The trans-Atlantic slave trade ranks among the greatest humanitarian disasters of history. Though slavery was a near-universal phenomenon throughout premodern history, the intensity and duration of human trafficking across the Atlantic was unequaled.
From the 16th through the 19th centuries, millions of people were shipped from Africa to the New World, into Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and British colonies. Millions more died in the slave wars in Africa, and from maltreatment and malnutrition before arriving in their destinations. (Incidentally, most black slaves were enslaved by Africans in tribal wars, and sold to European slave merchants on the coast.) Millions of others were born into slavery in the New World.
We in the United States sometimes view the slave trade through a North American lens, but we need to remember that nearly 40 percent of black slaves ended up in Portuguese Brazil, and nearly 50 percent were sent to colonies in the Caribbean (see slavevoyages.org). The vast majority of these slaves were used for labor on cash crop plantations — working in sugar (50 percent), indigo, cotton, coffee, cocoa and tobacco (see slaverysite.com). The population of most Caribbean countries today includes over 50 percent descendants of Africans; many, such as Haiti and Jamaica, have over 90 percent blacks, according to the World Factbook on cia.gov.
The human tragedy of the slave trade masks the remarkable resilience of African religions in the New World. Africans arriving as slaves had been wrenched from their culture and traditions. But, coming in large numbers, they were often enslaved in groups and housed with other Africans.
Like other immigrants, they were able to retain some of the traditional beliefs, practices and languages of their homelands, at least for a few generations. On the other hand, many slave owners attempted to convert their slaves to Christianity. Some felt it their moral duty to do so; they enslaved the body, but, in their view, only to save the souls of their slaves. Many Africans felt that their enslavement revealed the superiority of the God of their masters and, thus, felt inclined to worship the powerful God of this new land.
In the end, most African slaves converted to Christianity. However, theirs was usually a syncretistic conversion. That is to say, they accepted their masters’ Christian God without altogether abandoning their ancestral African gods. For them, it wasn’t a choice of either or — but of both. This was facilitated in Catholic countries, where the old African gods could be integrated into Catholicism by transforming them into unofficial “saints.”
Today, many Christians in the Caribbean and Brazil seek spiritual blessings and power from African-American priests and priestesses. Many African-American religions (wiki) emerged from this process; the most important include Voodoo (Vodou, Vudú), Santería and Umbanda.
African-American religions are widespread, diverse and regional. The Santería of Cuba was originally quite different from the Umbanda of Brazil, or the Voodoo of Haiti. Furthermore, Louisianan Voodoo can be quite distinct from Dominican or Haitian Voodoo.
Nonetheless, Africa-American religions usually share some broad characteristics. They generally agree that there is a supreme creator god — often equated with the Christian God. There are also, however, many other gods or spirits, who can be invoked for blessings. Worshipping these spirits can sometimes take the form of spirit possession, where the human is transformed by being filled with the “spirit of god.” Dead ancestors are often venerated as having power in the spirit world to intervene on behalf of their living descendants.
Healing, blessing, cursing and sorcery are practiced by the priests and priestesses of African-American religions. On the other hand, there are no supreme leaders of African-American religions, nor “churches” as we would understand them. Rather, followers seek spiritual help from holy men and women in their area who have special knowledge, power and connections to the world of the spirits.
As modern scholars have researched the history and nature of African-American religions, many contemporary followers have begun to integrate scholarly descriptions of their religions into their beliefs and practices. Thus, in some ways they begin to do what the scholars describe them as doing, rather than having a religion informed purely by the oral tradition of their ancestors. Many are thus becoming more integrated, organized and formalized, and more overtly connected to modern African religions such as Yoruba, Dahomean, Akan and Kongo. That is to say, practitioners of Louisiana Voodoo might read books on Dahomean religion and consciously incorporate these new ideas into their practices.
Despite pop-culture distortions regarding voodoo and zombies, African-American religions remain a vibrant and living tradition.