Book review: Afro-Atlantic Catholics

Author: Maria Cecilia Ulrickson

Afro-Atlantic Catholics
America’s First Black Christians

Jeroen Dewulf (Notre Dame Press, 2022)

Review by Maria Cecilia Ulrickson


Dewulf Bookcover

Jeroen Dewulf’s book makes a monumental claim: slave culture in the Americas developed from the Catholicism that Africans brought with them across the Atlantic. What are the particulars of his claim, where does it come from, and why is it monumental?

Dewulf argues that slave culture in the Americas developed from charter generations of enslaved Catholic Africans from across West Africa. These were Luso-Catholics, Africans who encountered Portuguese Christianity by way of Portuguese merchants and missionaries. Medieval Portuguese Catholicism brought the faithful into contact with the Divine through the institution of lay brotherhoods—and their associated processions, parades with floats and dances, elections and hierarchies using Portuguese aristocratic titles, justice courts, and funeral rituals—and by rituals of intimacy with the saints, whose statues could be petitioned, activated, and punished by ritual acts. West Africans adopted and adapted this Catholicism. The largest population of Catholic West Africans was found in the independent, Catholic kingdom of Kongo and the Portuguese colony of Angola. The monograph additionally makes the novel claim that significant Luso-Catholic cultures also flourished in parts of West Africa not traditionally associated with Catholicism and long after any Portuguese presence: Cabo Verde islands, Upper Guinea, São Tomé, and Lower Guinea. For example, Cabo Verde brotherhoods celebrated feasts with their own king and ritualized battles that survived until at least the 18th century, and rural Cabo Verdeans passed on saint customs, prayers, and Christian beliefs until a Catholic missionary campaign dispersed their communities in the mid-20th century. 

Dewulf follows African Catholics sold into Atlantic slavery into the Americas. He firmly sides with the historiographic argument that Africans preserved and transmitted their African origins even under the violence of the Middle Passage and slavery. Dewulf examines Luso-Africans in the Spanish mainland, Brazil, Spanish (later, Dutch) Curaçao, the British West Indies, the French Antilles, Dutch (later, English) New Netherland, New England, and French (later, Spanish) Louisiana. His chapters on Africa and the Americas are roughly organized by geography, which minimizes some of the dizziness that comes from the book’s wide scope. He argues that the devotional lives of Afro-Atlantic Catholics profoundly shaped slave cultures, even in places such as Curaçao and New Netherland, where African Catholics were only the “charter generation” and subsequently became a minority group within the enslaved population. These were also places where the eventual dominant religion was Protestant Christianity, and it is here that Dewulf, a scholar of New Netherland, brings out his best material. 

Dewulf’s Luso-African genealogy for slave culture in the Protestant, English-speaking United States appears in his final chapter. This chapter is a taxing read, perhaps in part because it draws from a number of already-published articles. In Dutch and English North America, enslaved African Americans and their descendants built institutions of self-governance, burial societies, and public festive traditions that intertwined with Black Protestantism or, in “secular” forms, coexisted with it. African Luso-Catholicism persisted in African American “Election Day” practices in New England, when Afro-communities elected governors or kings, whom they dressed in regalia and honored with parades; the King of Zulu parade in New Orleans; and Black fraternal societies of the post-abolition period. Dewulf points out that these traditions have appeared in scholarship before, but almost always presented as the progeny of “indigenous”—that is to say, non-Christian—African rituals. Dewulf also links Afro-Catholicism to explicitly Protestant traditions, finding traces of the medieval Portuguese fascination with the Divine Holy Spirit in the African American embrace of Pinkster parades celebrating Pentecost in Dutch reformed New York, traces of Cabo Verdean rhythms that accompanied the rosary in drums featured in early-20th century Methodist king parades, and traces of São Tomé spiritual exercises in North American ring shouts (extended, not-worded, repetitive chants with drumming and hand clapping).

