Part One: Primitive Accumulation
Kongo and the Iconoclastic Controversy
The Portuguese arrived on the west coast of Africa a half-century before the discovery of the New World, but they brought with them the same combination of lust for gold and militant Catholicism that the Spaniards were to carry all the way across the Atlantic. At the time of the arrival, Europe depended for much of its gold on trade with the Islamic merchants of North Africa. As the Portuguese learned when they conquered the Morrocan city of Ceuta in 1415, the precious metal was transported from what the Arabs called the Bilad as Sudan ─ the Land of the Blacks ─ by huge caravans that crossed the Sahara Desert. In organizing and financing the maritime expeditions that probed further and further along the west coast of the African continent, the rulers of the Portuguese state were trying to establish independent access to gold by circumventing the trans-Saharan trade routes. But they were doing something else as well. They were attempting to find Prestor John, the legendary monarch of a Christian kingdom believed to exist deep within the African interior or perhaps as far as the eastern coast. The Catholic powers of Spain and Portugal had already engaged in a largely successful 700-year-old struggle ─ a Reconquista ─ to drive the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula. (At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Moors still held only Grenada, from which they were to be expelled by the Spanish Crown the year Columbus set sail for the first time). Since the Spaniards' Iberian cousins were now beginning to extend the struggle to the homelands of the Islamic adversary, they were in particular need of an ally able to support their efforts from the south.
The Portuguese eventually found the East African kingdom of Ethiopia, which had been ruled by Coptic Christians since the 3rd century A.D. However, it was quite different than the mighty nation of European fantasy and was not in any position to lend support to the holy war against Islam. Moreover, Prestor John himself turned out to be imaginary, and though West African gold proved real enough, its quantity was minimal compared with the torrent of precious metals released by the conquest of the New World. But, along with the precipitous decline in the Amerindian population, that conquest also created a demand for vast numbers of servile laborers, a demand that the Portuguese soon found themselves in a position to satisfy. By this circuitous path, they came to stimulate and control the flow of a commodity just as important as bullion to the primitive accumulation of capital. The lust of the Portuguese explorers and merchants for gold was soon overtaken by avarice for the exchange-value represented by slaves. Strangely, the avarice coexisted ─ and often in the same individuals ─ with determined attempts to bring the word of God to the heathens. For example, the first slaves taken back to Portugal were baptized. For the Portuguese merchants, slave masters, and many clerics as well, there seemed to be no contradiction between the salvation of souls and the subjugation of bodies. In light of this fact, it is not surprising that one of the earliest and most important encounters of Europeans with African art occurred in the kingdom of Kongo, at a point of intersection between Catholic evangelism and the slave trade.
In the second half of 1482, an expeditionary fleet of three caravels under the command of Diogo Cao set sail from the Portuguese fortress of Elmina on the Gold Coast. The purpose of the voyage was to round the southern tip of the African continent and thereby open a maritime route to the East Indies, breaking Islamic control over the oriental spices, jewels, and other luxury merchandise upon which the European aristocracy had come to depend. However, it was not Cao's destiny to complete that historic mission. Instead, Bartolomeu Dias became the first European navigator to round the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, and Vasco da Gama the first to make contact with the East Indies in 1497. On his own voyage, Cao was able to reach only as far as Lobito in present-day Angola. But, while inching along the coast under the impact of thunderstorms and squalls, he had the good fortune to make another fateful discovery. He came upon an area where the ocean waters were colored with a muddy red hue and churned by a powerful current, in places as swift as nine knots. By sailing against the current, he reached the estuary of an enormous river flowing from the African interior. Before moving on in an attempt to complete his original mission, he erected a stone pillar, surmounted by a cross, on the river's southernmost bank. It bore an inscription which was deciphered by those who discovered the pillar centuries later:
In the year 6681 of the World and in that of 1482 since the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most serene, the most excellent and potent prince, King John II did order this land to be discovered and this pillar of stone to be erected by Diogo Cao, an esquire in his household.
Cao’s discovery of the Zaire River (also known as the Congo River) elicited considerable excitement in Lisbon, for it seemed to promise an overland route to the kingdom of Prestor John. Thus, after his return to Portugal, the Crown ordered him to set sail on another voyage and this time to enter the mouth of the estuary. After sailing up the river for some distance, he and his party finally encountered a few of the local inhabitants. Though neither the Portuguese nor their African interpreters could speak the native language, they were able to gather some rudimentary information by means of the exchange of impromptu gestures. In this manner, they came to understand that their interlocutors were the subjects of a vast kingdom whose monarch ruled from a capital city located at an unspecified distance southeast of the river. Cao left behind four Franciscan monks as emissaries to the king and continued on his voyage. After several months, he returned to the place of the initial encounter, but the monks were nowhere to be found. In anger, he seized several hostages from the local population and brought them back to Lisbon.
By all accounts, the Kongo hostages were treated humanely during their captivity. They were taught to speak some Portuguese even before arriving in Lisbon where they were greeted cordially by King John II. They were clothed in Western attire, converted to Christianity, and encouraged to act as interpreters for Cao's third and final voyage. When that expedition arrived at its destination in 1487, the European visitors were immediately invited to the royal court in the capital city of Mbanza Kongo. There they were received by Nzinga a Nkuwu, the fifth mani Kongo (lord of Kongo or king). The monarch, perhaps sixty years old at the time, was surrounded by his councilors and bodyguard. He was seated on a wooden throne inlaid with ivory and was draped in the furs of leopards and civet cats, signifying the ferocious energy with which he protected his kingdom from criminal malefactors and met his enemies in battle. His arms were laden with bracelets made from the copper produced in the region. A staff of ironwood rested across his legs, and he wore a cap of palm cloth, both symbols of royal authority. The initial meeting was a resounding success. The Franciscan brothers were returned to the Portuguese unharmed, and the Kongo hostages were reunited with their fellow citizens. The latter testified to the magnificence of the kingdom across the sea. Mbanza Kongo exchanged ambassadors with Lisbon and, after four years, the mani Kongo himself converted to Christianity. Upon being baptized, he took the name of his Portuguese royal counterpart, John.
