“Afro-Atlantic Catholics,” a fascinating new book from a Belgian scholar at the University of California Berkeley undertakes a starkly important, yet underserved task: tracing the history of Christianity in the New World through the lens of its African adherents—whom the author rightly calls “America’s first Black Christians.”
Dr. Jeroen Dewulf, a specialist in German and Dutch studies, pulls in part from the latter in his exploration of Black Catholicism, including the Netherlands’ operations in various Caribbean colonies and in New Amsterdam, better known by its current name of New York City. Interestingly, as Dewulf is careful to explain, the Catholic presence in these areas was often not that of the colonizers but of the enslaved.
Dewulf also specializes in Portuguese colonial history, having previously published monographs on what is today known as the Congo region, including “The Pinkster King” and “From the Kingdom of Congo to Congo Square.” While it is popularly known that Catholicism reigns supreme even today in majority-Black areas like New Orleans, much less ubiquitous is the knowledge that its roots stretch back to a pointed 15th-century Lusitanic influence, which effectively brought Catholicism to Sub-Saharan Africa and predated the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.
Dewulf’s narrative begins here, part of an extended discussion on the background of New World Black Catholicism. The first third of the book covers Portugal and Africa, beginning with the influence of the then-superpower on the Kingdom of Kongo, which would become a primary source of slave labor in the Americas. In particular, Dewulf notes the conversion of King Nzinga a Nkuwu, later known as João I (a name he took in honor of the sitting king of Portugal), and his son King Mvemba “Alfonso” a Nzinga, who made Catholicism Kongo’s official state religion. Alfonso’s son Henrique would later become a priest and the first native central African bishop.
The section also traces the Catholic histories of various other African regions, including Upper Guinea (present-day Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d'Ivoire), São Tomé and Príncipe, and Lower Guinea (parts of Ghana, Benin, Togo, Nigeria, and Cameroon). Unsurprisingly, most of these regions were colonized by the Catholic empires of the French and Portuguese, and during a relatively early era, which Dewulf wishes to highlight.
“Studies of Black Catholicism in North America have long ignored the existence of Africans who already identified as Christian before their enslavement,” he writes—adding, for example, that while the Dutch colonizers in Manhattan were almost entirely Protestant, their African slaves were virtually all baptized Catholics from West Africa, especially the Kongo.
Not exclusively focused on what would become the United States, “Afro-Atlantic Catholics” includes in its second section the wide swath of Catholic influence in the Caribbean and greater Latin America, including the inculturated rituals of the Black New World that came in part from their people’s encounter with Catholicism in the homeland and elsewhere. One locale here that may come as a surprise to the uninitiated reader is the Danish Virgin Islands, where Kongo-descended Black Catholics in the heavily Protestant archipelago were known to perform baptisms among themselves using their familiar rituals.
The final third of the book, covering Black Catholics in mainland North America, is perhaps its most interesting, spanning roughly 75 pages. (An eminently academic text, the endnotes occupy 100 pages on their own.) Following up a discussion begun in the previous section, Dewulf notes how early Black fraternal societies in what would become the United States were influenced by Catholic tradition and West African mysticism. These live on today, for example, in the uniquely Black Carnival krewes and Mardis Gras Indians of the Gulf South—especially New Orleans, where one will hear of such groups as the Krewe of Zulu and the Congo Nation, both named in direct reference to the motherland.
Ironically, considering all the words spilled in recent years concerning the erasure of Catholicism in tellings of early Black history in the future United States—many, like myself, would highlight the 16th-century Spanish colonies of San Miguel de Gualdape in what would become South Carolina and Mission Nombre de Dios in Spanish Florida—Dewulf points out that the 20-some African slaves brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 were likely Catholics themselves.
“They had been on a Portuguese ship from Luanda that, on its way to Veracruz, Mexico, was captured by English and Dutch privateers,” he writes.
Interestingly, the Spanish tale which indeed inaugurates Black Catholic history in mainland North America gets surprisingly little treatment from Dewulf, likely due to the fact that his specialties lie elsewhere. Perhaps related is the fact that the book, whose title and subtitle might lead one to think it is primarily about America or the Americas, is dedicated to that topic specifically for only about half of its length.
Even so, as I read the book for that particular portion, I left satisfied that it adds a much-needed corrective to the oft-told narratives which, independent of one another, say Black history is not Catholic and Catholic history is not Black. Dewulf’s closing section alone, 45 pages detailing the “Catholic Roots of African American Christianity,” is itself worth the price of admission, covering topics ranging from burial traditions to praise breaks to the larger genesis of Black gospel music.
Thus, even if “Afro-Atlantic Catholics” is ultimately a story with more restrictive borders than Dewulf (or perhaps his publisher, University of Notre Dame Press) is willing to let on, it is nevertheless a take worth reading, especially for Americans looking for something to challenge historical assumptions—and perhaps their religious ones, too.
Afro-Atlantic Catholics: America’s First Black Christians
by Dr. Jeroen Dewulf
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).