African Catholics and Slave Rebellion in Early American History

Matthew J. Cressler

“Believe it or not, Europeans were not the only Catholics who crossed the Atlantic in the early modern period.” This is how I opened lecture a few days ago. I am currently teaching a course on Catholics and Catholicism in American History and, as we cover the colonial period, I have tried to impress upon my students that the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries witnessed dynamic (and oftentimes destructive) encounters between Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans in what we now call the Americas. I assume that most students were not surprised to find New Spain and New France as starting points for our semester, even if the distinctive nature of early modern French and Spanish Catholicisms may have taken them somewhat off guard.  But I’d venture a guess that few if any expected to learn about the Kingdom of Kongo or armed African Catholic slave rebellion on a South Carolina plantation in Week 3.

Lucky for those of us hoping to broaden students’ (and our own) perspectives on what it has meant to be Catholic at various points throughout American history, there has been some groundbreaking work over the past few years on African Catholics in the Americas.

Foremost for me has been the extensive contributions of Linda Heywood and John Thornton, who have illuminated the Atlantic Creole culture of West Central Africans in the early modern period. In Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660 (2007), they establish the West Central African origins of most slaves brought forcibly into the English and Dutch colonies across the Americas in the seventeenth century. Through archival and material culture sources, they illuminate the ways West Central Africans creatively combined Portuguese Catholic and African traditions into an Atlantic Creole culture.

What is more, as Heywood and Thornton put it in an essay on The Root, “a year before Columbus set sail for America, an African king was baptized and converted his kingdom into a Catholic nation that lasted nearly 370 years” – I highly recommend this online essay if you want to learn much more about this really quickly. Though Portuguese missionaries initially introduced Catholic Christianity to the Kongo, the royal elite quickly took control of its dissemination. By 1595, Kongolese kings had established their own Catholic Church with its own diocesan establishment and its own emissaries to the pope, independent of the Portuguese. The Catholic culture that emerged in Kongo was not a European imposition in any straightforward sense. This was an “Africanized” Catholicism that translated Catholic Christian concepts into traditional Kongolese religious terms and maintained many Kongolese mores (like polygamous marital arrangements) despite Portuguese attempts to stifle local traditions. The Kongo High God, for another instance, became virtually identical to the Christian God and many local deities became incorporated into Catholic saints.  (See The Root as well as Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, 60-67.)

Now, why does this matter for students and scholars of American religious history? It matters because, while the Kongo resisted Portuguese efforts to enslave its people, in the seventeenth century civil wars broke out throughout the area. The losing sides in these wars were often enslaved wholesale. This condemned a significant number of Portuguese-speaking Kongolese Catholics into slavery. Though most of these West Central Africans were brought to Brazil or the Caribbean, those Atlantic Creoles brought to North America eventually found themselves in Louisiana and South Carolina. (On The Root, Heywood and Thornton estimate “about 1 in 5 Americans of African descent come from Kongolese stock.”)

And, as John Thornton has persuasively argued elsewhere, twenty or so of these Kongolese Catholic slaves were instrumental in the Stono slave rebellion in 1739 South Carolina, the largest slave uprising in the British colonies prior to the American revolution – for a more detailed account, see “African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion,” American Historical Review 96.4 (Oct. 1991). Jemmy, the leader of the rebellion, and his core companions were likely Kongolese Catholics.  They spoke (and some read) Portuguese and they appeared to be trained in the military tactics common in West Central African civil wars. As Heywood and Thornton put it on The Root, these Kongolese Catholics were “anxious to escape slavery in Protestant South Carolina to freedom in Catholic Florida.” Starting out from the Stono River, they armed themselves by raiding a local store for guns and strengthened their ranks as more escaped slaves joined their cause.  Moving south, they burned homes and killed white opponents who challenged them. Eventually a militia of white planters met them in battle, where twenty whites and nearly forty blacks died. The forty or so rebels who escaped were later captured and executed.

It seems clear that these Kongolese Catholic slaves hoped to reach Spanish St. Augustine, since Spanish Florida was then home to fortified community of African and African American Catholics. Sylvester Johnson will discuss this armed and free black Catholic community in his book African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press) – something all of us should look forward to! Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (now Fort Mose) was built by Africans and for Africans just two miles outside St. Augustine. There they fought for the Spanish against the British and sometimes forayed into the British colonies in hopes of freeing more slaves and thereby strengthening their ranks. (This watercolor painting of Fort Mose comes from PBS's Africans in the Americas series.)

So, the next time you’re teaching an introduction to American religious history – or Catholic American history…or African American religious history… – make sure you keep Kongolese Catholics in mind. Because, believe it or not, they were there in the colonial Americas with Native Americans, Spanish, French, and British.


Unknown said…
very interesting and infromative

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