Kimpa Vita (D)

Alternate Names: Dona Beatriz
The Antonian Movement
Congo , Democratic Republic of Congo , Angola

Kimpa Vita

Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita was born near the mountain of Kibangu in the eastern part of the Kingdom of Kongo around 1684. Her father was a mwana Kongo or noble of royal stock, though of modest means and power in the divided and war-wracked kingdom. Kongo had been undergoing a devastating series of civil wars since the death of King António I at the Battle of Mbwila in 1665. When Beatriz was born, there were three major factions of the royal family ruling portions of the kingdom and fighting the others. These three royal factions were: the older Kimpanzu and Kinlaza, and the recently joined faction formed from the descendants of both called Agua Rosada. In addition, the Grand Princes of Soyo, who claimed the right to choose the king, regularly intervened in the struggle, complicating and confusing the picture.

The constant violence had greatly upset the kingdom and, by 1684, civil war had been in progress for nearly twenty years. It would continue during her entire youthful life. The wars, the loss of general order and the devastation were certainly an underlying cause of Beatriz’ embrace of her spiritual life and the success of her mission.

The Kingdom of Kongo was a proudly Catholic country. It had started its route to Christianity in the late fifteenth century, and culminated in the baptism of Nzinga a Nkuwu as King João I in 1491. Kongo’s embassies to Portugal in 1484 and 1486-91 had led to João’s decision to become a Christian, and Portugal supplied priests to start the process off. Although Portuguese priests were usually in Kongo, much, if not all, of the actual evangelization of the country was in the hands of its lay ministers, called schoolmasters (alongi a aleke in Kikongo). Resident priests were typically more involved in delivering the sacraments or teaching higher studies, while the teachers handled basic education effectively unsupervised by the priests.

This largely self-evangelization had its characteristics. It was born before the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, from a model in Europe that had a good deal of toleration for local folk religion and religious figures, which would come, in Europe, to be diabolized and its practitioners subject to torture and death. But this did not take place in Kongo where the local variant of Christianity continued with many of its more ancient customs and ideas merging with Christianity. Visiting priests noted this co-existence and usually spoke unfavorably about it since clergy, even in Medieval Europe, did not wholly approve the lower level supplication of non-Christian spiritual entities. However, the priests were too few and too busy with performing basic sacraments to alter it.

In Beatriz’s day the Counter-Reformation clergy were Italian Capuchins, along with a handful of secular clergy who generally were prepared to ignore Kongo’s religious structure. But in a country of three-quarters of a million people, if not more, the service of a half dozen to a dozen Capuchins hardly made a dent on the basic religious life of the people. Their fiery denunciations of objects dedicated to local spiritual entities, or their houses of kimpasi (traditional religion) decorated with the Christian cross, were presented as witchcraft and, as such, were at least considered legitimate arguments , even if considered mistaken at times by the local people.

From early in her life, Beatriz showed signs of spiritual gifts. During her childhood she had visions of white children playing with her, not racially European (mindele), but associated with mpembe (the color white in Kikongo), the color of the spiritual Other World. The priests gave her a glass rosary, which was her favorite jewelry and a reminder of the Christian component of her spiritual world.

As she grew older, Beatriz began a more formal life as a spiritual mediator or nganga. The term was used for anyone who had claims to work with the Other World, Catholic priests or traditional mediators, and it was derived from a root implying knowledge and skill. She became a nganga marinda, a spiritual mediator whose exact role is not established. However, it is likely that she helped with socially integrative institutions, such as the mbumba kindonga, intended to reconcile conflict, or the Kimpasi society, for a larger scale atonement of problems.

During the time she was working as a spiritual mediator Beatriz also married. Kongolese marriages in the seventeenth century usually involved a period of living together before the process was finalized, and she failed to complete her marriage. In fact, she had two marriages in quick succession. Her spiritual gifts placed her a bit outside and above normal society and thus she was unwilling or even unable to accommodate the traditional role of a woman in Kongo.

As Beatriz was coming of age, the spiritual environment of her home region grew more complicated. During her early years, there were no Capuchin missionaries in the area. However, beginning in 1696, they returned and negotiated with Pedro IV, the would-be king of the Agua Rosada faction who ruled the mountain of Kibangu in hopes of eventually restoring the kingdom in his own name. Marcellino d’Atri, one of the first Capuchins to come, proved arrogant and insisted on having a great deal of respect paid to him, resulting in a number of tense encounters with the king over the question of their mutual status. Pedro felt sufficiently needful of having priests that he was willing to compromise with the priest, but D’Atri raised the question of spiritual hegemony to make what were considered new demands.

