African Religions in the New World

By Peterson, Daniel; Hamblin, Bill | Deseret News (Salt Lake City), February 14, 2018 | Go to article overview

African Religions in the New World


Peterson, Daniel, Hamblin, Bill, Deseret News (Salt Lake City)


The trans-Atlantic slave trade ranks among the greatest humanitarian disasters of history. Though slavery was a near-universal phenomenon throughout premodern history, the intensity and duration of human trafficking across the Atlantic was unequaled.

From the 16th through the 19th centuries, millions of people were shipped from Africa to the New World, into Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and British colonies. Millions more died in the slave wars in Africa, and from maltreatment and malnutrition before arriving in their destinations. (Incidentally, most black slaves were enslaved by Africans in tribal wars, and sold to European slave merchants on the coast.) Millions of others were born into slavery in the New World.

We in the United States sometimes view the slave trade through a North American lens, but we need to remember that nearly 40 percent of black slaves ended up in Portuguese Brazil, and nearly 50 percent were sent to colonies in the Caribbean (see slavevoyages.org). The vast majority of these slaves were used for labor on cash crop plantations — working in sugar (50 percent), indigo, cotton, coffee, cocoa and tobacco (see slaverysite.com). The population of most Caribbean countries today includes over 50 percent descendants of Africans; many, such as Haiti and Jamaica, have over 90 percent blacks, according to the World Factbook on cia.gov

The human tragedy of the slave trade masks the remarkable resilience of African religions in the New World. Africans arriving as slaves had been wrenched from their culture and traditions. But, coming in large numbers, they were often enslaved in groups and housed with other Africans.

Like other immigrants, they were able to retain some of the traditional beliefs, practices and languages of their homelands, at least for a few generations. On the other hand, many slave owners attempted to convert their slaves to Christianity. Some felt it their moral duty to do so; they enslaved the body, but, in their view, only to save the souls of their slaves. Many Africans felt that their enslavement revealed the superiority of the God of their masters and, thus, felt inclined to worship the powerful God of this new land.

In the end, most African slaves converted to Christianity. However, theirs was usually a syncretistic conversion. That is to say, they accepted their masters’ Christian God without altogether abandoning their ancestral African gods. For them, it wasn’t a choice of either or — but of both. …

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