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Kimpa Vita, baptized as Beatriz and therefore also known as Dona Beatriz (1684 – 1706), was a Congolese prophet and leader of her own Christian movement, known as Antonianism. Her teaching grew out of the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church in Kongo.
Beatriz Kimpa Vita was born near Mount Kibangu in the Kingdom of Kongo, now a part of modern Angola around 1684. She was born into a family of the Kongo nobility, probably of the class called Mwana Kongo, and was probably baptized soon after, as Kongo had been a Catholic kingdom for two centuries. Some modern scholars believe that she was connected to King António I of Kongo (1661-65), who died at the battle of Mbwila (Ulanga) in 1665, because his Kikongo name Vita a Nkanga connects with her name. However, she cannot have been a child of his, given her birth date, and the naming theory is not supported, nor does any contemporary document mention it.
At the time of her birth, Kongo was torn by civil war. These wars had started shortly after the death of António I and had resulted in the abandonment of the ancient capital of São Salvador (present day Mbanza Kongo) in 1678 and the division of the country by rival pretenders to the throne.
According to her testimony, given at an inquest on her life and reported by the Capuchin missionary Bernardo da Gallo, Beatriz had visions even as a youth, and her high spirits and otherworldly outlook caused her two youthful marriages to fail and led her deeper into a spiritual life. Kimpa Vita was trained as nganga marinda, a person said to be able to communicate with the supernatural world. The nganga marinda was connected to the kimpasi cult, a healing cult that flourished in late seventeenth century Kongo. However, sometime around 1700, she renounced her role and moved closer to the views of the Catholic church.
Call to mission
Beatriz went to live among colonists sent out by King Pedro IV, one of several rival rulers of Kongo, to reoccupy the ancient and now abandoned capital of São Salvador. There was a great deal of religious fervor among these colonists who were tired of the endless civil wars in the country, and many had become followers of an old prophet, Appolonia Mafuta, who was preaching that God would punish Kongo.
During an illness in 1704 she claimed to have received visions of St. Anthony of Padua, and when, as she reported to Father Bernardo, she died and St. Anthony entered her body and took over her life. She began to preach, and Appolonia Mafuta supported her, claiming that she was the real voice of God. From that point onward, she believed she had a special connection to God, among other things, she died each Friday and spent the weekend in Heaven talking with God, to return to earth on Mondays. While in this state, she learned that Kongo must reunite under a new king, for the civil wars that had plagued Kongo since the battle of Mbwila in 1665 had angered Christ. She was ordered to build a specific Congolese Catholicism and unite the Congo under one king. She destroyed "idols", the various Kongo Nkisi or charms inhabited by spiritual entities, as well as Christian paraphernalia. When she took her message to King Pedro IV, he considered it, but refused to hear her. She then went to visit his rival João II at Mbula (near the Congo River close to modern Matadi), who also refused to hear her. However, in short time she was able to gather a significant number of followers and became a factor in the struggle of power. Her movement recognized the papal primate but was hostile against the European missionaries in Congo.
While she was in São Salvador, which she and her followers occupied in 1705, she built a special residence for herself in the ruined cathedral, and also called the formerly ruined and abandoned capital to be reoccupied by thousands of mostly peasant followers. However, she soon won noble converts as well, including Pedro Constantinho da Silva Kibenga, the commander of one of Pedro IV's armies sent to reoccupy the city. Since he chose his devotion to Beatriz as an opportunity to rebel, Pedro IV, who had been guardedly neutral to her, to decide to destroy her, all the more as his own wife, Hipolita, had become an Antonian convert.
Beatriz sent out missionaries of her movement, called Little Anthonies, to other provinces. They were not successful in the coastal province of Soyo, where the Prince expelled them, but they were much more successful in the dissident southern part of Soyo and Mbamba Lovata, which lay south of Soyo. There they won converts, especially among partisans of the old queen Suzana de Nóbrega. Manuel Makasa, one of these partisans also became an Antonian and moved to São Salvador.
Much of her teaching is known from the Salve Antoniana, her prayer that converted the Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) a Catholic prayer, into an anthem of the movement. Among other things, the Salve Antoniana taught that God was only concerned with believers intentions not with sacraments or good works, and that Saint Anthony was the greatest one, in fact, a "second God." In addition, she taught that the principle characters in Christianity, including Jesus, Mary and Saint Francis, were all born in Kongo and were in fact Kongolese. She upbraided the Catholic priests for refusing to acknowledge this.
Execution and its aftermath
Kimpa Vita was captured near her hometown and burned at the temporary capital of Evululu as a heretic in 1706 by forces loyal to Pedro IV. She was tried under Kongo law as a witch and a heretic, with the consent and counsel of the Capuchin friars Bernardo da Gallo and Lorenzo da Lucca.
The Anthonian prophetic movement outlasted her death. Her followers continued to believe that she was still alive, and it was only when Pedro IV's forces took São Salvador in 1709 that the political force of her movement was broken, and most of her former noble adherents renounced their beliefs and rejoined the church. Some hint of the strength of her teaching may be glimpsed by the fact that eighteenth century Kongo religious art often shows Jesus as an African, and that Saint Anthony, known as "Toni Malau" was very prominent. More recently, some see present day Kimbanguism as its successor. Traditions circulating in Mbanza Kongo (formerly São Salvador) in 2002 also place great significance in the role of Beatriz' mother as an inspiration for the prophet and also as playing a role in its continuation, though contemporary sources make no mention of a role for her mother.
- Kimpa Vita in the Dictionary of African Biography
- www.metmuseum.org page of Kimpa Vita
- Biography by Elaine M. Lumbu (claiming Kimpa Vita's re-incarnation as Simon Kimbangu)
- Interview of John Thornton, author of The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706
- The Black Hand of God
- John Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706,, Cambridge University Press; 1998, ISBN 0-521-59370-0