Angola’s contemporary political boundaries resulted from 20th-century colonialism. The roots of Angola, however, reach far into the past. When Portuguese caravels arrived in the Congo River estuary in the late 15th century, independent African polities dotted this vast region. Some people lived in populous, hierarchical states such as the Kingdom of Kongo, but most lived in smaller political entities centered on lineage-village settlements. The Portuguese colony of Angola grew out of a settlement established at Luanda Bay in 1576. From its inception, Portuguese Angola existed to profit from the transatlantic slave trade, which became the colony’s economic foundation for the next three centuries. A Luso-African population and a creole culture developed in the colonial nuclei of Luanda and Benguela (founded 1617). The expansion of the colonial state into the interior occurred intermittently until the end of the 19th century, when Portuguese authorities initiated a series of wars of conquest that lasted up until the end of the First World War. During the 20th century, the colonial state consolidated military control over the whole territory, instituted an infrastructure of administration, and developed an economy of resource extraction. A nationalist sentiment developed among Luso-African thinkers in the early 20th century, and by the 1950s these ideas coalesced into a nationalist movement aimed at independence. Simultaneously, anticolonial movements developed among mission-educated elites in the Kikongo-speaking north and in the Umbundu-speaking central highlands. Portugal’s authoritarian New State leaders brutally suppressed these disparate nationalist movements during more than a decade of guerrilla war. A revolution in Portugal in 1974 ushered in negotiations leading to Angolan independence on November 11, 1975. Competing nationalist movements, bolstered by foreign intervention, refused to share governance and as a result plunged Angola into a brutal civil war that lasted until 2002.
Though seemingly innocent, descriptive, and even commendatory, both “spirits” and “healing” are problematic terms in the history of African studies. Rather than identifying well-bounded domains of African life, both of them have evolved from the history of European attitudes toward Africa. “Spirits” often give rise to problems of well-being that “healing” is called upon to solve. Despite this close connection, spirits have been the primary subject matter of religious studies, whereas healing is among the concerns of anthropology. The study of African religion has thus come to be divided between two disciplines embodying the distinction between “belief” and “knowledge,” the irrational and the rational, developed in Europe during the Enlightenment. Anthropology itself has long divided social life into the separate domains of religion, politics, and economics, assigning the study of each to a different discipline with its own preoccupations and specialized vocabulary. This ethnocentric template misrepresented African societies whose institutions were unlike those of Europe. In the forest zones of West and Central Africa a particular set of beliefs and practices regulated the use of power for personal and collective well-being. Power, or the ability to effect change for good or ill, was and is still thought to be derived from forces called “spirits,” which are in fact as much material as spiritual. Following special procedures, gifted persons obtain power from an otherworld that is simultaneously the earth itself and the land of “the living dead,” who are buried in it. The uses of such power to kill or to cure, for collective or private benefit, define a contrast set of four roles—called for convenience chief, priest, witch, and magician—whose functions are simultaneously moral, political, economic, and therapeutic. This system is open to novel revelations within a stable cognitive framework, and adapts to new conditions. Different ideologies and practices of social regulation are found in other parts of Africa.
On the Atlantic coast of Africa, the Polity of Kongo, situated around the Congo River and to the south, constitutes a unique case of a secular lasting relationship with Christianity. In 1491, following Diogo Cão’s travels, Mwene Kongo Nzinga Nkuwu accepted the baptism offered him by the Portuguese priests. This set off a complex process of integration and appropriation of Christianity’s ritualistic and symbolic forms, accelerated, in particular, during the reign of Afonso Mvemba Nzinga (1504–1542). From the beginning, the incorporation of Christianity into Kongo resulted from an autonomous decision by local political leaders. The complicated process of cultural translation of the Christian theological world to the Kongo cosmology, heterogeneous and discontinuous, full of ambiguities and misunderstandings, depended on the active participation of members of the Kongo aristocracy who were sent to Portugal to study or trained locally in the precepts of the faith. Different religious orders established themselves in the region between the 15th and 19th centuries, Jesuits and Capuchins most prominent among them. In addition to countless reports and descriptions about the social reality of the region, some printed at the time, their presence resulted in a set of linguistic sources, including booklets, catechisms, and vocabularies that determine the way different concepts and rituals were translated into the Kongo frame of reference. Christianity and the related process of acquiring and using the written communication reinforced the tendency of the political entity for agglutination around its center Mbanza Kongo. At the same time, they opened a diplomatic channel that Kongo manipulated in order to counter the political, economic, and religious pressure of the Portuguese Crown and its colony in Luanda, and to defend its own sphere of interests on an Atlantic scale. After the fragmentation of the Kongo following the battle of Mbwila in 1665, Christianity, or at least the consolidated forms of its appropriation and the local agents of that process, continued to play a relevant political and social role, even when the presence of different European religious orders had become either scarce or virtually nonexistent. This pattern of establishing roots is well reflected in the successive prophetic movements that broke out throughout the 17th century, echoes of which were still visible at the turn of the 20th century, when new religious protagonists emerged on the scene. The voluminous and diversified documentary archive continues to raise important theoretical and methodological debates about the nature of the processes of appropriation, reframing, and cultural hybridity generated in the context of this historical relationship.