The battle for fidelity to humanity/dignity
Thanks to the work of John Thornton (The Kongolese St. Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706. Cambridge University Press, 1998), the reading public has access to a history of connection between the Kongo Kingdom and Saint Domingue.
The Story of Kimpa Vita (Dona Beatriz)
Kimpa Vita was born in 1684 in a noble family. She was baptized into the Catholic church. In August of 1704, after having been sick for a few years, Kimpa Vita had a vision of St. Anthony. He asked her to restore the Kongo Kingdom, which had been ravaged by wars triggered by the Atlantic slave trade.
Following that vision, Kimpa Vita started agitating against slavery, and in the process found herself opposing the King and the Italian Capuchin missionaries. The movement became known as the Antonin Movement.
For the missionaries, Kimpa Vita’s status as healer (Nganga) and her popularity among the poor was perceived as a threat to their own activities in the Kongo Kingdom. They lobbied the King and eventually had her arrested and sentenced to be burned at the stake. On July 2, 1706, she was burned alive with her child.
While it is difficult to know exactly of the direct and indirect connections between Kimpa Vita, her fight against slavery, the Catholic church, and the 1791-1804 uprising in St. Domingue, historians like Thornton have made the case for the connections. In 1739, the Stono rebellion in South Carolina was led by Catholic slaves from the Kongo. The statistics of slaves imported to St. Domingue included large numbers from the Kongo (from a total population of 2,000 slaves in 1681, their numbers went to 480,000 in 1791). Half of the slave population in 1791 had been born in Africa.
Linguistically, the words which were used during the Bois Caiman ceremony/chants in 1791, inaugerating the beginning of the uprising, included Kongolese words: Kanga bafiote, Kanga mundele, Kanga ndoki la, Kanga Li, meaning “Tie up [or free, or save] the black men, tie up/free/save the white man, tie up/free/save the witch, tie them up!” (Thornton, 19:213)
What happened in Haiti between 1791 and 1804 was completely unexpected by the slave owners, by the leaders of the system. Indeed, the uprising was perceived as trespassing: doing the unthinkable, the improbable, the unacceptable. Because of its success, extreme and unrelenting punishment has been inflicted on the slaves and their descendents till today. 1804 requires from each one of us, whoever we are, wherever we are, fidelity to that event, to a world emancipated from the visible and invisible shackles of a global system determined to maintain, at any cost, what it gained from slavery and its modernization.