When the priest proposed that not only Capuchins, but any European should be treated with special respect—a custom that had not been practiced in Kongo before—the situation became more inflamed. His attempts to get a European born lay assistant, Juan de Rosa, to be treated that way were criticized as he came with an unsavory reputation.

But matters of the civil war ultimately came to the fore. Pedro IV decided that to restore the kingdom, he would re-occupy the abandoned city of São Salvador. He sent two pioneering companies, one led by his trusted majordomo Manuel da Cruz Barbosa, and the other under the leadership of Pedro Constantinho da Silva, an ambitious noble allied to the Kinlaza faction, to settle at Evululu, near the town. Hopes that the country would be restored when its traditional capital was resettled rose, but Pedro IV delayed full occupation, fearful of his enemies, especially the rival Kinlaza João II whose fortified camp was nearby.

Public pressure mounted, and a number of spontaneous religious movements began in the advanced camps. Initially it was simple recitations of the Hail Mary and cries for mercy. Someone had a vision with a message from God that He was going to punish Kongo if São Salvadors was not restored. A more important prophet, Appolonia Mafuta, had visions of the Virgin appealing to her son to have mercy on Kongo, and if Pedro did not restore the city, God would burn down the mountain of Kibangu. She visited Kibangu itself and converted Pedro’s wife Hypolita to her cause.

But the real leader would only emerge when Beatriz entered the scene. Beatriz became ill, probably in 1703, as the events in Kibangu and Evululu were unfolding. As she explained it, she fell sick and was at the point of death when she had a vision of Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of Portugal, but also very important in Kongo. He told her that God had assigned him with the restoration of Kongo and that he had attempted to come to earth to do so several times—in Soyo, in Luvota, and in Mbata—but each time he had been rebuffed. Now he came to her, then entered her head and possessed her.

Beatriz’ possession was not a fleeting one that many Kongolese ngangas might get as a part of the normal process of revelation. It was more or less permanent. She joined the people who were at Evululu and Appolonia Mafuta welcomed her as a sort of final stage of God’s message. With Mafuta’s blessing, she became the unchallenged leader of this new movement.

She demonstrated her power by performing miracles, healing the sick, restoring fertility to the infertile, and even straightening twisted trees as she walked along. It was not long before she presented herself in Kibangu, asking for an interview with Pedro IV. Pedro, in turn, sent her to the Capuchin priest Bernardo da Gallo who was then residing at his capital, with instructions that the priest was not to harm her. His account gives us some idea of what she would teach.

Somewhat scornfully noting that she claimed to have visited heaven, he asked her if there were Black Kongolese there. Her reply that there were Kongolese but that there are no colors in heaven, which was certainly a rebuff to the Capuchin claims of racial superiority. When he charged her with apostasy for destroying Christian religious objects, she simply claimed that she was reclaiming them, as they were covered with “fetishes,” an implication that her action was simply a reform and a removal of items of witchcraft, much as the Capuchins claimed they were doing.

Beatriz’s theology was revealed in these and other interviews. At the core, it was a transformation that she made of the Christian prayers from the catechism and other Christian literature. She changed the basic prayers although only one, the Salve Regina or Hail Holy Queen, was recorded. But it is clear enough. She asserted that one’s salvation did not depend on the sacraments of the church but on one’s intentions. This idea fit well into the Kongo ideas about witchcraft and virtue, for propitiation and supplication to various spiritual entities were judged not by the nature of the supplication, or the personality of the spirit so supplicated, but whether these supplications were for selfish and evil purposes, or for good ones.

She also developed further, thanks to her position as an embodiment of a saint and her capacity to visit heaven—ideas that had long been active in Kongo. Through a variety of means, Kongo’s intellectuals had located the Garden of Eden in Kongo and placed the Creation story there. They were aware that in Europe Jesus and Mary were sometimes represented as Black, and had donated to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Spain (a Black Madonna). Beatriz developed this, claiming that all the figures of Christian iconography, Jesus, Mary, Saint Francis, had been born and lived in Kongo. She made a point of asserting not only that there were Black saints, but that the Capuchins had denied Kongo its Black saints.

