Africa Today 47.2 (2000) 220-223
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John Thornton's objective in writing this book was to render a well-documented episode of Kongolese history in a narrative style, accessible to nonacademics. He has largely succeeded. Thornton is certainly the right person for the task, as he has been working with the relatively rich set of primary documents on the Kongo Kingdom for more than twenty years. The historical episode--the rise of the Antonian prophetic movement from the religious experience of a young Kongolese women named Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita at the turn of the seventeenth century--is familiar to scholars of the Central African past, but the story has never been told in such detail, nor its historical context considered so thoroughly. At the time of Dona Beatriz's birth in 1684, the Kongolese elite's experience of Catholicism was nearly two-centuries-old. The Kongo Kingdom was also several decades into a period of severe civil strife, as its ancient capital, São Salvador, lay abandoned, and competing regional factions were fighting among each other to claim the royal title. These conflicts generated a large number of captives who were often sold into slavery and shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas. As a consequence, Kongolese Catholic slaves played key roles in the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina, as well as the Haitian Revolution at the end of the century. Thornton rightly points out that these connections have not been fully appreciated by scholars, studying either side of the Atlantic.
The book begins with an Introduction that lays out the source material to be mined. Thornton relies largely upon four accounts written by Italian Capuchin priests posted to the Kongo in the opening years of the eighteenth century. These documents provide a detailed chronicling of Dona Beatriz's life and mission, albeit from the perspective of the Catholic priests whose influence in Kongo's religious and political affairs sparked her movement to life, and whose actions ultimately led to her being burned at the stake. Thornton regrets the lack of a Kongolese voice in the sources for this period of the kingdom's history, but asserts that "reading between the lines" of the Capuchin accounts, coupled with insights from more recent studies on Kongolese religious practice, can facilitate the reconstruction of an eighteenth-century Kongolese worldview.
The Introduction is followed by nine chapters that tell the story of Dona Beatriz and the Antonian movement. Chapter One provides the political and religious background to Dona Beatriz's early years in the small, but religiously important, provincial town of Kibangu. Thornton describes some key elements of Kongolese Christianity--notably the celebrations of Halloween, All Saints' Day, and Saint James's Day--emphasizing continuity and connections to historical Kongolese religious practice. Chapter Two introduces the complex field of dynastic kinship politics and the various claimants to the Kongolese throne, as well as the key notion of kindoki, "power derived from the 'Other world' that can either curse or protect." As a young girl, Dona Beatriz was recognized to have access to such powers for purposes of social healing. Chapter Three describes more fully the functions of European Catholic priests in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century [End Page 221] Kongo society, and their hostile attitudes to historical Kongolese religious rituals; the Capuchins in particular were obsessed in suppressing what they considered "witchcraft." Chapter Four outlines the failed attempts at reconciliation by Kongolese leaders and Italian priests leading to the outbreak of war in 1702.
Chapter Five begins the telling of Dona Beatriz's prophetic mission following her supernatural illness, death, and resurrection as Saint Anthony in August 1704. She immediately began preaching against the greed and jealousy of the Kongolese political class, and their abuse of kindoki. The prestige obtained by her otherworldly possession allowed Dona Beatriz to gain an audience with King Pedro, a claimant to the Kongolese...