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Kafuxi Ambari and the People without State's History
Forging Kisama Reputations, c. 1580–1630
How much history a people have, far from indicating their low stage of evolution, is always an active choice, one that positions them vis-à-vis their powerful text- based neighbors.
— JAMES C. SCOTT, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, 2009
During my field research in 2010, time and time again, when I explained to residents of geographical Kisama — old, young, male, female, literate or without access to education, from the northern boundaries along the Kwanza River to the southern limits along the Longa River — that I was interested in the past, I was asked if I knew the story of Kafuxi Ambari. It was essential, they told me repeatedly, that I know and understand his history, because too many of the young people today did not know about him. Even teenagers remarked ruefully on their concern that members of their generation or generations yet to come would fail to appreciate the importance of Kafuxi Ambari's legacy. When I asked what I needed to know about Kafuxi Ambari, the response was unequivocal: he mounted the most sustained, effective, and important campaign of resistance against the Portuguese during the time of the Jita Kwatakwata. In a context in which the elaborate lineage-based histories long favored by scholars of Africa are absent — strategically absent — Kafuxi Ambari alone occupies a critical genre of historical narrative throughout today's geographic Kisama. I found this emphatic and universal assertion interesting, given that not only had I heard personal accounts of living residents of Kisama who had themselves participated in anti-Portuguese resistance or whose parents and grandparents had, but I also knew of archival records of sobas in geographic Kisama who organized armed campaigns against Portuguese well into the twentieth century. With seemingly contradictory evidence of more recent resistance flourishing in both living memory and the archives, I was compelled to better understand the enduring impact of Kafuxi Ambari's legacy and to discern what made the resistance of Kafuxi Ambari merit its own category of historical memory in present-day geographical Kisama.
Indeed, the stories about Kafuxi Ambari that I heard in Kisama — whether I actively solicited them, overheard them, or was offered them by way of responding to other questions — were unique in several respects. Not only was Kafuxi Ambari the only named leader of anti- Portuguese resistance in tales about the Jita Kwatakwata, but he was also the only named warrior. In a society whose very survival and identity were predicated for centuries on the accrual and exercise of exceptional martial skill, there is seemingly no mythology or storytelling related to warriors or warrior identities with the exception of Kafuxi Ambari. While it is always perilous to make an argument based on a perceived lack of evidence, Kafuxi Ambari's exclusive occupation of this genre of historical knowledge suggests a deliberate, politically animated connection between the very contours of silence regarding warfare and warriors in Kisama history and the ways in which the thousands of fugitives who created Kisama societies conceived of justice. The reputation increasingly associated with Kafuxi Ambari and Kisama was a rich resource on which those throughout the region and in the Americas — regardless of whether they had ever set foot in geographical Kisama — could draw.
Kafuxi Ambari does not just serve as an organizing historical/narrative trope in today's Kisama, however. In 1885 — a signal year that most students of global history imagine through sepia-toned images of steamships, railroads, industrial capital, and the mustaches of the Europeans in Berlin who bargained away the lives, labor, and land of millions of Africans — a Portuguese military captain in Angola, José Ignacio de Souza Andrade, was charged with imposing a particular vision of colonial modernity onto people who had actively evaded various forms of state and nonstate power since at least the sixteenth century. Andrade knew well the enduring reputation of Kisama; memories of centuries of frustrated Kongo, Ndongo, Imbangala, and Portuguese ambitions flourished in living political lexica throughout the region as well as in trans-Atlantically circulating printed sources. In his detailed report on the state of Portuguese attempts to subdue the people and territories they understood as Kisama, Andrade included not only relevant details of the campaigns in progress, but also, intriguingly, a rather lengthy transcription of an account of the iconic 1594 battle between Kafuxi Ambari's forces and the Portuguese. After transcribing the account of the battle, Andrade argued that this three- century-old tale was "well known" "to affirm his argument that, more than imprudent, [it is] mad to penetrate Quissama to make a war there, with the goal of conquering territory."
