Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World (review)
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Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World. By James H. Sweet. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. 302. $37.50 cloth)

This complex, compelling, and painstakingly researched study traces the life of Domingos Álvares, an African healer sent to Brazil as a slave and tried by the Portuguese Inquisition, to provide a window onto the Atlantic World he inhabited. The core of the book, drawn from an extraordinarily rich inquisition file, explores Álvares’s experiences as a slave, his manumission, his establishment of a terreiro (religious center) in Rio de Janeiro, and his trial and exile in Portugal. In order to fully contextualize Álvares’s practices and beliefs, Sweet provides an overview of the sociopolitical context of early-eighteenth-century Dahomey, the Middle Passage, and slavery in Brazil in the first half of the book. He supplements Álvares’s story with travelers’ accounts from Africa and Brazil, other inquisition records, parish records, African-language grammars, oral traditions, and ethnographies of West Africa.

Sweet interjects Africa and Africans into the history of Atlantic World by demonstrating how colonial Brazilian history should be understood, in part, as the history of the specific regions of Africa, in this case Gbe-speaking West Africa. In so doing, he successfully challenges some of the basic premises of Atlantic World history which, he argues, recycle frameworks that privilege the North American– European nexus—namely the “Americanization” of Africans and the triumphalist treatment of Atlantic history as the march towards equality and freedom. Álvares’s story provides this corrective because he, like many Africans, engaged the world around him from an African, not a European, epistemological frame. As a result, Sweet suggests that Álvares’s practices “contested the very legitimacy of European imperial power” (p. 6).

Integral to these arguments is the understanding that health and healing for Gbe-speakers was about more than addressing individual therapeutic needs. Rather, healing served as a tool to diagnose broader sociocultural issues that were the root cause of illness, such [End Page 97] as warfare in Dahomey or enslavement in Brazil. For Sweet, Álvares’s practices in Brazil and Portugal provide evidence of the projection of that understanding of healing grounded in his connection to the priesthood of Sakpata, a vodun (deity or spiritual force) of smallpox, in West Africa into the Atlantic World. Brazilians, not just Africans, and Portuguese of all backgrounds turned to healers like Álvarez, demonstrating how deeply these practices penetrated colonial society. Sweet deals with Álvares’s practices skillfully, particularly when connecting them to Africa. Take, for example, Sweet’s reading of the conflict between Álvares and his penultimate owner, a mulatta named Leonor de Oliveira Cruz. Oliveira’s husband had purchased Álvarez based on his reputation as a healer to assist his sick wife, but he eventually sold the slave because of his failure to cure her. Still, after Álvares’s manumission and establishment of his terreiro Oliveira returned to him as a client. The descriptions of her cure allow Sweet to make important connections between Álvares’s practices and specific Western African rituals and to demonstrate that his terreiro represented an attempt to constitute community in the face of the isolation his enslavement created. Here Sweet is at his best. Yet, ascribing specific sociocultural meanings to the practices he describes is more difficult. Sweet presents the logical and plausible argument that Álvares’s cures of Oliveira were infused with social commentary on the social ills associated with Brazilian slavery. Yet, he also argues that the nature of those cures betrayed racial and sexual tensions between Álvares and Oliveira, a conclusion that potentially exceeds his evidence.

While undergraduates and those new to Atlantic World history may find this difficult reading at times, it will be of significant interest to specialists of the Atlantic World, particularly those of the Black Atlantic, and will likely generate lively discussions in graduate seminars. [End Page 98]

Frank “Trey” Proctor

Frank “Trey” Proctor teaches history at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He is the author of “Damned Notions of Liberty”: Slavery, Culture, and Power in Colonial Mexico, 1640–1769 (2010) and is currently researching slave understandings...