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Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World

Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World

Автором James H. Sweet

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Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World

Автором James H. Sweet

520 pages
7 hours
Feb 28, 2011


Between 1730 and 1750, Domingos Alvares traversed the colonial Atlantic world like few Africans of his time--from Africa to South America to Europe. By tracing the steps of this powerful African healer and vodun priest, James Sweet finds dramatic means for unfolding a history of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world in which healing, religion, kinship, and political subversion were intimately connected.

Alvares treated many people across the Atlantic, yet healing was rarely a simple matter of remedying illness and disease. Through the language of health and healing, Alvares also addressed the profound alienation of warfare, capitalism, and the African slave trade. As a result, he and other African healers frequently ran afoul of imperial power brokers. Nevertheless, even the powerful suffered isolation in the Atlantic world and often turned to African healers for answers. In this way, healers simultaneously became fierce critics of Atlantic imperialism and expert translators of it, adapting their therapeutic strategies in order to secure social relevance and even power. By tracing Alvares' frequent uprooting and border crossing, Sweet illuminates how African healing practices evolved in the diaspora, contesting the social and political hierarchies of imperialism while also making profound impacts on the intellectual discourse of the "modern" Atlantic world.

Feb 28, 2011

Об авторе

James H. Sweet is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin.

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Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World - James H. Sweet

Domingos Álvares,

African Healing, and

the Intellectual History of

the Atlantic World

Domingos Álvares,

African Healing, and

the Intellectual History of

the Atlantic World


The University of North Carolina Press

Chapel Hill

© 2011 The University of North Carolina Press

All rights reserved. Manufactured in the United States of America.

Designed by Courtney Leigh Baker and set in Arno Pro and

Quadraat Sans by Rebecca Evans. The paper in this book meets

the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee

on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on

Library Resources. The University of North Carolina Press has

been a member of the Green Press Initiative since 2003.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Sweet, James H. (James Hoke)

Domingos Álvares, African healing, and the intellectual

history of the Atlantic world/James H. Sweet.

p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-8078-3449-7 (cloth : alk. paper)

1. Álvares, Domingos, ca. 1710. 2. Slaves—Brazil, Northeast—

Biography. 3. Healers—Brazil, Northeast—Biography.

4. Healers—Portugal—Biography. 5. Atlantic Ocean Region—

History—18th century. 6. Slave-trade—Africa, West—

History—18th century. 7. Inquisition—Portugal—History—

18th century. 8. Medicine, Magic, mystic, and spagiric.

9. Witchcraft. 10. Voodooism. I. Title.

HT869.A58S84 2011


[B] 2010032661

15 14 13 12 11 5 4 3 2 1


whose guidance I still seek and whose example I try to follow


inspirational mentor and longtime friend


whose innate intelligence, unbridled energy, and stubborn determination

encapsulate the best of my family’s past and the promise of its future

This mis-shapen knave—

His mother was a witch, and one so strong

That could control the moon, make flows and ebbs,

And deal in her command without her power.

. . . [T]his demi-devil—

For he’s a bastard one—

. . . [T]his thing of darkness, I

Acknowledge mine.

PROSPERO, referring to his slave Caliban,

in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

















Illustrations, Maps, and Tables


A Mahi Village 15

Slave Market 30

A Capsize off Whydah 35

Map of Itamaracá 45

Maurício de Nassau Bridge, Recife 54

Rio de Janeiro waterfront 81

Slaves carrying a woman in a sedan chair 84

Street scene at Largo de Santa Rita 97

Nossa Senhora da Glória110

Fetishes from the Guinea Coast 111


Asen used in Sin Kwain ceremony in the nineteenth century marking the graves of Dahomey’s former kings 138

The corner of Jewish Crossing and Street of the Blacks’ Pit in Lisbon’s old Mocambo neighborhood (today Santa Catarina) 160

The administrative cover page that begins Domingos’ Inquisition case file 166

Procession of the Auto da Fé through Lisbon 180

Ajuraçam de Leve, Domingos’ written promise to abandon all heresies against the Church 181

Justo Juiz, the prayer of the Just Judge that Domingos gave to Bras Gonçalves 206


