African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project
Atlantic World

Part One: African-American Religion in the Atlantic World, 1441–1808

     The period 1441–1808 is the Atlantic world phase of African-American religious history.

     In the year 1441, Antão Gonçalves, a member of the Order of Christ, a Portuguese military order of the kind first produced by the crusades, brought home to Portugal a Muslim black woman he had captured on the west coast of Africa. This is the first recorded instance of a black slave being taken to Europe by way of the Atlantic Ocean. There were, of course, already African slaves in Europe. Mostly they were to be found in southern Europe—in the Iberian peninsula, along the southern coast of France, in Italy, and in the islands of the Mediterranean. They were one element in a slave population that also included Iberian and North African Muslims and a very diverse group of persons from Eastern Europe and Central Asia. But these African slaves had come to Western Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. The unfortunate woman brought to Portugal by Antão Gonçalves is the first African slave known to have been taken directly from the African coast to Europe by way of the Atlantic Ocean. And this is where our story begins.

     For the next three and a half centuries, this story is part of the larger story of the birth and development of the Atlantic world. What is the Atlantic world? An interrelated set of sustained human interaction mediated—with the assistance of developing technologies of transportation and communication—by the Atlantic Ocean. Or, to put it more simply, it is people encountering one another, on a regular basis, by traveling long distances by ship on the Atlantic Ocean. Out of these encounters, a new social world develops. New patterns of trade. New combinations of people. New social institutions. African-American religion is one of the new developments that gradually emerges in the early history of the Atlantic world. And it continues to grow and develop as the Atlantic world grows and develops.

     Our story is one of change over time. African-American religion is not simply the coming to America of the traditional religions of Africa. Certainly, people of African descent brought their religious beliefs and practices with them when they came to the Americas. But the traditions they brought were not uniform nor were they frozen in time. They were diverse and, like all living religious traditions, they blended continuity and change. Beginning in the middle of the fifteenth century, one of the major forces of change affecting African religion was the Atlantic world encounter of Europeans and Africans. Africans had to reckon in a new way with Christianity, the religion the Portuguese brought with them as they gradually worked their way down the African coast. Africans also had to reckon with the development of large-scale plantation agriculture relying more or less entirely on black slave labor. Such plantations had already been developed in the islands of the eastern Atlantic before Columbus crossed the ocean in 1492. In the next three hundred years, they would become an essential feature of the entire Atlantic world. In the New World, of course, Africans and people of African descent also encountered an indigenous population with its own highly diverse and changing religious traditions. Though it is very hard to document in any detail, this encounter also entered into the early growth and development of African-American religion.

     There is no easy way to summarize the complex story of African-American religion from 1441 to 1808. It is a story of increasing diversity and complexity. The African-European encounter begins with the Portuguese and those African people with whom they interacted most extensively—above all the people of the kingdom of Kongo. But as the Atlantic world grows and develops, more and more Europeans and more and more Africans are drawn into it. So are an increasing number of Native American peoples.

     The religious results of this interaction vary from time to time and place to place. Sometimes, for example, Christianity seems to spread quickly among black people. This was already the case in Kongo, the largest kingdom along the African coast in the fifteen and sixteenth centuries. Already in 1491, the chief ruler of the kingdom underwent baptism. During this same period, however, the rulers of Benin, another important coastal kingdom, were adamantly opposed to the propagation of Christianity. Similarly, eighteenth-century Moravian missionaries had considerable success among the slave population of the Virgin Islands. They did not fare so well, however, among the Saramaka of Suriname—the descendants of runaway slaves who had built and preserved independent communities, whose refashioned African tradition proved highly resistant to the missionary’s message. It was not always, clear, moreover, what the acceptance of baptism, when it did occur, meant. Did African rulers or New World slaves who embraced Christianity accept that religion as the Europeans presented it? Or did they refashion it—openly or secretly—in their own way? It also must be remembered that while Christianity in some of its forms might be profoundly different from most of the traditional religions of Africa, in other instances there were deep points of convergence. In many respects, for example, the religion of the people of Kongo and the Catholicism the Portuguese brought to them were alike what might be called “religions of the powerful dead.”

     On both sides of the Atlantic, moreover, the meeting of religions among Africans and people of African descent involved more than Christianity and the traditional religions of Africa. It also involved Islam. Working its way down from the Sahara long before Christianity began to touch the West African coast, Islam like Christianity interacted in complex ways with the traditional religions of Africa. Brought to the Americas by enslaved African Muslims, Islam struggled with difficulty to preserve itself in an inhospitable, Christian-controlled environment. Meanwhile, ordinary believers of all sorts, eager to mobilize any resources that might aid them in coping with life’s daily hardships, everywhere tended to borrow freely from one another’s traditions of religious practice. In sixteenth-century Mexico, for example, there was a complex intermingling of African, Mesoamerican, and European practices of divination.

     It is within this rich and complex history of the Atlantic-world encounter of peoples and their religions that the religious life of black people in North America takes its initial shape. Indeed, up until 1808, these stories are so closely intertwined that it is impossible to separate them. On January 1, 1808, however, the importation of slaves into the United States became illegal. This does not mean that no more slaves were smuggled into the country. Thousands were. Millions of Africans were also taken as slaves after that date to the French Caribbean and, most especially, to Cuba and Brazil. But so far as the United States itself was concerned, the Atlantic became a highway for European immigrants, not a route for the coming of Africans. African Americans were now “on their own” in a way they had not been before. After 1808, African-American religion enters the continental phase of its history.

     For a more extensive discussion of the idea of that African-American religion is a product of the Atlantic world, see the Editorial Statement.

Copyright © 2006 The Trustees of Amherst College and
African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project
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Amherst, MA 01002–5000

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