- Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770
James Sweet examines ways in which Central African culture allowed slaves to fight dehumanization in Brazil. He argues that Central African (e.g., Mbundu, Ndembu, Imbangala, Kongo) religious beliefs and rituals survived in various forms during the African slave diaspora. More importantly, he argues that these beliefs and rituals provided the strongest forms of resistance against the hardships of enslavement. The argument challenges assertions that African slaves lost their cultural institutions once they were relocated to the Americas. He pieces together detailed stories using records kept by the Inquisition as well as records kept by Benedictine and Jesuit priests on Brazilian plantations. In the final analysis, the book examines slavery in Brazil from the viewpoint of the slaves wherever possible.
A key issue addressed throughout the book is that Westerners did and still do have problems interpreting the meaning and significance of African practices because of deeply ingrained, pervasive cultural biases. Sweet convincingly uses gender roles to describe how misunderstandings arose between slaves' and Westerners' traditional religious practices in everyday life. The author describes a third gender category in Central African religious space. Jinbandaas, as they were called, were categorized as homosexuals according to European standards. However, the category of "homosexual" ignores their important roles as traditional religious leaders and adds another stigma to their daily lives. Their religious powers were stifled, to say the least, once traded into slavery in Europe and the Americas. The Inquisition's understanding of these people as sodomites exacerbated violations of traditional kinship ties. Slaves worked to form new kinship ties and maintain old ones through whatever means they could find. Western cultural roles were not simply adopted by Central Africans under the pressures of slave life in Europe and the Americas. Their understandings were always mediated by ways of knowing and living that were familiar to them.
Sweet demonstrates the power of traditional African religious ritual practices and belief systems in slaves' resistance to religious conversions. Individuals who were taught religious beliefs (e.g., Christian, Muslim, traditional Mbundu beliefs) as children were more likely to retain these teachings as adults, no matter how many times new masters attempted to change slaves' religious affiliation. For example, slaves may have claimed whatever religious affiliation their masters [End Page 375] imposed, but this was often a strategy to avoid their masters' wrath. However, when left to their own devices, some runaway or freed slaves would return to the religious teachings of their childhood and sometimes to the master or family responsible for their childhood indoctrination into that religion.
Sweet convincingly argues that Central African religious belief and rituals affected Portuguese whites as much as Christianity muted Central African religious beliefs. Language barriers and a shortage of priests formed the biggest obstacles to slave religious conversions during the earliest years of African slavery in Brazil. But as the creolization process continued, slaves learned how to piece together beliefs from their ancestors' homeland and use them to resist and frighten their masters.
Examples of whites supplementing their Catholic beliefs with "stronger African remedies" (p. 215) are less known than examples of slaves adopting religious rituals from their masters. Sweet gives examples of whites worrying about their susceptibility to "possession" and "witchcraft" in specific contexts where definitions of these terms were sometimes drawn from European meanings, and at other times from African meanings. If a master felt threatened by the potential of his slaves to invoke spiritual revenge, he would resort to African rituals to protect himself and/or his family. Some Catholic priests even advised their parishioners to seek the services of African diviners and healers on the premise that "exorcisms and other church remedies were no match for African spirits, even when they infected white Christians" (p. 221). It is also important to note that, to the Inquisition, adopting African religious rituals or beliefs meant making a pact with the Devil. Catholic priests responded by modifying certain...