I.1 Travels of Domingos Álvares, 1730–1750 3

1.1 Dahomey, Òyó, and Mahi 10

4.1 Street map of Rio de Janeiro delineating Domingos’ path through the city 83

5.1 Domingos’ healing centers and terreiro in Rio de Janeiro 108

9.1 Domingos’ travels through the Algarve, 1744–1749 199


2.1 Age and Sex of African Slaves Who Arrived in Rio de Janeiro from Ouidah Aboard the Nossa Senhora da Thalaia e Santo Antônio, 1715 37

3.1 Origin of African Slaves Who Arrived in Pernambuco, 1722–1732 57

4.1 Brazilian-Born versus African-Born Slaves in Rio de Janeiro, 1737–1740 78

4.2 Origin and Sex of African Slaves Listed in Wills and Testaments of Slaveholders in Rio de Janeiro, 1737–1740 79


The idea for this book took shape roughly ten years ago. I had recently arrived in Miami with a new job, a young family, and an eager self-assurance about the future. Shortly after beginning the research and writing, I received news that my maternal grandmother had died in Honolulu. The years since her death have been punctuated by yet more loss. Between 2001 and 2008, my stepmother, my father, and my grandfather died. In South Africa, my wife Margaret lost the matriarch and patriarch of her extended family, as well as her aunt. Each of these deaths was keenly felt. However, the accumulation of loss served to bring the surviving family closer together, fortified by the shared bonds of the past. Likewise, the births of children insured the regeneration of the past in the present. My son Aidan was born in 2003, adding untold joy (and noise) to our house. As he and his sister Aly have grown, their smallest gestures and idiosyncrasies reflect upon their parents, their grandparents, and the ancestors they never knew. By continuing to impose themselves in our lives in these ways and others, the deceased force us to consider what makes us whole. Whether in Honolulu, Charlotte, Miami, Milledgeville, or Johannesburg, we are bound by the ancestors and kin we too easily forget in our daily strivings. Without their collective sustenance and support, I never could have completed this book.

The process of thinking and writing about Domingos Álvares has taught me much about the enduring power that can be derived from family and friends. In this way, he has been a therapeutic companion over these last ten years, constantly reminding me of the things that matter most. Ironically, for Margaret, Alexandra, and Aidan, Domingos has been a much less salutary figure. Like the mercurial trickster that he could sometimes be, Domingos kept me away from my family’s dinner table on far too many nights. For the lost time we can never get back, I am truly sorry. All I can do is promise to make up for it. In the meantime, thank you for your patience and sacrifices. None of this could have been possible without you. Your love and laughter sustain me always.

The web of kin that extends beyond the boundaries of Madison, Wisconsin, has become increasingly important to me. My mother Lyn and my brothers Gray and Jason are my bedrock. In body, I may be absent, but my spirit is always grounded on Wensley Drive. Lifelong friends also remain crucial pillars of support in Charlotte—Kenny Hugo, Todd McMasters, Tony Scott, and Mike Shildt. In South Africa, inspiration comes from my in-laws Gertrude, James, Joseph, Mary, and Martha Marble. With deep admiration and affection I remember A.B.C. and Kay Motsepe, whose legacies survive in the remarkable achievements of their children and grandchildren, as well as in my own marriage. If not for their blessing and Ous Kuki’s selfless generosity, my marriage to Margaret never would have happened. To Ous Tshepo and Cyril, we can never thank you enough for the love and attention you have given us and our children over the years. Your unwavering support and encouragement have strengthened us in more ways than we can count. We will continue to aspire to your exemplary high standards.

Though family is the foundation upon which this project rests, I could not have completed it without the support of numerous colleagues and friends. A remarkable number of people took time out of their busy schedules to read the entire manuscript. Walter Hawthorne, Florencia Mallon, Joe Miller, Luis Parés, Terry Rey, Jim Sidbury, Tom Spear, and Cameron Strang offered comments and critiques that have made the book immeasurably better than it was in its earlier drafts. I am indebted to each of them for their generosity and goodwill. In addition, the twelve students in my graduate seminar on the history of the African diaspora in fall 2009 read the full manuscript, as did the graduate students in Jim Sidbury’s spring 2010 Atlantic history seminar at the University of Texas. Their suggestions were enormously helpful as I made my final revisions. Elaine Maisner at the University of North Carolina Press has shown amazing patience with me as she shepherded the book through the writing and editorial process. She is a brilliant editor and cultivator of talent, but what separates Elaine from her peers is her loyalty, decency, and common sense. I can’t thank her enough for her trust and support.

