- Travails of an African Healer in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World
James H. Sweet's Domingos Álvares is a significant contribution to the Atlantic and biographical turns in the history of slavery in the early modern period. His new book complements his award-winning Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770 (2003) in its methodology and argument. As in his earlier book, Sweet skillfully mines the rich vein of Inquisitorial records to support his contention that African cultural, political, religious, and social beliefs and values survived the Middle Passage in the eighteenth-century Lusophone Atlantic world so robustly that their relationship with their Portuguese counterparts in Brazil was significantly dialectical and even symbiotic. In the tradition of Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (1984); Carlo Ginsburg, The Cheese and the Worms (1992); Jonathan Spence, The Death of Woman Wang (1979); John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive (1995); Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale (1991); Alfred Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party (2000); Allan Greer, Mohawk Saint (2006); and Jon Sensbach, Rebecca's Revival (2006), Sweet employs a microhistorical approach in Domingos Álvares to demonstrate how the reconstructed life of an individual can illuminate the culture of the African-Portuguese diaspora in Africa, South America, and Europe during the eighteenth-century. And like the subjects of all the earlier examples in the tradition, Sweet's is a very uncommon representative of the common man or woman.
To create his microhistory, Sweet supplements the incomplete Inquisition records in Brazil in 1741 and 1742 and in Portugal in 1745 and 1747 "with a range of other sources, including oral traditions, ethnography, genealogy, maps, colonial legal documents, slave trade data, censuses, Catholic parish records, newspapers, travel accounts, and other Inquisition materials" (pp. 3-4). Given the limited nature of the second-hand evidence available to him, Sweet understandably often speculates about motives and psychological effects. In each chapter, Sweet offers "a layered history, one that begins at the [End Page 198] micro level of Domingos, runs through the peculiarities of local and regional concerns, and finally connects to the broader histories of the Atlantic" (p. 4). The context rarely obscures the subject.
According to the testimony Álvares later gave his inquisitors, he was enslaved in Benin sometime between 1728 and 1732, a Mahi victim of the military aggression of Agaja, the king of Dahomey. Sweet plausibly argues that Agaja enslaved Álvares and sold him into the transatlantic slave trade because Álvares was a Sakpata priest whose reputed powers to heal physical and social ills posed a threat to Agaja's imperial agenda. Occasionally, however, Sweet's plausible supposition becomes certitude. He does not consider the possibility that Álvares may have re-fashioned himself socially to try to make the best of the very bad situation he found himself in by assuming in Brazil the status he lacked in Africa. Álvares' initial deracination in Africa was the first of many episodes in his life that threatened him with the social death of alienation from a coherent personal identity and social community. Like other slaves, Álvares repeatedly resurrected himself from social death by creating networks of kinship and community through a combination of resistance, accommodation, and appropriation. His principal resource was his reputed power to heal. And that power soon caused him as much trouble in Brazil as Sweet believes it did in Africa.
Sweet reconstructs the new economic and cultural world into which Álvares was thrust. Sweet is especially adept at describing the similarities between Roman Catholic and African theologies that would account for why Álvares so quickly (and apparently sincerely) embraced baptism, communion, and confirmation in the Church without rejecting his African beliefs and practices. Álvares' reputed and demonstrated powers saved him from being condemned to the often-deadly labor endured by most plantation slaves. As Sweet shows, several of Álvares' herbal cures have subsequently been scientifically proven to be efficacious. And his repeated success as something...