While later I follow the global iterations of the Kisama meme from the time of the 1594 battle to José Ignacio de Souza Andrade's campaign to my own fieldwork in the twenty-first century, this chapter explores the ways in which the highly effective practices of Kafuxi Ambari at the turn of the seventeenth century defined the political and discursive landscapes of Kisama-ness for centuries to come. Despite the fact that Kafuxi Ambari was often in conflict with other sobas within the region between the Kwanza and Longa Rivers — or perhaps because of it — for those living in present-day geographical Kisama, he uniquely signals local authenticity. If states elevate certain figures as "father(s) of the nation," how do nonstate societies that have been at odds with each other for centuries jointly lay claim to the prestige, authority, and legacy of a single figure to give shape and structure to a politically charged identity? What is the connection between Kafuxi Ambari's praxis and the meanings with which various West Central Africans and Africans and their descendants in the Americas imbued "Kisama"?
In this political biography, by focusing on the changes in local notions of political legitimacy in the period from roughly the 1580s to the 1630s, I argue that the growing role of the lands between the Kwanza and Longa Rivers as a refuge for those fleeing the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the accompanying escalation of the scale of violence, slavery, and the slave trade within Angola necessitated the formation of new concepts about political legitimacy and the role of authority, and, in turn, new understandings of identity. For those living in this tumultuous period, rupture, disorder, and chaos were more common than stability and continuity. So it should come as no surprise that West Central Africans reforged older notions of political and social practice to adapt. The ways in which Kafuxi Ambari navigated through and capitalized upon these changes cemented him in the historical consciousness of residents of Kisama to this day as "the last soba to resist the Portuguese." In fact, Kafuxi Ambari's enduring subjectivity is the very nexus of the discourses and ideologies of fugitive modernities in Kisama. He is the skeleton onto which all who claim Kisama attach themselves.
Both historians who have written about Kisama, Beatrix Heintze and Aurora da Fonseca Ferreira, discuss Kafuxi Ambari's importance as "the most powerful ruler in Kisama," and both also mention the early twentieth-century oral tradition recorded in neighboring Libolo that Kafuxi Ambari immigrated to Kisama in the wake of Portuguese incursions along the Kwanza River. Of course, notions that powerful leaders come from the outside are widespread throughout African oral political cultures, and this account from Libolo may reflect either a genre convention or some deeper political imperative that we can no longer access. What is indisputable, however, and what Heintze and Ferreira both acknowledge, is Kafuxi Ambari's power and importance within Kisama — a fact that emerges starkly from seventeenth-century sources.
I go further, however, arguing that it was the actions of Kafuxi Ambari in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that made Kisama a coherent, legible trope with which to conjure political power. Kafuxi Ambari came to signal this power for those living between the Kwanza and Longa Rivers who would identify as Kisama, for those who heard rumors of the martial and spiritual aptitudes of Kafuxi Ambari and other sobas in Kisama and fled there, for those state actors, African and European alike, who strove unsuccessfully to subdue Kisama, and, ultimately, for fugitives in the Americas who evoked Kisama as a means for orienting themselves politically. However, Kafuxi Ambari's exercise of these unique powers and charisma located him on the shadowy borderlands between effective leadership and dangerous witchcraft. Therefore, there are multiple strands of oral traditions that identify him as an "outsider," and claims of Kafuxi Ambari's immigration should be read through that lens. He was at the same time the figure around which Kisama identity cohered and always and forever outside of Kisama-ness.
While Kafuxi Ambari's reputation endures into the twenty-first century, however, it is important to note that the remarkable characteristics associated with him are not the exclusive property of those who consider themselves his descendants or descendants over whom he directly ruled. In other words, people in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Angola transposed these traits from Kafuxi Ambari onto the land of geographical Kisama itself and then identified as "Kisama" rather than as personal followers or descendants of Kafuxi Ambari. While those who lived in geographical Kisama, who fled to geographical Kisama, and who drew the contours of what it meant to be Kisama relied on Kafuxi Ambari's power to help secure their freedom, a warrior identity was more of a strategic presentation to outsiders than an organizing social idiom for Kisama. This process stands in important contrast to the life and afterlife of Njinga, ruler of Ndongo and Matamba. After they died — and their personhood did not transcend a single lifetime — those who remained in their state identified as and were identified as "Njingas." This vital distinction compels us to remember that, regardless of the language through which people situate identity as primordial, and tradition as the guiding principal of social and political life, identities are always fungible currencies within a field of political negotiation.
