- Catholic Media Association Book Award: History, Honorable Mention
This volume examines the influence of African Catholics on the historical development of Black Christianity in America during the seventeenth century.
Black Christianity in America has long been studied as a blend of indigenous African and Protestant elements. Jeroen Dewulf redirects the conversation by focusing on the enduring legacy of seventeenth-century Afro-Atlantic Catholics in the broader history of African American Christianity. With homelands in parts of Africa with historically strong Portuguese influence, such as the Cape Verde Islands, São Tomé, and Kongo, these Africans embraced variants of early modern Portuguese Catholicism that they would take with them to the Americas as part of the forced migration that was the transatlantic slave trade. Their impact upon the development of Black religious, social, and political activity in North America would be felt from the southern states as far north as what would become New York.
Dewulf’s analysis focuses on the historical documentation of Afro-Atlantic Catholic rituals, devotions, and social structures. Of particular importance are brotherhood practices, which were critical in the dissemination of Afro-Atlantic Catholic culture among Black communities, a culture that was pre-Tridentine in nature and wary of external influences. These fraternal Black mutual-aid and burial society structures were critically important to the development and resilience of Black Christianity in America through periods of changing social conditions. Afro-Atlantic Catholics shows how a sizable minority of enslaved Africans actively transformed the American Christian landscape and would lay a distinctly Afro-Catholic foundation for African American religious traditions today. This book will appeal to scholars in the history of Christianity, African American and African diaspora studies, and Iberian studies.
Table of Contents
3. The Americas
4. The Catholic Roots of African American Christianity
"Atlantic history at its finest, Jeroen Dewulf's Afro-Atlantic Catholics convincingly shows us why any study of social life in early modern Europe, Africa, or the Americas must take African Catholicism seriously. Dewulf not only shows us the ample reach and diversity of Catholic institutions but also offers a methodological lesson in studying the Atlantic world as an interconnected web, a single constellation. As comprehensive as it is insightful, this persuasive book is a welcome reminder that one of the most enduring legacies of Africa in the Americas might very well be Catholicism." —Michael Iyanaga, College of William & Mary
“Jeroen Dewulf revolutionizes our understanding of the development of African American Christianity. Based on an extraordinary range of historical documents, the resulting narrative restores justice and dignity to countless generations of enslaved Africans who responded to harsh living conditions by organizing their own mutual-aid organizations focused on solidarity, care, comfort, and pride.” —Hein Vanhee, curator and historian at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Belgium
"Black Christianity in America has long been studied as a blend of indigenous African and Protestant elements. Jeroen Dewulf redirects the conversation by focusing on the enduring legacy of 17th-century Afro-Atlantic Catholics in the broader history of African American Christianity." —American Catholic Studies Newsletter
“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.'" —Black Catholic Messenger
Afro-Atlantic Catholics shows how a sizable minority of enslaved Africans actively transformed the American Christian landscape and would lay a distinctly Afro-Catholic foundation for African American religious traditions today. This book will appeal to scholars in the history of Christianity, African American and African diaspora studies, and Iberian studies. -Church History, Book of the Month feature
"By marshalling a wealth of historical data and a good amount of anthropological and linguistic material, Afro-Atlantic Catholics delivers on its promise to outline the origin, character, and influence of America's first Black Christians. ...Dewulf has made this text both effective and rewarding. Scholars interested in Black Atlantic religious cultures and the historical roots of Black Catholicism will find this book illuminating and more than worth their while." —The Americas
“This superb, exhaustively researched, well-written and eloquently argued analysis is an important start for looking at this neglected root of Black Christianity in the Protestant Americas.” —New West Indian Guide
In August 1733, Jacobus van Cortlandt placed a runaway advertisement in the New-York Gazette in an attempt to recover a “very black” and “tall lusty fellow” called Andrew Saxon. The latter had been working as a carpenter and cooper, probably on the wheat plantation the Van Cortlandts owned in the Bronx, where today’s Van Cortlandt Park is. His advertisement used the standardized language of the time, specifying certain physical characteristics of the runaway—Andrew walked “lamish with his left leg” and had a stiff left thumb “by a wound he had in his hand formerly”—language skills—he spoke “very good English”—stolen objects—Andrew took a broadax and other instruments with him—and clothing—he wore a pair of breeches and an old coat—but then the staunchly Protestant Van Cortlandt made a surprising reference to the fact that Andrew “professeth himself to be a Roman Catholic” and that “the shirts he had with him and on his back are marked with a cross on the left breast.” By marking his shirts with a cross, Andrew clearly did not make a secret of his faith. Van Cortlandt’s confidence that he would continue to wear these shirts as a runaway shows that it was a meaningful aspect of Andrew’s identity. This zeal is all the more remarkable considering the profoundly anti-Catholic sentiment in a state where only a decade later rumors of a “popish plot” would lead to the execution of thirty blacks and four (Irish) whites.