A considerable portion of the higher nobility in Mbanza Kongo followed their monarch in converting to the Christian faith, but the lower nobility and indigenous priesthood felt their power threatened by the new religion. When a drought developed along the coast, the malcontents attributed it to the adverse spiritual impact of the foreign cult. The disaffected faction rallied around Mpanzu a Kitima, one of the sons of King John. When the mani Kongo died in 1506, civil war broke out between that faction and the Christianized element of the nobility. Another of John's sons, Mbemba a Nzinga, who had been baptized Affonso, led the Catholic faction. The two brothers met in battle outside the capital. According to the legend, though Affonso's forces were greatly outnumbered, they prevailed as the result of a marvelous apparition. In the words of the late sixteenth-century chronicler, Duarte Lopez, the warriors attributed their victory “to the presence of a lady in white, whose dazzling splendour blinded the enemy, whilst a knight riding on a white palfrey, and carrying a red cross on his breast, fought against them and put them to flight. Thus the Catholic kingdom of Kongo is supposed to have survived thanks to the miraculous intervention of the Virgin Mary and Saint James.
Affonso ruled as mani Kongo for the next forty years. He carried on an extended correspondence with John II's successor, King Manuel. His letters usually began with the salutation: “Most high and most powerful prince and king my brother.” In turn, Manuel's letters often began as though he were addressing himself to an allied European monarch: “Most powerful and excellent king of Manycongo.” On the level of diplomatic protocol, and in deeper ways as well, the relationship between the two rulers was characterized by reciprocity and at least a formal equality of status. It is true that the precondition of this relationship was Affonso's acceptance of Christianity and the wider Europeanization of Kongo society that the acceptance entailed. In 1513, for example, Manuel sent him a document, known as the regimento, for guiding reorganization of the Kongo kingdom in accordance with Portuguese notions of law, warfare, and court etiquette. Though the mani Kongo enacted the thirty-four point program in large part, it was nonetheless contingent upon his perfectly voluntary agreement. We are very far from the coercion that marked Cortes relationship with Montechuzoma.
In fact, much of the initiative for reorganizing the kingdom on the Portuguese model came from Affonso. At his suggestion, Manuel sent artisans and priests to construct, not only churches, but schools to teach basic literacy, grammar, and the humanities. The Portuguese monarch also arranged to have Affonso's relatives and other young members of the Kongo aristocracy brought to his country to be educated in its institutions of higher learning. Their number included the mani Kongo's own son, Henrique, who was schooled in a Portuguese seminary. At Affonso's request, Manuel petitioned Pope Leo X to make Henrique a bishop and arranged passage for him and an entourage of Kongo nobles and servants over the Alps to Rome. After studying in the Vatican for five years, Henrique was indeed elevated to the episcopate when the Pope published a bull ─Vidimus quae super Henrici ─ on May 3, 1518. He returned to his homeland where he served as the Church's highest authority until his death in 1535.
According to historians, it was the slave trade that undermined the voluntary association between the Catholic kingdoms of Portugual and Kongo, and led to the eventual disintegration of the West African state. At first, the trade was organized, not by Lisbon, but by a Portuguese colony that had established itself on the island of Sao Tome in the Gulf of Guinea, 600 miles northwest of the mouth of the Zaire River. Originally a penal colony, and subsequently a place where convicts could retain their freedom if they voluntarily accepted exile, Sao Tome began to prosper as a port of call with the opening of the East Indian trade. The island's lumpen bourgeoisie reinvested the profits generated by local mercantile activity in sugar and tobacco cultivation on rather large plantations. This created a demand for labor that could not be satisfied from the Portuguese exile population. In order to rectify the labor shortage, the islanders organized slave raids that began on the adjacent African coast and soon made their way up the Zaire River.
The raids had a destructive impact on Kongo, but not because they introduced commerce in slaves to a society completely unfamiliar with the practice. Slavery existed there before the Portuguese ever arrived, though slaves were incorporated into kin groups, served as soldiers and administrators as well as laborers, and could own property, including other slaves. But the Sao Thomista raiders refused to abide by the laws and customs that governed slavery as an indigenous social institution. Most importantly, they would not limit themselves to recent war captives, who were the only people who could be legitimately bought and sold, but insisted on taking free Kongo citizens as well. In a letter to Manuel sent in 1511, Affonso complained about the behavior of the raiders and asked him to send an ambassador capable of controlling their activities. Though the Portuguese monarch responded by dispatching an emissary, he also became interested in the potential profit represented by slaving. With Affonso's approval, he tried to impose a Lisbon monopoly on the trade. The monopoly failed, however, in the face of Sao Thomista opposition. In 1526, Affonso wrote to Manuel's successor, King John III, imploring him to abolish all slaving:
… merchants daily seize our subjects… They grab them and cause them to be sold; and so great, Sir, is their corruption and licentiousness that our country is being utterly depopulated… To avoid this, we need from your Kingdoms no other than priests and people to teach in schools, and no other goods but wine and flour for the holy sacrament … because it is our will that in these kingdoms there should not be any trade in slaves or market for slaves.
Even had John wished to honor this request, he would have been incapable of doing so. Given the voracious appetite for servile labor generated, not only by Sao Tome, but by the plantations and mines of the New World, there was simply too much money in slaving for Lisbon to control all the Portuguese who wanted to be involved. Within a century after Diogo Cam first came ashore, Kongo had lost a half-million people to slavers, and neighboring parts of Angola fully a million. Perhaps as much as one-third of the black population of the present-day United States consists in descendants of slaves taken from these regions.
Not knowing the disastrous outcome, and in any case powerless to do anything about it, Affonso made his peace with the trade in the late 1520s when slave markets opened along the border of the nearby state of Tio. For a while they relieved Kongo of the brunt of the pressure it had been under, while at the same time allowing the mani Kongo to collect taxes from the Tio trade that passed through his capital city. But this turn of events only postponed the destructive effects of slaving. Slavers began to develop new sources of supply by trading directly with the Kongo provinces. They also manipulated internal Kongo politics in an effort to secure access to the commodity. Finally, in 1665, the Portuguese launched an invasion of Kongo from their colony in Luanda (off the coast of Angola), ostensibly because of the king's refusal to permit free prospecting for gold and copper. They defeated the Kongo army at the battle of Mbwila, killing the monarch himself. The kingdom fragmented into a number of weak regional entities and contending military factions allied with rival groups of slavers. In the ensuing years, most of its people abandoned their Christian faith.