Dewulf’s method of considering together slave culture of the Americas and African culture first arose within the subfield of the history of slave religion. W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903 proposed that the Black church in America antedated emancipation and even the institution of slavery. Aside from the Christianity that circulated under slavery and its “doctrines of passive submission,” Black Christians had inherited a spiritual sense from their African-born enslaved ancestors. African-born people brought a spiritual world with them, “animate with gods and devils . . . full of strange influences,— of Good to be implored, of Evil to be propitiated” (The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, 1903). Decades after Du Bois, an anthropologist named Melville J. Herskovits set out to dismantle the myth that African Americans have no deep history, that “Africa” disappeared under enslavement. Herskovits identified West African (especially Yoruba and Fon) “cultural elements”—beliefs, gods, and rituals—in the syncretic religions of the Americas. Herskovits was not very concerned with the process of syncretization, as his work did not really address either the continuous religious formation that was happening on the Atlantic coast of Africa or, on the other side of the ocean, the way that an African “core,” like rituals of possession, became an American religious practice such as Baptist “shouting” (Life in a Haitian Valley, 1937; The Myth of the Negro Past, 1941). But significantly, Herskovits’ fieldwork identified religion as the key for settling the debate over African American history and for understanding slave society in the Americas. 

The theory of African survivalisms inspired a counter-interpretation of what happened to African memories that challenged and eventually deepened Dewulf’s field. The renowned African American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier explained the genesis of Black Christianity as the adaptation of white master’s Christianity by enslaved Africans replacing the “lost and forgotten” memories of their African gods (The Negro Church in America, 1963). While Frazier offered a story of Black cultural creativity—something that happened almost exclusively in America for Frazier’s followers—a corollary narrative considered the violence that had left African Americans in need of creative cultural formation in the first place. In the early 2000s, Orlando Patterson’s comparative thesis of the “social death” of slaves re-captured the field. A wave of scholarship examined the Middle Passage, institutions, practices, and experiences of slavery that mutilated enslaved people in the flesh and in the documents of historical archives (Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, 1982; Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, 2007; Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery, 2008; Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, 2016). These scholars do not necessarily deny the possibility of African survivalisms but they claim that the totalizing institution of slavery left only wreckage in its wake, not knowable humans. In Dewulf’s book, some Luso-Africans protected themselves from the violence by building new structures that drew on African memories. Consider, for example, the 16th-century runaway community in Panama that celebrated a form of Catholic Mass far beyond any slaveholder’s gaze. Dewulf argues that this religion was their own, not imposed. The example suggests that we must see African continuities and creativity together to understand enslaved people as they understood themselves.

The “Frazier” scholarship eventually balanced between the poles of violence and creativity and offered new approaches to cultural formation that orient Dewulf’s work but also demand something of it. First, scholars who rejected the “static” term “survivalisms” opened their lens to more dynamic forms of continuity. Sidney Mintz and Richard Price used the model of simultaneous continuities and modifications in their examination of the sociocultural practices of African-descent people of Cuba, Trinidad, Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti, and Suriname (The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective, 1992). Dewulf clearly belongs in this camp, but at times he borders on compare-contrast chart-making. Beyond the gains of self-governance and degrees of freedom that Catholic practices offered to Dewulf’s subjects, why did Afro-Atlantic Catholics hold on to, transmit, and fashion anew their Catholic devotions and beliefs? What spiritual fruit did their spiritual practices—their kings, elaborate burial rites, drums, and penances—offer them in the new context of the Americas?