I trace the emergence of Kisama's reputation in conjunction with the rising power of Kafuxi Ambari to a growing regional emphasis on military skill. In an era of unprecedented, apocalyptic violence and social rupture, the ability to protect vulnerable people from the depredations of expansionist states and lineage-eschewing bands of warriors and their Portuguese allies increasingly became a prerequisite for leadership of equal or greater importance to older notions of inherited authority. Kafuxi Ambari's military success helped the region of geographical Kisama develop into a relatively secure asylum for those fleeing Portuguese captivity by the 1620s. In turn, these refugees participated in the complicated debates around political legitimacy and the relationship of violence to both the conceptualization and practice of social justice through which Kisama gained salience as a trope and political strategy.
Narrating Kisama history through the lens of Kafuxi Ambari's political biography is something of a compromise. On the one hand, it allows us insight into the vital means through which notions of time and personhood were crafted and maintained in service of politics outside the state. On the other hand, it may reinforce problematic concepts of leadership — notions likely foreign to the praxis of Kisama. In choosing to tell Kisama's history as people in Kisama tell it, I risk silencing the voices of those who are entirely invisible in the archives, who leave no trace, not even the echoes and whispers left by Kafuxi Ambari. So I frame this as a story of Kafuxi Ambari with caveats, cautions, and every effort to speak to collective political action and agency.
"A Time When Seeds Were Lost for Lack of Water"
Aridity has long been the defining natural characteristic of the land between the Kwanza and Longa Rivers. The people living between these two rivers developed complex survival strategies that largely favored low population densities, widely dispersed, small settlements, trade, extensive hunting and fishing, and subsistence practices that maximized the potential of riverine areas with intensive cultivation of beans, sorghum, and plantains as a way to survive and thrive. If the rains do not come in the short rainy season between late October and March, however, local people are still highly vulnerable to drought. While hunting, fishing, foraging, trade, and mobility are important ways to augment food resources, they did not and do not always provide enough food for everybody.
Living along the Atlantic coast and at some distance from the more fertile inland river valleys of the Kwanza and Longa Rivers, in 1588, Kafuxi Ambari and his people suffered from drought and local crop failure. Though the Jesuit author of the 1588 account on the religious and political state of Angola does not detail the precise location of Kafuxi Ambari's lands, he does mention that he was on the sea coast, only twenty or thirty leagues (approximately 52 to 78 miles, or 83 to 125 kilometers) from a land "abundant in meats, and provisions, very cool and well-watered, all resembling a fresh garden" — a description that corresponds best to both historical and present-day conditions in the Longa River valley. While such fertile lands existed only a short distance away, Kafuxi Ambari's people suffered the deprivation of what the author described as "a time when seeds were lost for lack of water." In order to remedy the situation, Kafuxi Ambari called on one of his ritual authorities to initiate a rain-making ceremony. In front of a large crowd composed of both local people and the same Portuguese soldiers who briefly served as Kafuxi Ambari's allies, the ritual authority arranged a circle of bells and other instruments around him. He used these to invoke the subjectivities who could help bring rain. However, after much lightning, thunder, and gathering clouds, no rain came. According to the author, the ritual authority himself was decapitated by a bolt of lightning sent to instruct the local people about the Christian god's power.
It is impossible to know how those most central to this story — those suffering from drought, who looked to Kafuxi Ambari and his ritual authority to ameliorate their plight — reacted to such a theatrically grave failure, if indeed this event was anything more than a Portuguese morality tale. The Jesuit author of the account was not preoccupied with the shifting terrain of ideologies of political legitimacy, and I have been unable to find any kind of oral histories or other sources that even obliquely refer to this particular moment. Indeed, simply because it is the first time that Kafuxi Ambari appears in a written archive does not mean that this moment was particularly significant, or that it even happened. Were we able to zoom out to a broader perspective, we might be able to determine if, in the longer narrative arc of Kafuxi Ambari's power and regional history, this moment was relatively insignificant, or of paramount importance. Did Kafuxi Ambari lose legitimacy locally? Did his nganga? These are important questions that we cannot now answer.