In spite of the presumption of the Portuguese that the burgeoning slave trade was compatible with the largely voluntary Catholicism they introduced into the Kongo kingdom, the two turned out to be contradictory. But the contradiction was able to unfold only because each of its elements found support in the social institutions and practices of the indigenous kingdom itself.
At the time Cao arrived, Kongo consisted in six provinces stretching from lower Zaire to northwest Angola, each of which was administered by a titled governor appointed by the mani Kongo. The provincial governors were responsible for extracting a surplus from the farmers and other producers within their territories and sending a portion of it on to the king and the nobility who ruled alongside him in the capital city.
Much of the tribute varied depending upon the region in which it originated: the coastal zone specialized in salt and zimbu shells (a form of currency), the eastern provinces in cloth, and the southern provinces in copper. In addition to such specialized luxury items, many provincial governors also sent agricultural produce to Mbanza Kongo, especially live animals. However, the tribute that originated in the labor of the direct producers did not move in one direction only. The king maintained the allegiance of each of the governors by giving him presents from other regions in exchange for the items produced in the governor's own province. And the governor distributed these presents in turn to the chiefs in his jurisdiction, who distributed them once again to their subordinates, until some of the goods finally reached the direct producers themselves. Since at each step of the process a deduction was made, the wealth of the upper echelons was ultimately sustained by those who worked the farms, the salt pans, the mines, and so on. This relationship of class exploitation was perhaps most clearly reflected in the dietary distinction between the nobility who ate the pigs, goats, chickens, and beef that flowed upward through the tributary system and the commoners who were confined to a largely meatless fare. Still, the system stimulated the production of luxury items since each province now had to meet more than a purely local demand. As a result, even the humblest members of Kongo society received some goods that would otherwise have been unavailable in their respective regions.
Power on all levels of the class hierarchy depended upon one's ability to maintain the allegiance of subordinates by supplying them adequately with goods. This is one reason why John and his son Affonso found the idea of a commercial relationship with the Portuguese irresistible. The Europeans were a potential source of high quality merchandise that could be used to keep the central and provincial nobility in submission. But it is also a reason why the slave trade was ultimately so devastating to the kingdom. Since Lisbon was unable to maintain slaving as a royal monopoly, it became a source of enrichment for the indigenous nobility and thereby broke their dependency on the mani Kongo. Political fragmentation was the result, a condition that was merely deepened by the defeat at Mbwila. In the same letter in which Affonso petitioned the Portuguese king to end the trade because of its victimization of Kongo citizens, he also condemned it on the grounds that slavers were allowed to come to this Kingdom to set up shop with goods and many things which have been prohibited by us and which they spread throughout our Kingdoms and Domains in such abundance that many of our vassals, whom we had in obedience, do not comply because they have things in greater abundance than we ourselves... The slave trade was incapable of being incorporated into the Kongo circuits of commodity exchange, constrained as they were by tradition, since it came to obey the dynamic logic governing capital accumulation. The relentlessly expanding traffic in human beings presided over the birth of global capitalism, but it brought the kingdom of Kongo to ruin.
Just as the Kongo monarchs saw commerce with the Portuguese ─ mistakenly, as it turned out ─ as a way of increasing and consolidating the power of the centralized state, so was this their motive for embracing Roman Catholicism. They hoped that it would function as an independent source of royal spiritual power.
In pre-Catholic Kongo society, the religious authority of the mani Kongo stemmed from forces beyond the royal household. This is reflected in oral accounts of the origin of the state. The kingdom of Kongo was said to have been founded by Nimi a Lukeni, a young son of the ruler of Vungu, a chiefdom located near what came to be called Stanley Pool.
With little prospect of succeeding to his father's position, he withdrew from his community and established himself at a ford on the river so as to collect tolls from those who wished to cross over. One day his aunt sought passage to the opposite bank, but, invoking her privilege as sister of the chief, refused to pay the toll. In response, her enraged nephew leapt upon the unfortunate woman and disemboweled her. He then led a band of followers on an exodus out of the Vungu homeland. By virtue of their military prowess, the expatriates were able to subdue the peoples who lived to the south of the river, after which they established Mbanza Kongo high on a hill. Now the murder of his father's sister by the son of the Vungu chief was an act of unnatural cruelty, a violent eruption that destroyed the customary condition of society. The stories emphasize this fact. But, as disturbing as it is to a moral sensibility rooted in the intimate context of family life, the murder lies at the very foundation of political power. By killing his aunt, Nimi a Lukeni stepped outside the circle of his own kin. That moment of transcendence is what enabled him to rule over a population comprised by numerous lines of descent. He thereby abolished kinship as the central principle of social organization, and replaced it with subjection to the authority of a centralized state.
Still, Nimi a Lukeni was not able to reject the kinship principle entirely. For his lack of connection with the spiritual forces of the land he now ruled made it impossible for him to regulate the agricultural cycle by controlling the rain and the fertility of the crops. Moreover, when he failed to perform the rituals necessary to honor the ancestors who lay in the conquered ground, he fell into the convulsions that indicate spirit possession. He was relieved of his symptoms only when he accepted the authority of the local spirits through the intervention of a kitome priest, a ritual expert in their sphere of activity. Upon being cured of the affliction, he made the daughter of the priest his principal wife and thereby established a bond of kinship with her people. With the marriage, he created a compact between centralized political power and the autochthonous spiritual forces that were alone able to lend that power legitimacy.
Yet nothing could hide the fact that the mani Kongo, to some extent, remained a stranger in his own land. At the time of the Portuguese arrival, his power still had to be confirmed by the kitome priest of Mbanza Kongo who remained his link with the spiritual forces of the earth, and who was responsible for officiating at his investiture. This is why John and especially Affonso embraced the religion of the Portuguese so enthusiastically. Catholicism had the potential of serving as a source of spiritual authority under the king's exclusive control. The potential was never quite realized since the nobility eventually insisted on participating in the cult, and such participation diluted the king's religious power. But there was really no way of establishing the new religion without allowing it to take root beyond the royal compound. In so taking root, Catholicism had to reshape itself in accordance with indigenous Kongo traditions. The art of the West African kingdom was drawn into this transformative process.
