Sold into slavery

Josephine Bakhita (1869-1947) became the first canonised saint from Africa since the fall of the Roman Empire. She was born in Darfur at Olgossa, where her uncle was the local chief. At nine, however, she was kidnapped, and sold into slavery. Completely traumatised, she forgot her name; her captors called her Bakhita, which means “fortunate one”. This was presumably an exercise in irony, for over the next years she suffered appalling treatment. On one occasion she was beaten to the verge of death; on another she was tattooed with multiple deep cuts, after which salt was rubbed into the wounds.

In 1883, however, she was sold to the Italian vice-consul, Callisto Legnani, who proved a kindly master. When, two years later, he fled from the nationalist rising of the Mahdi – this was at the time when General Gordon was killed at Khartoum – he took Bakhita with him to Italy. There she was passed on to the wife of his friend Augusto Michaeli.

For three years she lived with the Michaelis near Venice, as nanny to their daughter Minnina. In 1888, when business obliged the Michaeli parents to remove to the Red Sea, Bakhita and Minnina were entrusted to the care of the Canossian Sisters.

In the convent Bakhita came to understand the God whom, as she put it, she had experienced in her heart since her childhood, without ever knowing who he was. When the Michaelis returned to Italy they demanded in distinctly proprietorial manner that Bakhita be returned to them. Bakhita, with uncharacteristic firmness, insisted on staying put, and was supported by the Italian courts.


Baptised in 1890, she was given the name Giuseppina, translated as Josephine. She took her final vows in 1896, and lived as a Canossian Sister for more than 50 years. “If I were to meet the slave traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me,” Josephine reflected, “I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that had not happened, I would not be a Christian and Religious today.”

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection