Kimpa Vita (also known as Chimpa Vita) was born around 1684 in the kingdom of Kongo. Baptized Dona Beatrice by Catholic missionaries, Kimpa’s life exemplifies resistance to Europeans’ invasion and colonization of Africa in the seventeenth century.
The Kingdom of Kongo and Kimpa Vita/Chimpa Vita
Situated in an area that covered part of what is now the Central region of Africa and the Southern part of the continent, the kingdom of Kongo1 included countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, part of Gabon, and Angola. The kingdom came into contact with the Portuguese in 1452, and prior to their arrival, Kongo was extremely developed. Resources included ivory, gold, and copper, combined with sophisticated political, spiritual, and educational systems. For instance, the kingdom was divided into provinces (e.g., Soyo, Mpemba, Mbamba, Loango, Kakongo, and Ngoyo2) led by governors who were nominated by the elected king "Ne Kongo".
Figure 1. The royal throne and insignia of power in the kingdom of Kongo, Musée Royale de l’Afrique Centrale, Belgium
Kongo’s capital city was Mbanza Kongo, located in today’s Angola. Hence, the Portuguese who arrived off the coast of Kongo found a powerful and organized kingdom. In an attempt to describe Kongo’s architectural sophistication and development, "the Milanese ambassador in Lisbon compared the capital city Mbanza Kongo to the prestigious city of Évora, the royal residence in Portugal3 . Yet, the kingdom’s splendor and wealth ignited the greed and appetite of Europeans (Portuguese, Dutch, Germans, and British), who through religion, wars, treaties, and trade, accelerated the kingdom’s demise. A few decades after the European arrival, Mbanza Kongo became a port where Portuguese traders shipped products such as ivory and copper, as well as human captives. Indeed, after the 1500s, the Portuguese needed slave labor for their sugarcane plantations in São Tomé. As a result, they began purchasing this labor, but later on resorted to kidnapping. King Nzinga Mvemba, or Alfonso I, who reigned approximately between 1506-1543, wrote several letters to the king of Portugal to complain about Portuguese traders’ treatment of his people. Despite his complaints, and the multiple restrictions he placed on the slave trade, thousands continued to be illegally exported annually. As a result, the king was weakened and Kongo’s social structure destroyed.
Figure 2. European ambassadors in the presence of the King of the Kongo, Musée Royale de l’Afrique Centrale, Belgium
In the 1600s, the Portuguese became even more aggressive in their desire to control the kingdom and all its resources. In October 1665, Ne Nlaza or king Antonio I (also referred to as Nvita a Nkanga in other historical documents) engaged in a battle against the Portuguese over a gold mine. Ne Nlaza lost the battle of Mbwila and was slain by the Portuguese. Ne Nlaza’s death created a political vacuum, with the disappearance of the royal family and most of the ruling class. The kingdom was divided into several provinces, increasing from six in the sixteenth century to twenty-two in the eighteenth century. he Kongo’s previous political unity vanished, and was replaced with anarchy, coupled with the distrust and rejection of Europeans by the Bakongo. Describing Bakongo’s4 resentment toward Europeans during this period in history, Mbemba (2002) wrote:
II va y avoir, un fort sentiment de mépris des Kongo envers les européens, pour la simple raison qu'ils n'appliquent même pas ce qu'ils enseignent en matière de religion. Semble-t-il, que tous les rois catholiques sont frères et solidaires. Mais les faits et gestes de ceux qui le prétendent sur la base de la Bible, ne le créditent point. Alors qui est ce Dieu des Blancs qualifié d'universel avec paradoxalement son cortège de saints de la même couleur que lui ? Ses soi-disant serviteurs ne respectent pas les mœurs, coutumes et traditions Kongo. Pourtant toutes ne portent pas atteinte à la foi chrétienne ! (pp.41-42)5.
There will be a strong feeling of contempt of the Kongo towards Europeans, for the simple reason that they do not even apply what they teach in matters of religion. It seems that all Catholic kings are brothers and in solidarity. But the deeds and actions of those who claim it on the basis of the Bible do not support it. So, who is this God of the Whites, said universal, yet with saints of the same color as him? His so-called servants do not respect Kongo manners, customs and traditions. Yet, not all of them undermine the Christian faith!
It is in this political, social, and religious context that Kimpa Vita/Chimpa Vita was born. The exact date of Kimpa’s birth is not known, yet based on missionary reports, she was apparently born in the late seventeenth century, at a time when the kingdom of Kongo had lost its might and power. Some argue that her name may have been a European name. Yet, given that the missionaries who wrote about her were not proficient in the Bakongo language, it is not a far-fetched argument to state that her name may have been Europeanized to meet their own language standards. This practice was common among the colonizers who often gave Africans European names, or transformed African names. It is from this perspective that Martial Sinda, 6 drawing on Bakongo’s philosophical conception of names, explained that a Mukongo7 name was carefully chosen according to the event it is supposed to signify or symbolize. Therefore, Bakongo names had meaning and significance. According to him, Kimpa refers to nkoumbou ya soulou, which in Kikongo can mean fable, legend, riddle, mystery, or someone’s difficult character. Vita on the other hand, means ambush, or trap in the context of war. This may suggest several things, including that Kimpa was born in difficult circumstances, or that her family faced difficulties. Though little is known about Kimpa’s childhood and family, there is no doubt that her name points to an event. Raphael Batsikama8 used her other name Chimpa, Nsimba, which refers to the name given to twins in the kingdom of Kongo. Catholic priests who wrote about her contended that she was a Nganga marinda, that is priestess, mediator, or messenger of a spirit and spiritual group called Marinda. The Marinda cult, actually called Bansimba among the Bakongo, or priestess of twins’ society. In sum, Kimpa/Chimpa Vita's9 name is a reflection of Bakongo’s philosophy, customs, culture, and traditions.
Kimpa’s fight for the liberation of Kongo
Kimpa’s work to liberate and restore the kingdom was multidimensional. It was spiritual, political, and moral. According to records, Kimpa did not intend to become the King of the kingdom of Kongo. She created a new religion drawing from Catholicism and Kongo religion. Inspired by Saint Anthony in a vision, Kimpa set out to deliver her people. She created a new religion that was in tune with Bakongo culture, religion, and values. With her new religion, she aimed to liberate and restore the kingdom, and to awaken Bakongo to the challenges they faced and to the need to unite. She used religion to wake her people, and to bring them to realize that their deliverance was in their hands, and not in the hands of a foreign God, whose saints did not look like them. For the Bakongo, Kimpa was God’s servant sent as a response to their prayers for deliverance and freedom from their colonizers. Kimpa transformed some Catholic songs, removing reliance on sacraments and works, while reviving pride in the kingdom of Kongo and its restoration. For instance, she appointed Bakongo men as "angels" charged to preach about the new religion. Just like the prophetess Foumata Appolonia Foumaria10 before her, she strongly invited Bakongo to unite, and restore Mbanza Kongo to avoid impending doom. Her teachings were accompanied with miracles and healings, and as a result she was worshipped by the leaders of the kingdom. With multiple followers, any drink received from her hands healed and protected the recipient from evil devices. She taught Bakongo how to pray for their own salvation and that of the kingdom. She kept the moral virtue of Kongo religion, and rejected catholic practices such as baptism, confession, prayer and the sanctity of marriage. Polygamy was right and legal because it was part of Bakongo culture.
