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  • Healing Knowledge in Atlantic Africa: Medical Encounters, 1500–1850 by Kalle Kananoja
  • Amanda E. Herbert
Healing Knowledge in Atlantic Africa: Medical Encounters, 1500–1850. By kalle kananoja. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 272 pp. ISBN 9781108491259. $99.99 (hardcover).

In the opening anecdote to Healing Knowledge in Atlantic Africa, Kalle Kananoja describes a meeting between a Kongolese father and a Mbundu healer in the spring of 1628. The man’s daughter was ill, and he sought out the healer for a cure. Kananoja includes details about the girl’s illness and its duration. We learn how far the healer lived from the girl and her parents. We even learn about the ingredients used in her treatment—parts of a takula tree—and how the medicine was prepared. This account, with its invaluable glimpse into the lives of Black healers and their patients in the seventeenth century, comes from Inquisition records which Kananoja has mined for evidence.

Healing Knowledge in Atlantic Africa examines interactions between Black healers and white colonizers, arguing that healing traditions from Central and West Africa not only had power, held enduring respect, and possessed prevalence among African and African-descended people, but that these knowledge-systems were observed, drawn upon, and taken advantage of by non-African people. When white colonizers encountered healing systems on the African continent, they found much that felt familiar to them. As was the case in Western Europe, in Central and West Africa, patients were comfortable with the idea that they might need to travel long distances in order to receive a cure. They [End Page 361] might visit multiple healers or practitioners, understanding that a succession of attempts was sometimes necessary before better health could be achieved. Women acted as “go-betweens” and cultural brokers, facilitating communication between disparate people and groups. And care of the spirit and care of the body were intertwined, with belief playing a large role in healing, although when they encountered spiritual-medical practices that were not Christian, most white colonizers dismissed them as either blasphemous or unimportant despite long-standing traditions tying faith to healing in Europe.

Kananoja’s book is Atlantic in its source-base but global in terms of its perspective, taking into account the impact of world travel, trade, and the circulation of knowledge on West African cultures as well as American and European ones. But the heart of the book, and of its evidence, lies in Portuguese conquest of and settlement on the West African coast. Engagement between these Catholic colonizers and the West African healers they sought to enslave, hire, or coerce shapes the intellectual and philosophical contributions of the text, although the author makes use of helpful comparative case studies of Protestant colonizers from England, the Netherlands, and Denmark. The book is organized into seven chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion. The first four chapters move geographically, tracing different medical cultures and ideas—plural medicine, material cultures of medicine, forms of expertise, and knowledge production—in Angola and Kongo, the Gold Coast, and Sierra Leone. The last two chapters offer qualitative analyses of diagnostic categories of medicine, and a description of the role that travel played in European ideas about health and climate. Overall, the book offers a fresh account of cross-cultural medical encounters in Atlantic Africa.

One of the great strengths of this book lies in its evidence. In, for example, the section entitled “Mobile Medicines,” which traces the movement of curative ingredients from Africa to Europe and the Americas, Kananoja describes how some of these medicinal substances were plant-based (tamarind, kikongo wood, angariari/engariaria fruit, mutututu tree root) and others were animal-based (hippopotamus and elephant teeth, cobra vertebrae, wild boar teeth). The author then shows that while these ingredients moved in ways that were certainly trans-Atlantic, they did not do so in ways that were straightforward or inevitable. Plant- and animal-based ingredients from the African continent were popular in European markets, but in the Americas, colonizers and enslaved people tended to rely upon local products to craft cures. The great floral and faunal diaspora of the early modern world was an incredibly powerful historical phenomenon, but as [End...


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pp. 361-363
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