expert on her. He asked us if we wanted to hear the tradition in French, Portuguese or Kikongo (Mbanza Kongo is very near the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and probably half the population is trilingual). We said Kikongo, which he proclaimed to be the right answer. He then went into a half-hour or maybe forty-five-minute discourse on the question. He had some interesting things to say. First, I noticed that he gave dates in his account, but he stated them in French. Likewise, he mentioned the names of the missionaries and the Christian names of Kongo kings in French also. I thought this was strange and concluded that he had received a “fed back” tradition, meaning that he had combined what he might have known from oral sources, such as his parents or elders, with written sources that drew on the movement which was described in French at least as early as 1953.

I might have easily concluded that both his traditions and those Bockie heard as a youth were simply feed back stories made to surround an event known only from modern historical reconstruction. You can hear such a tradition and have no idea that it is of modern creation, since you might not know its sources and even the one telling you might have heard rather than read it. Personal elaboration around a few set facts is a common point of oral tradition, and thus explaining things one receives from tradition or even from books can be expanded this way.

But having said that I was very intrigued by other elements in the story which were purely Kikongo. The most important was the very significant role played in the story I heard in Mbanza Kongo by Beatriz’s mother (ngudi andi Kimpa Vita), to the point where much of the inspiration of the movement was in fact from the mother, and moreoever, the mother continued the movement after her daugher’s death.

The traditionalist went on to link modern religious movements through the descent of this mother. Was it possible that the movement did live on? I can’t say. I do know that several independent churches claim Kimpa Vita as their founder, or claim to be heirs to her message, most notably some branches of the Kimbanguist church (founded in the 1920s by a prophet named Simon Kibangu) and the Bundu dia Kongo, a rapidly growing church founded by Mwanda Nsemi in the 1960s. It could be true, or it could be simply propaganda of these movements, also fed back into tradition.

Was it unusual that this movement was led/instigated by a woman? Or would that not have been consequential to her followers and opponents?

The movement was led by Saint Anthony; D Beatriz was only his earthly form. Why he chose a woman is harder to say.

Did it make a difference that he did? Probably. Beatriz realized that the woman/man thing was a problem. When Pedro’s soldiers arrested her they challenged her, asking how Saint Anthony, who was a man, could have a baby. Her only answer was that she didn’t know, only that it had come from Heaven. She certainly was attentive to women; for example, she could make the barren bear children, and women were among her close followers.

I don’t think, though, that we should read too much into the sex issue. There were also a number of very powerful women in Kongo at her time: Queen Ana Afonso de Leao all but ruled the southeast, and Queen Suzanna de Nobrega ruled the southwest. Although Joao II ruled Lemba, everyone knew that his sister, Elena was the real ruler of that territory. There were provisions in Kongo law allowing women who reached a certain political level to have male concubines and treat them more or less as men treated female concubines.

Finally I confess that I didn’t do as much as I wanted to or could about the question of women and females in Kongo life when I wrote the book, and sacrificed some analytical asides in the interests of narrative. I tried to remedy this ever so slightly in an dense and technical article I published in the Journal of African History, called “Elite women in the Kingdom of Kongo”, not for the faint-hearted, that addressed the question of female power. I had also addressed female power in the life of Queen Njinga, who ruled in the Kimbundu speaking area south of Kongo, in another article some twenty years ago, and I hope to write more about women in the future.

Has there been a reclamation or rediscovery of her in the postcolonial period? How does Dona Beatriz/Kimpa Vita read in Angola now?

As long ago as 1996 there was an official decision to erect a statue to her somewhere in the country. There is an image of her, drawn by Bernardo da Gallo from life, on the cover of my book, so it wouldn’t be hard to do. This would be the “book” D Beatriz Kimpa Vita, with the full apparatus of scholarship, as opposed to the “tradition” Kimpa Vita, supported by the oral traditions and independent churches. It will be interesting to see how these two versions, my book, and Kongo pride run into each other.

* Canadian Journal of African Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3 (1998), pp. 645-647, in which Bockie writes,

As a child growing up in the Lower Congo listening to tales from our oral history, I heard many times about the exploits of Kimpa Vita, who was still remembered after 250 years as a major cultural heroine … It was something of a shock to find that Thornton has chosen to present his account almost exclusively through the eyes of her enemies and killers … there remains no convincing Kongo voice or presence in this book.

On this day..