In traditional Kongo society, religious and medical experts called banganga (singular nganga) performed innumerable rituals of protection and healing at places in the village or on its outskirts where two roads intersected. Moreover, legal officials frequently inscribed the image of crossed axes on the ground, on the center of which people would stand to give assurance of truthfulness in the act of testifying in court or making some other oath. In addition to these specialized ritual and legal contexts, the image also appears widely in what has survived of classical Kongo art: on royal scepters, and swords of authority, on terracotta columns and stone figures that rested on the tombs of the nobility, on the oversized funerary mannequins that housed the mummified bodies of the important dead, which villagers carried to their graves in celebratory musical processions.
This cruciform, known as yowa, demarcates the most fundamental sacred space of Kongo culture and therefore serves as a basic cosmogram, an essential image of reality.
The intersection of its two axes marks the energy-charged location where the world of ordinary experience comes into contact with the realm of the spirits. The horizontal axis, called the kalunga line, signifies the body of water that serves as a boundary between the spheres of existence, and that the soul of the dead person must pass through on its journey to the other world. The vertical axis is meaningfully ambiguous: on one reading, it connects humankind with the unsurpassed spiritual power of Nzambi Mpungi, God Almighty (for the BaKongo believed in the existence of a Supreme Being long before they encountered the Portuguese); on a second reading, it connects God with the generations of the deceased ancestors; and on yet a third reading, it spans the hiatus between the living and the dead. In accordance with the last interpretation, the BaKongo imagined the kalunga line as separating two mirrored mountains, opposed to one another at their bases. The mountain reaching above the line is that of the earth or the world of the living. The mountain extending below the line is that of the world of the dead; it is made of kaolin, a white clay found in river beds, whose hue is the polar opposite of the color of living bodies and in that sense its mirror image. Each terminal point of the cross as defined by the two axes represents a stage in the life cycle of the individual person linked with a position of the sun. At the eastern point on the right, the rising sun signifies birth; at its noontime position at the top, the sun indicates the full power of mature adulthood; at its western point on the left, it represents the culmination of old age in death; and at its nadir, it signifies the emptiness of midnight in our world, which is, at the same time, the plenitude of noontime existence in the world of the dead. In that extraordinary land of kaolin, in that invisible looking-glass realm, those who have led a basically upright life clear through to its conclusion have the opportunity to purge themselves of remaining moral impurities. They then enter the cycle of existence once again by being reincarnated in the form of their own grandchildren. Those who have conducted themselves in an especially righteous way are transformed into immortal simbi spirits who take the shape of pools, waterfalls, stones, and mountains.
It is merely an accident that Kongo shared the cruciform with Christian Europe as a basic religious image, but this happenstance certainly helped ease the process of conversion. For it was not simply a matter of the coincidence of two outwardly visible shapes, but also of the partial overlap of their inward, utopian meanings, or, as we might also say, of their fundamental wish-contents. According to Christian belief, the Son of God sacrificed Himself on the cross so that humanity might be redeemed from the death brought on by sin. For those who accept the good news and act accordingly, incipit vita nova, new life begins. The expectation of new life is also the meaning of the Kongo cruciform. However, in this case, renewal depends, not on an act of salvation by undeserved grace bestowed from without, but on an entirely immanent moral correctness. Nevertheless, like the Christian sign of the cross, the Kongo yowa promises that death is not the end of a properly conducted life, but will be followed by a rebirth of the spirit. After the Catholics arrived, the common people as well as the titled nobility had such an overwhelming desire for crosses and crucifixes that they became important items in the trade agreements negotiated between the Portuguese kings and the mani Kongos. They were pre-adapted to the culture and fused in the minds of the BaKongo with their indigenous cruciforms. As evidence of that pre-established harmony, it is now impossible to determine whether the crosses exhibited by some sixteenth-century brass scepters are Christian or pre-Christian symbols or an amalgam of the two. Moreover, just as it was present in Kongo art before the Portuguese came, so did the sign of the cross survive the disintegration of the Christian cult in the wake of the invasion from Luanda.
The rough convergence in meaning of the two cruciforms may have facilitated the incorporation of Catholic crosses and crucifixes into the indigenous culture, but that incorporation probably would have occurred even had there been no such lucky convergence. For the BaKongo avidly adopted many other Catholic artifacts as well: the Eucharist, relics and statues of the saints, rosaries, phylacteries, vestments, and so on, each of which (along with crosses and crucifixes) they translated with the KiKongo word, nkisi.
Traditionally, nkisi designated a specific kind of spiritually potent artifact employed by the nganga. Like all ritual experts in Kongo society, the nganga derived his or her power from contact with the dead. In his wonderful essay, The Eyes of Understanding: Kongo Minkisi, the anthropologist, Wyatt MacGaffey characterizes the power of the nganga by contrasting it with that of three other kinds of ritual experts. Invested chiefs derived their spiritual power, and therefore their political authority, from the founding ancestors of the matrilineal descent groups to which they belonged and over which they ruled. Public diviners helped people anticipate and control large-scale natural conditions, including crop fertility, rainfall, and epidemics, by addressing themselves to the simbi spirits incarnated in features of the local landscape. Witches used their ability to contact the dead to pursue their individual desires at social expense by causing others to experience disease, death, and other sorts of misfortune. The banganga ─ which MacGaffey translates as “magicians” ─ differed from each of these categories, but they are best understood in contrast with witches. They were experts in remedying the diseases and other problems that witches and malicious spirits caused, though they also assisted in adjudicating legal disputes. They derived their power from nkisi spirits (plural bakisi), which were embodied by ritual means in material complexes, each of which was also called a nkisi (but note the different plural: minkisi).
The nkisi spirit was the soul (mooyo) of someone dead who had acquired the reputation, while still alive, of possessing a personal quality ─ such as physical strength, hunting prowess, or sexual attractiveness ─ now needed by the nganga's client. For this reason, the material nkisi was sometimes made at the grave of the person whose soul it was meant to contain. It consisted in a receptacle filled with bilongo, or medicines, in the sense of substances believed to be effective in fighting against illnesses and other misfortunes. The most important of these was likely to be earth from the grave site. The earth is an example of what Robert Farris Thompson has called a “spirit-embodying medicine,” the most immediate vehicle for the incarnation of the soul. Another common example is kaolin, the white clay that was associated more generically with the realm of the dead. The spirit contained in these substances remained a complete personality with will and intelligence of its own. If it was to be of service to the client, its action had to be guided by messages issued on his or her behalf by the nganga. These messages were communicated by what Thompson has called the “spirit-directing medicines” that were included in the assemblage. They were of two different basic varieties, though each functioned like a rhetorical trope. The first operated by a sort of punning: charcoal, for example, might have been used because its KiKongo word, kalazimi, is related by sound to the word, zima, which means, “that it may strike or extinguish.” The second kind of spirit-directing medicine operated by means of metaphor: the claw of a bird of prey, for example, might have been used to signal the captivated soul to attack some designated evil-producing victim.
