restricted access Sorcery in the Black Atlantic ed. by Luis Nicolau Parés and Roger Sansi (review)
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Reviewed by
Parés, Luis Nicolau and Sansi, Roger, eds. Sorcery in the Black Atlantic. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2011. 253pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the study of witchcraft and sorcery across disciplinary and geographical boundaries. During the same period, witchcraft accusations among subaltern peoples have escalated, especially in the most rapidly modernizing regions of the Atlantic world—namely Africa and Latin America. The authors of the essays in this edited volume explore the nature of scholarly inquiry on sorcery and witchcraft of the past alongside this most recent upsurge, providing a unique perspective on the study of sorcery across the longue duree. The result is an impressive collection that challenges us to rethink acts of sorcery not simply as quaint, isolated examples of resistance eventually subsumed by the modern, but rather as fundamental expressions of the progress and transformation which we define as Atlantic modernity.

Though the title of the book suggests a broad Atlantic scope, the real emphasis here is on the Lusophone Atlantic world. Six of the twelve essays are devoted to Brazil, while the remaining chapters focus on Angola, Cameroon, Cuba, and South Africa. In their introduction, Sansi and Parés argue that a broad, Atlantic [End Page 137] focus allows us to get away from the tendency to reduce sorcery to Africa, while at the same time spelling out the specific historical circumstances that have produced sorcery in various colonial and globalizing situations. Ultimately, whether in seventeenth century Brazil or late-twentieth century Cameroon, sorcery reveals “the relational nature in power inequalities, in terms of kinship, labor, the state, or all of those; its radical negativity and alterity; and its plasticity and creativity resulting from its essential ambiguity.” (17) In short, sorcery is political history.

The tensions laid bare by this history are the grounds upon which interpretive disagreements emerge. Authors Sansi, Laura de Mello e Souza, João José Reis, and Yvonne Maggie address the fundamental question of whether sorcery should be characterized as resistance in Brazil. Sansi argues feitiçaria was not necessarily a form of resistance in early slave communities, pointing out that the material components of these practices were sometimes drawn from the Catholic Church. Fetish objects like bolsas de mandinga, for instance, sometimes included Christian prayers. Early Brazilians from all walks of life, not just slaves, utilized these objects to protect themselves from malignant spirits. Likewise, Souza and Reis view sorcery as deeply sewn into the fiber of early Brazilian society. In his article, Reis takes on the question of whether Candomblé should be considered slave resistance. He concludes that “slaves necessarily tested slavery when they associated their lives with that of Candomblé . . . [but] slavery represented just one among other misfortunes against which Candomblé priests had to fight. . . .” (72)

This is an argument with which most experts would agree; however, Reis, and to a lesser extent Sansi, arrive at their conclusions by building straw men, accusing other scholars (including the present reviewer) of reducing African sorcery to “a model or paradigm” of resistance. (72) Among others cases, Reis focuses on ones in which African slaves utilized divination to reveal the crimes of other Africans. In these cases, he concludes that “masters’ acceptance of African ritual norms” allowed them to bolster their control over the slave population. (58) Such arguments cohere nicely with old paradigms of slave accommodation and cultural hybridity. These are predictable, easy conclusions. Yet these approaches ignore the optic of the Africans themselves. As other scholars have shown, when masters adopted African judicial forms or beliefs in sorcery, they opened themselves to outcomes that were often detrimental to their interests. Some divination rituals named masters as the guilty party, and slaves sometimes used sorcery to injure or kill their masters. Likewise, when slaves killed other slaves with sorcery or poisoning, they may have been settling internal disputes, but masters’ belief in these powers to cause death and destruction had much broader implications on their potential prosperity. Reis is correct that we should “interpret all the possible complexity and angles in each specific story,” but these should include the angle of global institutional power. In...