Kongo’s Antonian Queen

Words: Joseph Callow

In 1703, a noblewoman from the Mbidizi valley in the Kingdom of Kongo fell ill to an unknown ailment. After a drawn-out period of suffering, Kimpa Vita rose from her sickbed and declared that she had died only to be resurrected as the Christian Saint Anthony. She immediately renounced her material possessions and embarked for the mountain city of Kibangu to preach a revolutionary form of Christianity at the court of King Pedro IV. 

The teachings of Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, as she came to be known, stood against European oversight of the nation’s church, the notions of racial superiority creeping into the thinking of missionaries in Kongo, and the exploitation of the people by an uncaring political elite. As much as she was a religious radical, Kimpa Vita was a social revolutionary.

When Christianity had been introduced to Kongo by Portuguese missionaries in the late fifteenth century, the kingdom was a strong and centralised polity under a powerful monarch. However, by 1665, the kingdom had descended into civil war, with rival claimants to the throne vying for power from their own territorial strongholds, after the capital, São Salvador, was razed. It was from this context of political instability that the teachings of Kimpa Vita gained a mass following.

On arrival at Kibangu, Kimpa Vita was brought before Pedro IV after attempting to destroy a large wooden cross that stood outside the city’s church. Having been given an audience with the king, Kimpa Vita rebuked him for not having reoccupied the capital and suggested that if he were incapable or unwilling to do so, she herself would lead the city’s reoccupation and the reunification of the kingdom.

At the heart of her drive for the political reunification of Kongo was Kimpa Vita’s radical rereading of the Bible and Christian history. Through the revelations of her possession by Saint Anthony, Kimpa Vita declared that Jesus and Mary were black and Kongolese, that Saint Francis, to whom the Capuchin missionaries in Kongo were devoted, was also Kongolese, and that Jesus was extremely angry that São Salvador had not been reoccupied as this was the city referred to in the Bible as Bethlehem, the place of his birth. These principles, as well as a rejection of the sacraments performed by European clergy, formed the basis of what came to be known as the Antonian movement.

In sanctifying the Kingdom of Kongo and revering an African woman as a Christian saint, the Antonian movement fundamentally undermined European Church orthodoxy. Early modern Kongo, like much of Central West Africa, had come to be dominated by the Atlantic slave trade and the theories of racial hierarchy which came to justify it. The Antonian movement, with its black female leader and biblical figures, came to embody the collective resistance of the Kongolese people to the theory of black inferiority, and to those who propagated it. 

In response to the radical and subversive message of the Antonians, Father Bernardo de Gallo, head of the European clergy in Kongo, rejected Kimpa Vita’s claims to possession by Saint Anthony and instead declared her a witch possessed by the Devil. 

Having failed to convince Pedro IV to reoccupy São Salvador, and having alienated the kingdom’s church, Kimpa Vita left Kibangu and travelled through Kongo preaching Antonianism to the people, and the need for political reunification to the kingdom’s political elite. For the nobility, Kimpa Vita’s promise of political reunification held little allure; the relative stalemate of the civil war had assured the regional authority of each faction’s political elite, and a return to the highly centralised state of pre-civil war Kongo would have weakened the nobility of the defeated claimants. 

Early modern Kongo, like much of Central West Africa, had come to be dominated by the Atlantic slave trade and the theories of racial hierarchy which came to justify it. In sanctifying the Kingdom of Kongo and revering an African woman as a Christian saint, the Antonian movement fundamentally undermined European Church orthodoxy.

While her appeals to Kongo’s nobility were unsuccessful—on one occasion eliciting a beating for blasphemy—Kimpa Vita’s message of peace and racial empowerment generated a popular following among the ordinary Kongolese people. Kongo’s peasantry saw in Kimpa Vita an ideal leader, wholly different from the kingdom’s existing elite, whose theology gave legitimacy to their desire for an end to the civil war. 

Accompanied by a large body of followers from across the kingdom, Kimpa Vita led a pilgrimage to São Salvador in 1704. Having reoccupied the capital, she began to develop her own missionary force, the Little Anthonys, who were sent throughout Kongo to preach Antonianism and celebrate the capital’s restoration. Each of these Little Anthonys, much like Kimpa Vita, were supposedly possessed by a Christian saint, although all were subordinate to Saint Anthony. The Little Anthonys were highly successful in their preaching, despite elite opposition, and many peasants began to travel back to São Salvador. 

Kimpa Vita’s growing prestige and following among the people of Kongo quickly made her a powerful political figure, much to the chagrin of the kingdom’s claimants to the throne. Not only had she promised divine retribution to those political leaders who did not return to São Salvador, but she had also proclaimed that God would soon reveal to her which of the existing claimants to the throne would become the next king of Kongo. The spiritual authority which Kimpa Vita held within the kingdom, above even the official church for many, made such claims politically dangerous. 

However, at the peak of her influence, and in the midst of such hostility, Kimpa Vita’s theological and political projects were undone by the social inequalities over which she had no control. In 1705, Kimpa Vita became pregnant by one of her Little Anthonys, João Barro, supposedly possessed by Saint John. Not only had Kimpa Vita herself preached for monastic celibacy, but the pregnancy cast doubts on the legitimacy of her claims to possession by Saint Anthony. While Kimpa Vita’s message had resonated with thousands of Kongolese people, her authority as a religious leader was derived from her existence as the manifestation of a male saint. As such, Kimpa Vita’s pregnancy brought into sharp focus her gender and its apparent incompatibility with the nature of her possession. 

After a failed abortion attempt, Kimpa Vita and João Barro fled São Salvador for Mbidizi Valley where she gave birth to a son in relative secrecy. Shortly after the child was born, however, Kimpa Vita, Barro, and the baby Jerónimo, were discovered and imprisoned by agents of Pedro IV. While the king seemed, at first, to be inclined towards leniency, Father Bernardo de Gallo used his influence as a representative of the Church to push for a harsher punishment, leading the king to declare that Kimpa Vita and Barro were to be executed by burning for their heresy. The fate of Jerónimo is unknown: while European Church sources insist that he was spared at the behest of the missionaries, Kongo’s oral traditions suggest that he was burned to death alongside his parents in 1706.

The European missionaries believed that the death of Kimpa Vita would bring an end to the Antonian movement, but those in São Salvador remained committed to Kimpa Vita’s teachings and the worship of Saint Anthony. Antonianism had been predicated on a belief in the death and rebirth of both Kimpa Vita and Saint Anthony, and its followers were largely undeterred by the news of her latest death. This commitment, however, proved costly.

In 1709, Pedro IV reoccupied São Salvador and brought a final end to the kingdom’s civil war as its victor. Having defeated his political rivals, Pedro’s attention was drawn to the potentially subversive Antonians and the king-making power claimed by its former leader. To safeguard the uneasy peace which had settled across the kingdom, and perhaps to punish those who had challenged him in the past, Pedro had around thirty thousand Antonians sold into the Atlantic slave trade.

While the Antonian movement met a tragic end, the significance of Kimpa Vita’s achievements cannot be understated. Through her possession by Saint Anthony, and her radical, oppositional thought, Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita was able to transcend the social constraints placed on her by her race and her gender to achieve a power comparable to kings and the highest leaders of the Church. She did not live to see it, but the movement which she spawned was at the heart of the kingdom’s reunification, and formed the basis of Kongolese resistance to proto-colonial European racism. 

learn more

  • PODCAST: My African Clichés
  • BOOK: The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706 – John Thornton
  • FILM: Kimpa Vita: The Mother of the African Revolution

Joseph Callow has just finished his second year of History at Durham University. He has a particular interest in late modern African history.