The assemblage of spirit-embodying and spirit-directing bilongo served as the effective heart of the nikisi, but the container that held the medicines also played an important role. In general, it was visibly designed to constrain powerful forces, often by means of such devices as resinous glues, rafia cords, and elaborately tied knots. Once a soul had been enticed into its new physical location, the trick was to store and then canalize its powers on behalf of the purposes set by the nganga and client. The containers that enabled this feat to occur were of various kinds. According to MacGaffey, they included antelope horns, large snail shells, gourds, cloth bags, and clay pots. In addition, a large number, but probably a minority, of traditional minkisi had containers in the shape of wooden statues.
Some of these have survived in Western collections, though none are dated much earlier than the mid-nineteenth century. This creates a problem from an art historical point of view. The surviving statues are uncommonly “naturalistic” for African sculpture, and that naturalism may be the result of Kongo's long association with Europeans. Nonetheless, a report by the English trader, Andrew Battel, who visited Kongo at the beginning of the seventeenth century, includes a description of an nikisi in the form of a large carving. We know, therefore, that statues were used as nikisi containers at least this early, and perhaps earlier, even though we have no way of telling whether they were as naturalistic as their nineteenth-century descendants. With this proviso in mind, we may focus on two figurated minkisi from around the turn of the present century as representatives of what is at least a four hundred year old Kongo tradition.
An excellent example of Nkisi Mbumba Maza is now in the Muse de l'Homme in Paris. Mbumba is a generic term refering to a type of minkisi characteristic of the coastal zone of what is now Cabinda. Maza means “water,” which indicates the provenance of the nkisi'sÄ_Ä power as well as the disorders it was intended to cure. With earth, water belongs to the realm of “the below,” which is the cosmic domain pertaining to reproduction and fertility, the predominant, though not exclusive concern of women. The primary purpose of Mbumba Maza was to treat problems associated with pregnancy. The carving, however, is that of a man. It stands only fifteen inches high and is especially well finished. The figure wears a turbin on its head, on the front of which a circular protuberance made of resin has been attached. The cavity of the protuberance contains the active medicines and is sealed with a round mirror. The mirror both refers to the kalunga waters separating the living from the dead and serves as a mystic eye for the detection of witches. The proper eyes of the figure, which seem to flash with piercing energy, perform this function as well. The statue wears a cloak, has a piece of fabric stretched over its belly, and is girded with a loin cloth of braded raffia. It also carries a gourd, a receptacle for water, which is painted white, the color of the land of the dead. It wears a string of plump Calabar beans (ngongo) to infect its occult enemies with anxiety (budika ngongo). Its back and shoulders are draped with snail shells, which are associated with pregnancy, since the snail resides in its shell the way the fetus does in the womb of its mother.
The nikisi named Lunkanka, which was collected in Zaire, is now in the National Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm. In contrast with Mbumba Maza, it belongs to “the above,” the realm of rain, thunderstorms, and birds of prey; its area of concern is the predominantly, though not exclusively, male domain of political authority and public order. Lunkanka, whose name means “menace,” is a nkondi, a nikisi whose primary purpose is to hunt witches and other unknown wrongdoers. The statue, which is twenty one inches high, is a female figure. Though its torso and limbs are carved in wood, its head is molded from an unidentified paste. Its face is simian, perhaps that of an nsengi monkey, which may be a pun on the verb senga, “to spy or watch over.” It holds its arms on its head in a gesture of mourning, a frightening omen for those who would place their selfish desires above the laws and customs of society. The gesture is repeated by another small carving of a woman attached to the figure's back. That carving is actually a whistle that mimics the call of the ntoyo bird, which also presages death. The shoulders of the main figure are draped with a plaited cord, which represents the trump line women use to carry heavy loads and which in this case is an instrument for wringing the necks of victims. A piece of tortoise shell is attached to the statue, since the tortoise is able to hide by withdrawing its head, just as Lunkanka must be able to conceal herself from witches. The figure carries two knives of its own, which it plunges into the hearts of evil doers. A resinous packet containing bilongo has been glued to the area below the figure's breasts. Knives have been thrust into the packet by clients who in this way sought to activate the powers of Lunkanka in order to punish runaway slaves.
In the case of both Mbumba Maza and Lunkanka, the statue concerned was undoubtedly commissioned from a carver by the nganga, who then concealed the smaller medicines in a cavity or resin and added the larger medicinal materials in such a fashion that they were prominently displayed. The total complex, however, was not an object of aesthetic contemplation. Its owner kept it hidden from view until it was necessary to activate it. Since its purpose was to contain and direct the effective energy of a soul, the medicine, not the carving, was the real source of its power. Nevertheless, the nganga had reason to commission the sculpture from a master carver. An especially compelling statue intensified the power of the nikisi by creating an attitude of ngitkulu, “astonishment,” in the minds of its beholders.
The Bakongo undertsood the nikisi and its power in terms of the theory of souls in their relation to the living and the dead that was set forth visually in its most basic terms by the cosmogram of the cross. The Kikongo word for spirit is mpeve, “breeze,” which suggests an ability to stir or animate a body, to cause it to move from within, as the leaves of a tree fluttering in the wind sometimes appear to move from an internal power. The movements of an animate body are in turn the expression of a unified center of awareness and action, a sign, in other words, of the localized presence of a person. For the BaKongo, personal identity was always active in some body (the dead have bodies of kaolin), but not dependent upon any particular physical complex. The widespread phenomenon of spirit possession constituted very strong evidence that the soul was not rigidly attached to a specific organic vehicle, but could temporarily abandon its body so as to be supplanted by another personal presence. When this happened, it was said to cross over the kalunga line into the land of the dead and so to make room for a soul with the opposite itinerary. And if the spirit of someone dead was capable of occupying a human body, then there was also good reason to think that it could come to reside in the artificial body created by the sculptor and nganga. (One way of treating spirit possession, in fact, was to entice the unwanted guest to abandon its human host and take up residence instead in an nikisi made for this purpose.) Once present in its new location, the soul could be cajoled by ritual means and directed by the visual language of medicines to migrate temporarily once again in order to do battle with the souls of witches and other malefactors. The success of this strategy was strikingly apparent when the victim did indeed develop intestinal disorders, respiratory difficulties, cardiac arrhythmias, and so on, maladies from which he or she often perished, or was relieved only after making restitution to the nganga's client. No matter how complex or artistically accomplished a nikisi might be, if it failed to demonstrate its effectiveness as a receptacle and conduit for the powers of the spirit, it was simply discarded.
