Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Black Brotherhoods in North America: Afro-Iberian and West Central African Influences

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Black Brotherhoods in North America: Afro-Iberian and West Central African Influences

Article excerpt


When Johan Maurits of Nassau, Governor-General of Dutch Brazil (1630-54), sent out expeditions against the maroons of Palmares, he was informed by his intelligence officers that the inhabitants followed the "Portuguese religion," that they had erected a church in the capital, that there were chapels with images of saints and the Virgin Mary and that Zumbi, the king of Palmares, did not allow the presence of "fetishists." Portuguese sources confirm that Palmares had a priest who baptized children and married couples and that its inhabitants followed Catholic rite, although according to Governor Francisco de Brito, they did so "in a stupid fashion." (1)

Many more examples of the existence of Afro-Catholic elements in maroon communities in Latin America can be found. They question the widespread assumption that Catholicism had been forced upon all African slaves and that, even among those who seemingly embraced the colonizer's faith, and that it functioned merely as a veneer underneath which their truly African, indigenous beliefs remained hidden. As the case of Palmares indicates, slaves did not necessarily wish to liberate themselves from all "Catholic ballast" once they ran away but sometimes remained strongly attached to it. (2)

This conclusion corresponds to the assumption by the Brazilian historian Marina de Mello e Souza that upon arrival in the Americas, many slaves did not perceive Catholic elements as something foreign since "Catholicism represented a link to their native Africa." (3) Souza is but one of several scholars who in recent years contributed to a shift in the study of black performance culture in the New World. The new paradigm essentially consists in the acknowledgment that our understanding of black performance culture can be bettered if we take into consideration that many Africans had already adopted certain European--predominantly Portuguese--cultural and religious elements before they were shipped as slaves to the Americas.

In the context of this shift, there has been an increased interest in Afro-Iberian brotherhoods (irmandades/hermandades) and confraternities (confrarias/cofradias). While it was long assumed that these so-called "black brotherhoods" were associated with slave culture on the Iberian Peninsula and in Latin America only, it can now be confirmed that Afro-Catholic fraternities also flourished in parts of Africa during the Atlantic slave trade era. As Linda Heywood has argued, "many Kongos and not a few Angolans had been Christians before their enslavement in Brazil. Thus they would have been familiar with the brotherhoods in Luanda, Soyo, and Kongo, and the central role they played in the creole society of Kongo, Angola and Sao Tome." (4) Nicole von Germeten's research on black brotherhoods in Mexico also concluded that "some Central Africans probably took part in social and religious brotherhoods and sisterhoods before crossing the Atlantic." (5)

Ira Berlin also observed that black brotherhoods played a crucial role in the intercontinental networks that developed in the context of the transatlantic slavery. However, like most scholars, Berlin perceives brotherhoods as an essentially Iberian phenomenon that was crucial to the development of black identity in the Iberian World, differing from that in North America, where "numerous informal connections between black people" developed, but not brotherhoods. Although Berlin confirms that slaves "created an intercontinental web of cofradias ... so that, by the seventeenth century, the network of black religious brotherhoods stretched from Lisbon to Sao Tome, Angola, and Brazil," he believes that those slaves who ended up in Dutch, French or English colonies refrained from developing brotherhoods since there were no "comparable institutional linkages" that allowed them to do so. (6) Berlin's assumption thus presupposes that brotherhoods could only be established with institutional support and excludes the possibility that slaves themselves may have taken the initiative to create such organizations. …

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