What we can know, however, is that after the failure of his ritual specialist, Kafuxi Ambari elected to make war on one of his neighbors. This was likely a long-standing strategy in times of drought, but, given the broader regional context, it also reflects the growing importance of martial aptitude for maintaining political legitimacy and authority. While the author does not specify against which "enemy" Kafuxi Ambari waged his campaign, nor speculate as to the motives for such a battle, we can reasonably infer from the context of extreme drought and deprivation that Kafuxi Ambari intended either to raid for provisions — presumably from the neighboring peoples whose land was fertile and well watered — or to raid for captives, or, most likely, both. That the Portuguese were active in this campaign with Kafuxi Ambari on their trek toward Cambambe makes it even more likely that they were interested in purchasing those whom Kafuxi Ambari captured during war. The author reports that due to the drought conditions, the Portuguese "couldn't proceed for him [Kafuxi Ambari] without carrying all necessary supplies[,] water, and vessels in which to cook or eat, and all of this on the shoulders of blacks, because there are no beasts [of burden] in this land." Such porterage was the domain of enslaved laborers whom their masters valued the least — newly acquired war captives who were a danger to those holding them in bondage. Kafuxi Ambari could have traded such captives to the Portuguese for food, as was apparently common throughout geographical Kisama in later centuries.(Continues…)
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Note on Cartography xi
List of Archives and Abbreviations xiii
Introduction. Fugitive Modernities: Chronotope, Epistemology, and Subjectivity 1
1. Kafuxi Ambari and the People without State's History: Forging Kisama Reputations, c. 1580-1630 31
2."They Publicize to the Neighboring Nations That the Arms of Your Majesty Do Not Conquer": Fugitive Politics and Legitimacy, c. 1620-55 58
3. "The Husbands Having First Laid Down Their Lives in Their Defense": Gender, Food, and Politics in the War of 1655-58 86
4. (Mis)Taken Identities: Kisama and the Politics of Naming in the Palenque Limón, New Kingdom of Grenada, c. 1570-1634 111
5. Fugitive Angola: Toward a New History of Palmares 146
6. "The Ashes of Revolutionary Fires Burn Hot": Brazilian and Angolan Nationalism and the "Colonial" and "Postcolonial" Life of the Kisama Meme, c. 1700-Present 164
Conclusion. Fugitive Modernities in the Neoliberal Afterlife of the Nation-State 187
What People are Saying About This
“In Fugitive Modernities Jessica A. Krug traces, imagines and really dares us to plot new paths to liberation by lingering in the work and world of Kisama. While never underestimating the consequences of bodily terror, Krug reminds us that every scrutinized black body contain theories, ideas, and imaginations that often travel in ways we intentionally fail to ritualize. I've read hundreds of memoirs and autobiographies this year. I'm still unsure how Krug made Fugitive Modernities, an academic book, the most intimate and imaginative work I've read in years. Fugitive Modernities is an intellectual, artistic, loving, and liberatory achievement.”
“With Fugitive Modernities, Jessica A. Krug proves herself to be a brilliant historian, as adept at mining the archive as she is at theoretical analysis. She is an intellectual historian who traces an idea through all of its varied meanings, languages, and shifts throughout time and space. This book will constitute a paradigm shift in how we think of intellectual history, of concepts of the Black Atlantic, and of the political ideas that traversed continents with black bodies who defined and gave meaning and purpose to them. This is a major accomplishment by a scholar whose dazzling intellect has opened new avenues for the work that will follow in its wake.”
“Fugitives in early modern Africa and America survived the predations of slaving states by harnessing political traditions that would cure the ills caused by concentrated power. Tracing the ideas and actions of black people who built self-governing societies, Jessica A. Krug highlights new possibilities for thinking about collective struggle in a continuous age of rapacious exploitation. In this innovative and ambitious work of history, we can envision a free future outside the custody of state authorities.”
“Fugitive Modernities is a major contribution to historiography on West Central Africa, Atlantic History and the African Diaspora. Jessica A. Krug’s research is careful and innovative, drawing on sources from three different continents to offer an original approach to resistance, slavery, political organization, and identity. Krug suggests new ways to examine West Central African political and social lives and the intellectual contribution of Africans to the Americas.”