Some banganga surely concerned themselves with developing the theory of souls on a high level of abstraction. Since Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmeli, none of us ought to be condescending about the conceptual sophistication of traditional African practitioners. But that theory was socially active only in the rituals and other practices in which minkisi were employed. The arousal of the powers of a nikisi for a specific purpose involved such procedures as detonating gunpowder in front of the object, insulting it, and driving nails and other pieces of sharp metal into its surface so as to stimulate its anger. But this was only part of the total picture. The process of making a figurated nikisi sometimes required three or four months of artistic and ritual effort. When it was finished, the entire village might celebrate with a two or three day festival, including elaborate dances, costumes, and music as well as a good deal of ceremonial drunkenness. And as the nganga's price for using a powerful nikisi was often quite high, the client usually had to activate kinship and friendship networks in order to come up with the required payment. This capacity to mobilize relatives, friends, and entire villages, as well as their aesthetic and material resources, was as much a part of the nkisi's power as its ability to treat medical and other disorders.
It is understandable, then, that the mani Kongo's felt that the power of the state was diluted by the large number of banganga and their minkisi and not only by the few important kitome priests. When Affonso triumphed over his brother and succeeded to the throne through the supposed intersession of Mary and Saint James, his first act was to burn the minkisi of Mbanza Kongo, thereby redefining them as instruments of witchcraft. With that dramatic gesture, he attempted to centralize spiritual power ─ and therefore the ability to activate and direct social and material resources in his own hands. The Catholic missionaries came to be called banganga, and their crucifixes and other religious parapernalia, minkisi. The people, both common and noble, sought to own the Catholic artifacts and to receive the blessings of the monks and priests because they believed that both could protect them from witches and evil spirits. Affonso's ability to impose the ban on traditional minkisi in the provinces was quite limited, however, and here they continued to exist alongside the new Catholic objects. The Portuguese attempted to distinguish between the two by calling the traditional minkisi, “fetishes.”
The Portuguese word is feitiÀ'_ÀaoÄ_Ä, which is derived from the Latin, facticius, “made by artificial means.” It is semantically linked with a perennial debate in Christianty over the theological validity of sacred images. The debate began among the early Church fathers, was pursued during the Middle-Ages in both the Byzantine and Roman confessions, and was renewed in the sixteenth century by the Protestant Reformation.
We may follow the Eastern Church in naming the debate the Iconoclastic Controversy, and the parties to the debate the iconoclasts (literally, “breakers of images”) and iconodules (literally, “worshippers of images”). Strictly speaking, these terms apply only to the famous dispute that took place in Byzantium in the eight and ninth centuries. But since the substance of the Controversy reappears across the entire spatial and temporal breadth of Christendom, there is no harm in employing the terms very broadly. In that maximally extended sense, then, the contending sides can be characterized in the following way. The iconoclasts took the position that any attempt to represent God or the saints in the form of visual images was an instance of the sin of idolatry. The iconodules, on the contrary, sought to distinguish between idols properly so called, which the Church, of course, must prohibit, and genuinely sacred images, which it ought to allow or even encourage. As in most important theological disputes, biblical texts in themselves were incapable of deciding the issue, even though this was not always recognized by the parties concerned. Exodus 32 is the most significant example. God has already liberated the children of Israel from their bondage in Egypt and led them into the dessert, where they are just beginning their long sojourn. Moses has gone up to Mount Sinai, leaving his people in the care of Aaron. But the Israelites panic in the absence of the prophet and clamor for “gods that may go before us” (Exodus 32:4). In response to their anxiety, Aaron collects their golden earrings, melts them down, and fashions the metal into the image of an Egyptian god in the form of a calf. When Moses returns, he finds the people prostrating themselves before the idol. He smashes the golden calf in anger, in the process throwing down the tablets of the law which he had received from God on the mountain top. The Second Commandment inscribed on the tablets prohibits the very act which Aaron and the other Israelites have just committed. (This pertains to the Hebrew version as well as the Greek Septuagint; in the Latin Vulgate, the original Second Commandment is collapsed into the First.) Most iconoclasts interpreted the Second Commandment as unequivocal evidence in support of their position. But its text is ambiguous. On a close reading, it is impossible to determine whether the injunction against “graven images” prohibits the making of any image at all, or the making of an image of God, or the worship of such an image, or the making and worship of an image of a false god. In other words, it does not tell us precisely what an idol, or graven image, is, or decide whether or not there is a category of permissible sacred images.
The other condemnations of idolatry in the bible also fail to settle these issues. But many of them do emphasize the fact that idols are objects made by artificial rather than divine means. In Deuteronomy 27:15, we find the following passage: “Cursed be the man that maketh a graven and molten thing the abomination of the Lord, the work of the hands of artificers” (opus manuum artificum in the Vulgate). Psalm 13:15 similarly condemns idols as “the work of human hands” (opera manuum hominum). The adjective facticius, from which feitiao and “fetish” are derived, is clearly a synonym for such formulations. But in what way is the sin of idolatry connected to the fact that an image has been made by human hands?