Other colleagues listened to my ideas or read chapters over the years. I first tested the idea of the book in a public talk at Florida International University in Miami. There, Felice Lifshitz’s enthusiastic endorsement spurred me forward. Akin Ogundiran also offered early suggestions on Yoruba and Mahi materials. My colleagues at the University of Wisconsin have been instrumental in offering their encouragement and advice. Florence Bernault, Neil Kodesh, and David McDonald read some of the early chapters. Likewise Teju Olaniyan offered important feedback. Every year, professors and graduate students in African history at Northwestern University exchange ideas with the Africanist historians in Madison during a spring workshop. Jon Glassman, David Schoenbrun, and Butch Ware, along with their students, read the first three chapters of the manuscript. Their incisive comments strengthened these early chapters considerably. Emmanuel Akyeampong, Matthew Restall, Reinaldo Roman, and David Sartorius invited me to their respective campuses to deliver lectures on some of my early findings. I thank them for the opportunity to share my work with them and their colleagues. Several of my Brazilianist colleagues also offered advice, source material, and encouragement. Luis Nicolau Parés generously shared with me some of his field notes from Benin and directed me in some of the finer points of Sakpata devotion. Mariza de Carvalho Soares and I traded notes on the various iterations of Mina identity in Brazil. And finally Mary Karasch read my proposals with great interest, supporting my various bids for funding the project.

The research for this book could not have been possible without the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Graduate School at the University of Wisconsin. Their generous funding allowed me to make crucial trips to Portugal and Brazil. Likewise, I wish to thank Jim Delehanty of UW’s African Studies Program, who graciously agreed to finance the production of the maps for the book. During the writing stages, I was the beneficiary of several residential fellowships. I wrote the first half of the manuscript as the Walter Hines Page fellow at the National Humanities Center, where Geoff Harpham, Kent Mulliken, and the staff provide a unique space for creative, interdisciplinary exchanges that result in only the very best scholarship. My year at the NHC was probably the most productive and stimulating of my career, in no small part because of the numerous opportunities to receive feedback on my work. To thank everyone would be an impossible task; however, Robert Beachy, Glenda Gilmore, Jan Goldstein, Randall Jelks, Ben Kiernan, Sarah Shields, and Rachel Weil were especially thoughtful critics. I also had the opportunity to share some of the early chapters with various seminars and working groups in the Triangle area. Holly Brewer, Emily Burrill, Chris Lee, Lisa Lindsay, Lydia Lindsey, John Sweet, Carlton Wilson, and Peter Wood offered particularly helpful comments. Finally, several people merit thanks for insuring that my social life remained well lubricated. Robert Beachy, Emily Burrill, Randall Jelks, and Chris Lee shared good drinks and better conversation. The James Joyce Pub in Durham was the place I went to feed my passion for football; it also happened to be Jeffrey Kerr Ritchie’s self-proclaimed local. By sheer coincidence we met there one Saturday morning. Our shared professional interests almost always took a backseat to the more pressing issues of politics and who was going to win the Premiership.

I completed the manuscript during a year spent as a fellow at the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. The institute benefits from the visionary leadership of Julie Hardwick, who, in only a few years, has built one of the most vibrant and competitive fellowship programs in academia. Her energy and creativity are the motor forces that drive the institute. Meanwhile, Courtney Meador insures that the day-today operations run smoothly, performing her duties with alacrity and good cheer. Among the fellows, Nancy Appelbaum, Ruben Flores, and Dave Kinkela were my most frequent interlocutors and social companions. I also enjoyed the rich camaraderie of UT faculty, including Erika Bsumek, Jorge Cañizares, Toyin Falola, Frank Guridy, Bob Olwell, Jim Sidbury, and Ann Twinam. Cañizares and Sidbury were particularly welcoming, inviting me to take part in their graduate seminar on Atlantic history. After hours, Sidbury introduced me to the Elephant Room, where we shared a love of good jazz and stout beer. Coincidentally, Matt Childs was also on fellowship at UT during my time in Austin. Not only was he a careful reader of my work, but he graciously introduced me to his Austin—from afternoon pitchers at Dog and Duck to 4:00 A.M. chorizo con huevos at Las Cazuelas. It is rare that I find genuine kinship in my daily professional life, but Sidbury and Childs, along with Jorge Cañizares and Toyin Falola, revealed themselves as kindred spirits in a variety of ways. I respect them immensely as scholars, but my year in Austin made me respect them even more as people. I thank them for their friendship.