Kimpa had no intention to rule the kingdom even though many Bakongo believed in her. Acting as heir of Kongo kings, she was a peacemaker—reconciling and resolving conflicts—which allowed her to sit among leaders, and achieve recognition as ruler of Mbanza Kongo, the capital of the kingdom. Kimpa was interested in reuniting the kingdom of Kongo, and for this reason, she set out to reconcile the three contestants to the throne of Kongo. She worked to make them understand that her mission required her to settle in Mbanza Kongo, the political capital, and not in Soyo, or any other province. Kimpa convinced contestant kings such as Nusamu a Mvemba (Pedro IV) and the people to move to Mbanza Kongo. With songs and praises, she marched with thousands to Mbanza Kongo. Kimpa’s presence in Mbanza Kongo caused her to be seen as a contender to the throne. She assembled many Bakongo in Mbanza Kongo and during her stay in the capital city, the population increased. At a time when Kongo’s population was decreasing due to civil wars and the slave trade, Kimpa’s ability to increase the population advanced her goal of restoring the kingdom. One of her greatest enemies, Bernardo da Gallo, the Catholic priest, wrote the following about her:
II arriva ainsi que San Salvador [Mbanza Kongo] fut rapidement peuple, par ce que les uns y allaient pour vénérer la prétendue sainte, d’autres pour voir la patrie renouvelée, certains pour saluer des amis, d’autres amenés par le désir de récupérer miraculeusement la sante, d’autres enfin, à cause du désir de régner et d'être les premiers à occuper l‘endroit. De cette façon, la fausse sainte fut faite la restauratrice, dominatrice et seigneur du Congo. Elle était, comme si elle avait été acclamée, estimée et adorée par tous. Moi par contre, j'étais tenu comme un arlequin, couard et d'âme vile, n'ayant pas assez de courage pour aller a San Salvador [Mbanza Kongo], ni pour convoquer les populations et restaurer le royaume, comme l‘avait fait leur fausse sainte.
So it happened that San Salvador [Mbanza Kongo] was quickly populated, because some went there to venerate the supposed saint, others to see the homeland renewed, some to greet friends, others were brought by the desire to miraculously recover their health, finally, others went because of the desire to reign and to be the first to occupy the place. Hence, the fake saint was made the restorer, dominator and lord of the Congo. She was, as if she had been acclaimed, esteemed and adored by all. Me on the other hand, I was seen like a puppet, coward, and a depraved soul, not having enough courage to go to San Salvador [Mbanza Kongo], nor to summon the populations and restore the kingdom, as their fake saint had done.
The excerpt above shows Kimpa’s leadership and ability to unite Bakongo. However, her work was stopped with her arrest and condemnation to the stake. Considered fake and a witch by the Catholic missionaries, they were accomplices in her death.
Kimpa Vita’s Death
Catholic missionaries benefited from the disunity and destruction of the kingdom which made Kimpa an enemy. Hence, Catholic missionaries saw her as a threat to their interests, and worked with the king (Nusama a Mvemba/Pedro IV) to arrest and condemn her. The following excerpt of her interrogation by Bernardo da Gallo exposes the priests’ motivations:
Je lui demandai qui elle était. Elle répondit qu'elle était Saint Antoine venu du ciel. Bien, dis-je, quelles nouvelles apportez-vous de là-haut ? Dites-moi si au ciel, il y a des noirs du Congo et sont-ils la avec la couleur de noirs. Elle répondit qu'au ciel, il y avait des petits noirs du Congo baptises et des adultes qui ont observé la loi de Dieu, mais ils n 'ont pas la couleur du nègre ni du blanc, parce qu 'au ciel, il n’y a aucune couleur (Mbemba, 2002, p.73).
I asked her who she was. She replied that she was Saint Anthony from heaven. Well, said I, what news do you bring from up there? Tell me if in heaven, there are Blacks from the Congo and if they are there with the color of Blacks. She replied that in heaven there were little Blacks from the Congo baptized and adults who observed the law of God, but they do not have black or white color, because in heaven, there is no color.