Pedro, unsure of this fluid situation, was reluctant to either arrest her to support her, and so he studiously avoided taking any position, much to the chagrin of da Gallo. Since she believed that as Saint Anthony her task was to reunite Kongo, she made a tour of the country in 1704. Her visit to João II, the Kinlaza pretender king who lived near the Congo River was to gain his support for her restoration of the kingdom. It was also to obtain a papal bull known as Santissimo Sacramento, that had miraculously been given to Diogo I in the sixteenth century. However, she was not well received, and she had to flee. So, she continued on to São Salvador and made that city her capital, setting up makeshift quarters in the ruins of the cathedral.

Thousands of ordinary people joined her in a veritable pilgrimage, coming some distance, and often leaving their harvest in the fields and arriving hungry. They remained there facing adversity but accepting her guidance. Beatriz for her part, decided to spread her message even farther and sent disciples, dubbed “Little Anthonies” to the provinces. Each was possessed by a saint and told all the leaders they visited that Beatriz, in the form of Saint Anthony, had ordered all the great men to assemble to restore the kingdom. They had variable receptions: in Soyo, the Prince expelled them, but in Luvota, holdout of the aged queen Suzanne de Nóbrega, a Kimpanzu, they were allowed to circulate. The movement, calling for reconciliation was received on partisan lines, with the Kimpanzu being sympathetic, while the Kinlaza were opposed.

The question of assembling the contestants for the crown, however, had serious consequences. Pedro Constantinho da Silva, a Kinlaza, moved his forces into the city and immediately supported Beatriz, who in turn favored him. But as her Little Anthonies soon discovered, other Kinlaza in João II’s territory were set against her. Ana Afonso de Leão, a former queen who controlled the southeast of the country as a Kimpanzu was ambivalent about her. It also created problems for Pedro IV who was reluctant to act against her.

Now settled in the city, Beatriz continued to develop her mission, especially as she claimed to be regularly visiting God on weekends, lying catatonic in the cathedral while away. She had built a special house with a secret inner compartment that she entered when going on her celestial visits. Her preaching noted the different creations for Black and white people. She claimed that Black people originated from the nsanda tree, whose bark was made into cloth that was naturally black. Soon all of Beatriz’ followers wore this cloth. White people, on the other hand came from a white chalky stone substance called pemba, ritually associated with the Other World.

With Beatriz now effectively, and unintentionally, a supporter of the Kinlaza, the Kimpanzu went actively against her. The Duke of Mbamba, Pedro Valle das Lagrimas, made a sort of crusade against the Antonians, taking up a large cross and leading an army to rout Antonians out of his territories, and then joining forces with Ana Afonso de Leão.

As this political situation developed, however, Beatriz became pregnant, presumably by one of her senior followers named João Barro who was part of her inner circle dubbed Guardian Angels. Fearing that the pregnancy would upset her mission, she hid it. Then, claiming that she needed to spend an extended period in heaven, she secretly left the city and took refuge in her parents’ home, where she gave birth to a son. There she was captured by troops from Valle das Lagrimas’ army and turned over to Pedro IV and Bernardo da Gallo. The political actors were now set, Pedro had to kill her, although he equivocated to the end. The missionaries decided they did not want to try her on religious causes, so Pedro tried her for witchcraft under Kongo’s civil law.

Perhaps feeling truly shamed by her pregnancy, Beatriz confessed her sins and accepted the death penalty, ultimate making an abjuration of her activities. On July 2, 1706, she was burned alive, along with Barro, though her child was spared and given to the missionaries and baptized. She had named him António, but the priests thought this inappropriate and named him Jerónimo.

The movement, however continued without her, and Constantinho da Silva more or less embraced the cause as it was too popular to be denied. It was only when Pedro IV’s armies attacked and occupied São Salvador in 1709 that the movement’s center came to an end. An almost complete lack of records following the fall of São Salvador make it impossible to know how its rural branches or supporters in the rest of Kongo—especially in Susana de Nóbrega’s territories—continued or stopped the movement.

In more recent years, members of a variety of independent churches working in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola have made claims to Beatriz as their founder. These include Bundu dia Kongo and recently some Kimbanguists as well as others.

John K. Thornton


Thornton, John K. The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Benjamin Hendrickx, “Kimpa Vita (Dona Beatriz) and “Afro-Catholicism”: reexamining controversies and unsolved problems” Pharos Journal of Theology, 102 (2021). DOI:

This biography, received in 2023, was written for the DACB by Dr. John K. Thornton, professor of African American Studies and History, and director of graduate studies at Boston University.