Different iconoclasts answered this question in different ways, but the answers are compatible and best conceived as aspects of a unitary though multifaceted response. To begin with, the iconoclastic position emphasized the fact that every process of human fabrication shapes some material substratum. But that substratum is an inadequate vehicle for communicating the divine nature. As the early Church father, Clement of Alexandria put it in his “Exhortation to the Greeks:” “… a statue is really lifeless matter shaped by a craftsman's hand; but in our view the image of god is not an object of sense made from matter perceived by the senses, but a mental object. God, that is, the only true God, is perceived not by the senses but by the mind.” There is an unbridgeable chasm between the invisible, spiritual reality of God and the visible, material entity that the artisan produces in an attempt to convey that reality. It is true that God once embodied Himself in a material substratum in the mystery of the Incarnation. But, as the Byzantine iconoclasts argued, this means that Christ has a dual corporeal and spiritual nature. While the corporeal nature can be adequately conveyed by a finite and sensuous piece of matter, the infinite spiritual nature remains forever beyond its grasp.
Yet the contrary belief is not merely an epistemological error, what contemporary analytic philosophers might call a category mistake. It is, rather, a grave moral failing and spiritual danger as well. The early mediaeval theologian, Hugh of St. Victor, placed human fabrication third in a hierarchy of productive activities. (Though Hugh was not himself an iconoclast, the opponents of sacred images found his conceptual framework useful). God creates out of nothing, ex nihilo. Nature develops the seeds that God has planted within it; that is to say, it unfolds the organic forms with which it has been endowed. But human fabrication proceeds by arranging the elements of the created world in some new configuration. While in one respect this ties the process of making to a pre-existent reality, since the elements are not themselves made by human effort, in another respect it releases it into the realm of uncontrolled fantasy, since the recombination of elements is in principle unconstrained. The iconoclasts drew a moral conclusion from the tertiary position of human making in the ontological hierarchy. For them, the artisan as a pseudo-creator is always liable to be seduced by his or her own reveries, to take what is illusory for something real. This encourages the sin of vanity, the mistaken notion that the imaginatively guided hand can create ex nihilo. That sin is nowhere more grievous than when an image of the divine is concerned. For here human fantasy, which is really just a kind of spinning in the void, presumes to be able to capture the divine essence itself.
In I Corinthians: 4, Saint Paul calls the idol “nothing in the world,” an empty phantasm without any correlate in reality. For the iconoclasts, this does not apply only to the images of other people's gods. It must be the case regarding any visual representation of the one true God or even of the saints as spiritual beings. But the phantasmal nothing that is the sculpture or painted icon is liable to acquire an unintended spiritual power. By a deep affinity, it may attract “unclean spirits” who have fallen from grace as a result of their own vain fantasies, their own pretensions to rival the power of the Creator. The Byzantine and Roman Catholic worlds were filled with stories of bleeding crucifixes, weeping statues of Mary, icons of the saints that healed the sick or delivered victory to armies in battle. The iconoclasts dismissed none of these tales. Instead they accounted for the stories by explaining that the images involved had been transformed into the perverse bodies of fallen angels, the material vehicles of demonic activity.
The strategy of the iconodules was to deny the most important premise of the iconoclastic argument, namely, that there is no meaningful connection between the material image and the divine nature. At first, they proceeded by attempting to establish such a connection in the case of what the Eastern Church called acheropoietoi. The word is a negation of cheriopoietos, which is Greek for “made by human hands” (of which the Latin facticius is a translation). Acheropoietoi are images not made by human hands, but produced instead by a supposedly miraculous intervention. The most famous example is the veil of Veronica on which Christ's visage is said to have been impressed when the Savior used it to wipe his face during the Passion. (The shawl bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is another, New World example.) The iconodules argued that the acheropoietoi are obvious instances of images commensurate with their divine or saintly models. But their argument does not apply to the far larger number of sacred images made by human hands, and these images, after all, were the primary targets of the iconoclastic attack.
Hand-made sacred images required a different line of defense. This led the iconodules to appeal to the concept of “participation” (methexis) that originated in Plato's Dialogues and was developed further in the neo-Platonic tradition. The world of particular things ─ in Christian parlance, the created world, lacks the permanence, moral excellence, and full intelligibility of the eternal forms that are so many aspects of the Divine Mind. Yet that world is more than sheer nonbeing. The visible derives its reality, its status as something rather than nothing, from its participation in the invisible. The Creator has communicated His own Being to the creation, albeit to a diminished degree. When pushed to its most extreme expression, the notion of participation becomes that of the indwelling presence of God in the world. But since God nonetheless remains distinct from what he has made, that presence takes the form of obscure signs and secret significations, of metaphysical allegories and objective metaphors. The color white is not merely a sensory vibration; it is an expression of spiritual purity or eternity. The ostrich signifies justice because of the perfect equality of its feathers. The unicorn can only be captured by a virgin if it rests its head in her lap; it is a symbol of Christ, who is begotten twice, once by the Father alone, and the second time in the womb of Mary. For the Christian neo-Platonists, these are not arbitrary connections, meanings that we project into objective things. They are real communities of essence and exist independently of whether or not anyone recognizes them. Beginning most forcefully with the three sermons, “Against Those Who Deprecate Holy Images,” written by Saint John of Damascus in the early eighth century, the iconodules developed this symbolic conception of reality into a justification for images of God and the saints. The entire visible world can be interpreted figuratively, since it is everywhere suffused with divine goodness and reality. But this means that the visual image made by the artisan is also able to communicate something of spiritual Being. The language of art is no different in this regard than the symbolic language spoken by all of creation.
The iconodules triumphed over the iconoclasts in both the eastern and western Churches, not least of all because the laity, especially the poor, was emotionally attached to sacred images. The problem with the victorious position, however, is that it had no clear criterion for distinguishing between those images and idols, at least none that was defensible in argument. Take the example of the Renaissance priest and neo-Platonist Marcilio Ficino. In 1489, seven years after Cao discovered the Zaire River, Ficino wrote a treatise, Libri de Vita, whose third book presents instructions for making magical talismans to treat medical disorders as well as induce positive states of health. The talismans must be constructed from materials and impressed with images associated with the stars and planets whose specific influences are needed on behalf of a client. For instance, in order to assure a long and happy life, one should make an image of Jupiter on a white, clear stone during the proper time and with the appropriate incantations and rituals. The planetary god is to be depicted as “A crowned man on an eagle or a dragon, clad in a yellow garment.” Ficino insists that this procedure does not result in the infusion of the talisman with a demonic spirit. Instead it calls down the spiritus mundiÄ_Ä, the energies of the neo-Platonic world soul, by way of astral conduits. But the defensive tenor of the writing indicates that he is nervously anticipating the claim of some zealous Church official that star demons are the real source of his talismanic power. How could such a dispute be adjudicated? Certainly not by appeal to the fact that the talisman is made by hand. So is the permissible crucifix. And not by reference to the talisman's effective power either, since the crucifix is also able to protect the believer from enemies, or even to ensure long life. The real, though hidden, presence of the divine in the created world that grounds the iconodules’ argument is, literally speaking, an occult notion. And, in a universe in which spiritual presences, evil as well as divine, are capable of inhabiting material things, it is difficult indeed to distinguish white magic from sorcery.
