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  • Sorcery in the Black Atlantic:The Occult Arts in Comparative Perspective
  • Lauren Derby (bio)
Sorcery in the Black Atlantic. Edited by Luis Nicolau Parés and Roger Sansi (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2011) 312 pp. $81.00 cloth $25.00 paper
Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing. Edited by Diana Paton and Maarit Forde (Durham, Duke University Press, 2012) 376 pp. $99.95 cloth $27.95 paper
Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World. By James H. Sweet (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2011) 320 pp. $37.50

Due to a history of persecution and sensationalist approaches to African-derived religious forms, sorcery is a vexed topic in Latin America and the Caribbean. The salacious lies spread about vodou in Haiti during the U.S. Marine Occupation (1915–1934), for example, underwrote the notion that Haitians required repression and overrule since they purportedly could not manage on their own. As a result, vodou scholarship has traditionally treaded carefully around the problem of evil and the occult arts, largely avoiding the topic of witchcraft lest it become anti-Haitian fodder.1 Yet healing and protection are not easily separated from the problem of supernatural malevolence, particularly during the era of colonialism. As this trio of books makes clear, in the colonial context of severe [End Page 235] repression, when slaves had little or no agency, sorcery, as well as a fear of African conspiracy, flourished.

Indeed, whether it is called Obeah as in the British West Indies, Vodou as in Haiti, Candomblé as in Brazil, Brujeria as in Puerto Rico, or Palo Monte as in Cuba, similar beliefs in invisible powers are found across Latin America and the Caribbean wherever slavery occurred. Centrally concerned with “the manipulation of the spirit world,” these supernatural beliefs had their adherents among numerous religious adepts, Evangelical Protestants and Catholics among them (Forde and Paton, “Introduction,” Obeah, 14). The fact that they seem to be widely taken for granted by people from every social station, thus transcending ideology, renders the use of the term belief problematical. Hence, many contemporary scholars emphasize practices instead, thereby underscoring the pragmatic logic of this esoteric knowledge (Edna Brodber, “Foreword,” Obeah, xi). Yet few studies have considered these practices in a comparative framework, or across linguistic boundaries, since the historiography has been constrained by nationalism and linguistic divides. The three books under review herein, however, demonstrate how revealing and insightful a comparative approach can be.

These volumes underscore the transnational aspect of the “believers” and their magical practices, a fact noted yet undeveloped in the literature. Scholars have speculated that these diverse religious forms bear a family resemblance due to their common origin in early slavery with the Kongo peoples of Central Africa. These similarities may have acquired reinforcement from the migration circuit of West Indians during the post-emancipation period, as employment opportunities at home dwindled and West Indians dispersed, relocating to Panama, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic and bringing Obeah with them.2 Indeed, Dios Olivorio Mateo, a twentieth- century mystic from the Dominican Republic, who became a national hero because of his resistance to U.S. Marines during the occupation (1916–1924), had an English-speaking partner who probably hailed from St. Vincent.3 Furthermore, the extraordinary tale of Domingo Álvares in Sweets’ [End Page 236] Domingos Álvares is an important reminder that even in the colonial period, slaves had far more mobility than is often assumed.

Obeah and Other Powers and Sorcery in the Black Atlantic set a new standard for research on comparative sorcery in Latin America and the Caribbean. The chapters in Sorcery in the Black Atlantic are analytically driven; they sensibly locate Latin American case studies within the long durée of research on witchcraft, including the classic works about Europe and Africa that established the analytical frameworks that still reign within the field of comparative religion. Drawing upon case studies from Africa and Brazil, they critically engage canonical texts as well as challenge the Enlightenment view that witchcraft beliefs would wither away with modernity, exploring the myriad ways in which sorcery practices have continued, and even increased, after industrialization and...


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