The Catholic missionary Bernardo da Gallo's disdain for Kimpa, and his desire to condemn her, appeared to be based on religious disagreement. Yet, as mentioned above, Kimpa used religion as a way to awaken her people, end colonization, and restore the kingdom. To stop the movement, her death was critical, and king Nusama a Mvemba/Pedro IV’s perception of her as a contender to the throne helped Bernado da Gallo to ensure her condemnation to death by fire. On July 2, 1706, she was burned alive. Yet, sentencing people to death by fire was not included or part of the Kongo judiciary system. In Kongo criminal law, penalties applicable to culprits for the worst crimes included slavery, ostracism, and fatal execution by burying the criminals alive11. Indeed, the Kongo judiciary system did not include death by fire. For this reason, some scholars argue that Kimpa’s condemnation to death by fire was probably the product of an agreement between the king and the missionaries in exchange for military support. Furthermore, a demonstration of the increasing control these Europeans had on the kingdom. Recounting her condemnation and boasting about his involvement, Bernado da Gallo, wrote:
Comme j'avais moi-même determiné le sort qu 'il convenait de leur faire, j écrivis pour dire qu'on ne les laisse pas mourir de faim …. Dom Manuel…se réunit avec le reste du conseil royal, en présence du roi, sans que j 'intervienne en aucune façon, comme si je n 'y avais eu aucune part.
As I myself had determined the fate that should be done to them, I wrote to say that we do not let them starve…. Dom Manuel… met with the rest of the royal council, in the presence of the king, without me intervening in any way, as if I had had no part in it.
The story of Kimpa/Chimpa Vita shows that European invaders and/or colonizers met resistance on the African continent. Her story also underscores the leading role of women in resisting exploitation and colonization in Africa.
References & Notes
1 The exact superficies of the kingdom are not known with exactitude. Other countries may include Cameroon, part of Nigeria, as well as other nations in the Western part of the continent. Nevertheless, the kingdom was one of the greatest on the continent. Read Grand-père, parle-nous du peuple Koongo , 2012, by Dieudonné Antoine-Ganga. Paris: L'Harmattan. Find a copy at the Schomburg Center Research & Reference Division.
2 For more information Langues, culture et histoire Koongo aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles: à travers les documents linguistiques, 1995, by Nsondé, Jean de Dieu. Paris: L'Harmattan. Find a copy at the Schomburg Center Research & Reference Division.
3 The Kongo kingdom: Long-standing diplomatic and trade connections with Europe, by Africa Museum. Retrieved from https://www.africamuseum.be/en/discover/history_articles/kongo-kingdom. Another book: Kongo Across the Waters, 2013. Edited by Susan Cooksey, Robin Poynor, and Hein Vanhee. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. Find a copy at the Schomburg Center Research & Reference Division.
4 Citizens of the kingdom of Kongo.
5Le procès de Kimpa Vita : la Jeanne d'Arc congolaise, 2002 by Rudy Mbemba dia Benazo-Mbanzulu. Paris: L'Harmattan. Find a copy at the Schomburg Center Research & Reference Division.
6 Le procès de Kimpa Vita : la Jeanne d'Arc congolaise, 2002, by Rudy Mbemba dia Benazo-Mbanzulu. Paris: L'Harmattan.
7 A citizen of the kingdom of Kongo.
8 Le procès de Kimpa Vita: la Jeanne d'Arc congolaise, 2002, by Rudy Mbemba dia Benazo-Mbanzulu. Paris: L'Harmattan
9 Kimpa Vita/Chimpa Vita was also known as Ndona NSIMBA, Beatrice Marguerite.
10 Played a historical role on the restoration of the Kongo kingdom, and was one of the eyewitnesses of the collapse of the kingdom, at the time of the Battle of Mbwila in 1665. She received a revelation from the Virgin Mary who asked her to signify to the king and to the inhabitants to return to Mbanza Kongo [San Salvador]. In doing so, the prophecy announced, among other things, misfortunes, calamities likely to affect all Bakongo who do not comply with the recommendations of the Virgin and the Christ.
11. For more information, read: Mbemba, R. C. (2000). L'ordre social: histoire et justice pénale dans la société traditionnelle kongo depuis les origines jusqu'au XXème siècle (Doctoral dissertation, Toulouse 1). Biayenda, E.(1968) Coutumes et Développement chez les Bakongo du Congo-Brazzaville. Find copies at the Schomburg Center Research & Reference Division.