Historians are also now attentive to tempering the excessive optimism of narratives of creativity with the violence that forced Africans to forge these new connections in the first place and that killed African cultures in the process (Sweet, “The Quiet Violence of Ethnogenesis,” William and Mary Quarterly, 2011). Enslaved people and their African cultures persisted, died, and sprang anew simultaneously, and always under violence. In Dewulf’s narrative, Afro-Atlantic Catholicism faced violence in the form of eradication campaigns even from within the Catholic Church; Catholics from post-Tridentine Europe could not recognize medieval-origin Catholicism for what it was. (Dewulf does commit one error here, identifying the inclusion of salt in baptisms as a distinctively medieval Catholic practice, and one that set Luso-African Catholics apart from other Catholics. In fact, salt remained in the Church’s baptismal rite until the reforms after Vatican II.) Part of the reason that Afro-Catholicism is hard to see today is because other Catholics wiped it out. Afro-Catholic rituals also disappeared under the criticisms of Black intellectuals who sought to replace Catholic parade culture with new forms of Black respectability in the post-abolition era. The rejection of Dewulf’s Catholics by their own Church corresponds with the experiences of Black Catholics of the 18th century through the present, who are now part of the historical record thanks to the eminent church historian Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., and those who followed him (Davis, The History of Black Catholics in the United States, 1990; Ochs, Desegregating the Altar: The Josephites and the Struggle for Black Priests, 1871–1960, 1990; Batts Morrow, Persons of Color and Religious at the Same Time: The Oblate Sisters of Providence, 1828–1860, 2002; Clark and Meacham Gould, “The Feminine Face of Afro-Catholicism in New Orleans, 1727–1852,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 2002; Cressler, Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration, 2017; Valerio, “‘That There Be No Black Brotherhood’: The Failed Suppression of Afro-Mexican Confraternities, 1568–1612,” Slavery and Abolition, 2021; Williams, Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle, 2022).

Although I have so far highlighted Dewulf’s new findings from Upper and Lower Guinea and the islands, the book’s narrative and argument are also deeply indebted to the history and historiography of the early-modern, Catholic kingdom of Kongo. Catholicism in Kongo was not a smokescreen upon African core beliefs, but intertwined with the Kongolese state, embedded in rural society, and wedded with Kongolese religious concepts, an argument Dewulf also vigorously defends in his “Africa” chapter (Jadin, Le Congo et la secte des Antoniens: restauration du royaume sous Pedro IV et la “saint-Antoine”congolaise (1694–1718), 1961; Thornton, “The Development of an African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1491–1750,” The Journal of African History, 1984; Fromont, The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo, 2014).

The congada performed in Brazil, circa 1860; photograph commissioned by Emperor Dom Pedro II. Public domain.

Beginning in the 1980s, Kongolese Catholics entered so-called “Atlantic” histories, both as the charter generation of slaves in societies that mostly imported Africans from elsewhere and as the majority of African slaves in Saint-Domingue and Brazil. The most obvious fruit of Kongolese Catholicism is the Catholic-infused religious system of Haitian vodou, but Kongolese Catholic beliefs also inspired factions of the Haitian Revolution and the Stono Rebellion. In Dewulf’s text, we find well-known traces of Kongolese Catholicism in widespread devotions to Our Lady of the Rosary, St. Anthony, and St. John, in funeral procedures, and in the dance theater known as congada in Brazil and the Spanish Americas. In the Dutch- and English-speaking Americas, Dewulf’s Kongolese charter generations introduced enslaved people to Christianity long before white Christians actively proselytized them in the Great Awakening (Thornton, “On the Trail of Voodoo: African Christianity in Africa and the Americas,” The Americas, 1988; Thornton, “African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion,” The American Historical Review, 1991; Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800, 1992; Heywood and Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660, 2007; Rey, The Priest and the Prophetess: Abbé Ouvière, Romaine Rivière, and the Revolutionary Atlantic World, 2017). The Kongolese in the wider historiography and in Jeroen Dewulf’s book bring us back to the original instincts of W. E. B. Du Bois, that the Americas began in Africa, and that religion—especially Catholicism—is at the heart of African American culture.

Jeroen Dewulf’s African Catholics brought their pieties, rituals, and even Catholic devotional objects into the Americas. These were the seeds that grew into African American societies. The people Dewulf studies were shaped by an ethnogenesis on both sides of the Atlantic. Their Catholicism was an African reinvention, not a veneer, which they and fellow enslaved Africans embraced in the Americas. 

Maria Cecilia Ulrickson is assistant professor of American church history in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America. 

This review appears in the spring 2023 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.