This is the problem the Portuguese faced in Kongo. The traditional minkisi were similar to Ficino's talismans. They were material receptacles for spiritual powers and were used for medical purposes broadly construed. The Catholics claimed that they were inhabited by demons. But then, one culture's demon is the soul of another's sainted dead. The Portuguese merely masked the absence of a rational criterion for distinguishing between allowable images and idols by calling the minkisi “fetishes.” For it was no longer possible to condemn images on the grounds that they were made by hand. The concept of the fetish was an iconoclastic anachronism in what had long been an iconodule culture.
It is not quite true that the Catholics had no criterion at all to justify the destruction of fetishes. Such a criterion existed, but it had nothing to do with theological argument. It consisted instead in a pragmatic test of magical superiority.
For the first century and a half of Portuguese involvement in Kongo, Catholic clerics were not very enthusiastic in pursuing the destruction of the traditional minkisi that were still being used in the provinces. They contented themselves with establishing their religious dominance in Mbanza Kongo. In part, this was because many of them were more interested in enriching themselves from the slave trade than in evangelizing the remote and sometimes unfriendly villages. However, in 1645, the first Capuchin mission arrived in the capital city. The Capuchins were an Apostolic Prefecture of Spanish and Italian priests under the direct authority of the Pope. The members of the order were chosen in accordance with the Franciscan ideal, and so exhibited an unusual degree of asceticism, endurance, and sectarian enthusiasm. Their primary goal was to eradicate the “religious abuses” still taking place in the provinces by means of a thorough going evangelization. With the secret permission of the mani Kongo, Garcia, they moved ruthlessly to challenge the power of the provincial banganga and their minkisi. Because the fetishes were inhabited by demons and their owners had sold their souls to the devil, the priests had to oppose them with the white magic of Christ. The Capuchins had no doubt that they would prevail in the end since they possessed superior occult abilities stemming from their utter submission to the will of the Lord. They believed that they could produce rain and heal the sick. They also cast out demons and cursed the indigenous sorcerers. One Capuchin is supposed to have pronounced some Latin words over the sacred tree of a kitome priest; as a result, the tree withered and the priest's wife died. Later, the clerics performed exorcisms with the Pope's explicit authorization in order to dispel plagues of locusts that presumably had been summoned by witches.
However, it proved to be more difficult to destroy the minkisi than the Capuchins anticipated. Their iconoclasm provoked intransigent resistance by the banganga. The traditional practitioners were willing to incorporate Catholic artifacts and prayers into their ritual equipment, but they refused to capitulate when asked to commit professional suicide. So they fought using the very weapons that the Capuchins were seeking to destroy. They employed the minkisi to induce distress in their opponents, who were the real sorcerers from their point of view. Apparently, the Capuchins often allowed their fear of demons to get the better of evangelical zeal, for, in the face of nganga “witchcraft,” they usually fled. Sometimes the magical battle spilled over into physical conflict as well. The villagers, who were often as passionately attached to the minikisi as were the indigenous practitioners, wept when the statues and other containers of medicine were cast into bonfires, and tried to snatch them from the flames. In one incident, a Capuchin was beaten to death by the outraged participants in a ritual employing minkisi when he attempted to smash and burn the objects. The mani Kongo retaliated by sentencing those involved to slavery and by issuing a public order for the destruction of all minkisi. He established severe penalties for the practice of traditional “magic” and had two banganga executed for burning down churches. But it was all to no avail. The Capuchins became discouraged and gradually left the provinces for the comfort of the Portuguese settlement in Luanda. Soon that settlement launched the invasion that would result in the destruction of Kongo Catholicism. Triumph in a battle of magical powers was the only criterion the Capuchins knew for proving that the minkisi were fetishes, idols inhabited by demons with powers inferior to those of the true God. The problem was the priests were defeated.
The world that was pregnant with capitalism was one in which an occult war between priests and magicians made perfect sense. But it died in the act of giving birth. Not so the concept of the fetish. A little more than a century after the Battle of Mbwila, it reappeared transfigured; no longer the body of a demon, but an instrument of enlightenment.
 Quoted in Peter Forbath, The River Congo (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1977), 73.
 The accounts are inconsistent here. According to some, Cao first journeyed into the mouth of the estuary on his first voyage.
 Quoted in Peter Forbath, The River Congo, 102.
 Quoted in Ibid, 118.
 Basil Davidson, The African Slave Trade, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980), 161.
 Philip Curtin, quoted in Robert Farris Thompson, Kongo Civilization and Kongo Art, in Robert Farris Thompson and Joseph Cornet; Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1981), 32.
 I am following the account in Anne Hilton, The Kingdom of Kongo (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 33-35.
 Quoted in Davidson, The African Slave Trade, 158-159.
 See Peter Forbath, The River Congo, 86-87.
 See Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983), 108-116; and Thompson, Kongo Civilization, in Thompson and Cornet, Four Moments of the Sun, 42-52.
 MacGaffey, “The Eyes of Understanding: Kongo Minkisis,” in MacGaffey and Harris, Astonishment and Power, pp. 59-61.
 Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 117.
 MacGaffey, p. 63.
 Werner Gillon, A Short History of African Art, p. 285.
 Its catalogue number is 34.28.13. MacGaffey discusses it on p. 71.
 Its catalogue number is 1954.1.2338. Macgaffey discusses it on pp. 80- 86.
 Hilton, Kingdom of Kongo, 62.
 Hilton, Kingdom of Kongo, 62.
 See Barasch, p. 48.
 Both quoted in The Gothic Idol, p. 27, p. 30.
 Quoted in Barasch, p. 52.
 The Gothic Idol, p. 35.
 Eco, Art and Beauty, pp. 54-55.
 Quoted in Yates, p. 70.
 Hilton's account, which is being followed here is on pp. 154-198.