- Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World
In the burgeoning literature on Atlantic intellectual history in the last decade, the connections between Europe and the Americas have at times received far more attention than the ways Africans participated in exchanges of ideas that crossed the Atlantic. Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh among others have uncovered how some people of African descent selectively appropriated and remade egalitarian ideologies developed in North America and England.1 As valuable as this exploration of the multifaceted forms of Atlantic political thought has been, African contributions to these discussions have rarely entered this literature. James Sweet has accomplished a tremendous feat by reconstructing the ways West African healing practices and spiritual beliefs could articulate opposition to slavery, Portuguese colonialism, and the consolidation of power by West African political authorities. Simply put, this work is a stunning achievement. It weaves together Brazilian, Portuguese, and Dahomean contexts in the mid eighteenth century through a combination of meticulous analysis of available written sources and ethnographic research on West African spirituality. He builds on the growing number of impressive studies of slavery in the Portuguese empire, such as Walter Hawthorne's From Africa to Brazil,2 even as he offers a riveting narrative of an African diviner and healer on three continents.
The life of Domingos Álvares, a man enslaved by Dahomean soldiers in what later became Benin, crossed three continents. One of the most impressive aspects of this study is its deep understanding of the specific religious and political context of mid eighteenth-century Dahomey. Instead of considering West African spirituality as an unchanging monolith, Sweet explores how Álvares came from a community whose political independence and religious beliefs both came under attack from the growing power of the kingdom of Dahomey. This state's leader, Agaja, sought to impose his central authority over a wide range of spiritual traditions in regions he conquered in the 1720s and 1730s. The king sought with mixed success to curb the threat of [End Page 188] alternative forms of worship that could serve as a basis for challenging the king's legitimacy. Naturally, Sweet's arguments require a thorough grounding in the historiography and ethnographic studies of Dahomey. Robert Harms already has exposed the consequences of Dahomean expansion on its neighbors in The Diligent,3 but the perspectives of slaves are entirely left out. Sweet corrects this absence through Álvares's life as a healer. Dahomean troops sent thousands of people like Álvares through the Middle Passage as part of a government program of political and religious domination, and they became subjects of Portuguese state power in Brazil.
Rather than treat his career as merely an example of the survival of African perspectives in the New World, Sweet goes much further by exploring how Álvares's healing rituals dedicated to the god Sakpata made him an opponent of official ideologies of spiritual authority and slavery on both sides of the Atlantic. Agaja viewed Sakpata as a dangerous god whose power threatened his own spiritual resources. The Catholic Church hierarchy and its Portuguese royal sponsors deemed West African healing practices to be a sinister threat that could inspire slaves to challenge masters and could undermine the Church's determination to hold a monopoly over spirituality. Yet the diffuse nature of Brazilian society allowed Álvares to develop a profitable career as a spiritual leader. From plantations in rural northeast Brazil to the busy streets of Rio de Janeiro, Álvares attracted slaves and free people as clients and followers. Slave owners, faced with the appalling rates of illness of their workers, were willing to turn to Álvares, even as many felt threatened by his power. Even the wife of one of Álvares's owners relied on him for help with illnesses. Though Catholicism was the state religion, many Brazilians turned to Álvares and other African healers. Sweet's mapping of Álvares's multiple shrines in Rio notes how different locations held particular spiritual meanings in West...