It is also possible that Andrew was one of the many enslaved blacks who had been brought to New York from Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, Antigua, or Barbados. Despite being under English colonial rule, there is evidence that some of the enslaved on these islands identified as Catholic. For instance, when the French Catholic priest Antoine Biet visited (in disguise) Barbados in 1654, he observed about the slave population that “if some of them received a tinge of the Catholic Religion among the Portuguese, they preserve it the best they can, doing their prayers and worshipping God in their hearts.” He also met with a group of Africans, all “very good Catholics,” who told them that they “were extremely sorrowed to see themselves sold as slaves in an island of heretics.” Andrew may also have come to New York via Curaçao. When Manhattan was still part of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, there had been close commercial relations with this Caribbean island that served as depot in a network of Dutch Atlantic slave trading operations. Even after the Dutch surrender to the English in 1664, New York families with Dutch roots such as the Van Cortlandts tended to maintain good relations with Curaçao. There too, we find early signs of Catholicism among the slave population. In 1660, for instance, the Dutch Reformed Church in Amsterdam received a letter from Curaçao, warning that “papists … who sometimes arrived here” were baptizing the slave children. Catholic priests from the nearby Spanish mainland did, in fact, regularly come to Curaçao to baptize newborn slaves. As a result, the island developed into a religiously segregated society with an Afro-Catholic slave population and a Dutch Protestant and Jewish slave-holding elite. The fact that enslaved blacks did not live in an Iberian colony is, thus, no reason to assume that they had had no exposure to Iberian customs.
However, Andrew may also have been brought to New York directly from Africa. The Van Cortlandts were, for instance, closely related to the Philipse family that since the 1680s had been involved in the transatlantic slave trade. While Frederick Philipse focused mainly on the Madagascar Trade, he did also bring to New York a number of slaves from Kongo, a region in Africa with a Catholic history that had started in the fifteenth century. That Andrew, too, may have originated from Central Africa is revealed by the fact that his shirts were marked with a cross. The use of shirts with an embroidered cross was prevalent among Catholics in Kongo, where it had originally been a prerogative of those who had been granted knighthood in the Order of Christ. In 1798, the Capuchin Raimondo da Dicomano confirmed that only knights of the Order of Christ enjoyed “the privilege to put lots of crosses made with pieces of cloth in several colors on their capes.” As the Portuguese explorer Alfredo de Sarmento in 1856 observed, however, this once highly prestigious distinction had become so common that he had the impression that “all or almost all inhabitants … are knights in the Order of Christ.” They were all wearing “the cross of the order made with pieces of cloth in several colors” or “shave their head and leave only a small plug of hair, which they style in the form of a perfect cross.”
If Andrew had, indeed, been knighted in the Order of Christ while living in Central Africa, it implies that he would have made an oath to a Catholic priest, with his right hand placed on the Bible. The priest would then have touched him three times with a sword on the shoulder, whereupon he would have sworn on the Holy Gospels “to defend our king [and] the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, to honor only one God, to assist all priests who come to the Kingdom of Kongo, and to persecute all idols and witchcraft.” While we can only speculate whether Andrew ever became such a “soldier of Christ,” it would certainly explain his zeal and Van Cortlandt’s surprise about an enslaved black man who, in eighteenth-century New York, proudly “professeth himself to be a Roman Catholic.”