Finally, I wish to recognize a handful of other colleagues who have been a part of my extended family for many years. Jean Rahier and Mariama Jaiteh remain among my closest friends, despite the great distance from Madison to Miami. I could never repay their loyalty and love. Likewise, Terry Rey and his family are extraordinarily close to me. Our daughters, Aly and Thoraya, have grown up together and are still best of friends, even from afar. Terry flew from Philadelphia to stand as Aidan’s godfather. I know of nobody better equipped to teach my son about life, loss, and love. Last but not least, twenty-five years ago Colin Palmer saw in me a spark of ability that I could not see myself. His interventions transformed my life. Colin has endured a series of unimaginable setbacks over the last several years. Despite these difficulties, he has remained upbeat and remarkably productive. I am inspired by his grace, dignity, and amazing resilience.

Ultimately, the collective support of family and friends is the generator for any history. Individual accomplishments are possible only through the selflessness, generosity, and sacrifices of others. Domingos Álvares understood this nearly 300 years ago. I can only hope this book serves as a testament to the collective strength and good fortune of those who supported me.

Domingos Álvares,

African Healing, and

the Intellectual History of

the Atlantic World


Early on the morning of August 12, 1743, in the jails of the Portuguese Holy Office in Lisbon, guards awakened Domingos Álvares, removed him from his cell, and delivered him to the custody of Inquisitor Manuel Varejão e Távora. In the presence of two deputies and a notary, Távora asked Domingos to confess his sins. Domingos answered that he had nothing more to confess. Távora immediately ordered Domingos into the building’s cellar, the Sala do Tormento, where the doctors, surgeons, and other ministers in the execution of the torment were called and sworn in. The deputies stripped Domingos naked and threw him on the rack (potro). In a last attempt to elicit a confession, the notary warned Domingos that if the torment killed him or broke his bones . . . it would be his fault, and his fault alone, and not that of the Inquisitors and other ministers, who judged his case according to its merits. The notary’s report gives no indication that Domingos responded. Lying face up on the wooden rack, eight leather cords tied snugly around his arms and legs, Domingos waited for the executioner to turn the wheel, tightening the cords of the apparatus. With each turn, a new order of pain—first, the strangling of circulation and subsequent deadening of the hands and feet; next, the penetration of the straps through the naked flesh, lacerating down to the bone; finally, if necessary, the tightening of the straps until they crushed the very bone. After fifteen minutes of this excruciating torture, Domingos cried out for Jesus and the Virgin Mary, prompting Távora to bring an end to the proceedings. Just eleven days later, the Inquisitors sentenced Domingos to public whipping and four years exile in the Portuguese village of Castro Marim; he was judged guilty of heresy, apostasy, and entering into a pact with the Devil.¹

How did Domingos Álvares, a recently manumitted African slave, find himself in such a dire predicament? What were the circumstances that led to his arrival in Lisbon, the bizarre accusations against him, and his eventual banishment to a Portuguese frontier outpost? The answers to these questions lie at the intersection of some of the most salient issues relating to the history of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, a world Domingos traveled far more extensively than most people of his time. From 1730 to 1750, he journeyed from the interior of West Africa, to the sugarcane breaks of northeastern Brazil, to the cosmopolitan, urban setting of Rio de Janeiro, to the Inquisitorial jails of Lisbon, and finally to the rural hamlets of southern Portugal. Though Domingos’ itinerant life may seem exceptional, it was this constant uprooting and crossing of borders that opens windows onto broader sets of human experiences that defined the Atlantic world. By carefully following Domingos’ movements and experiences in this vast, interconnected world, we can begin to piece together the series of events that eventually led to his Portuguese imprisonment and exile.

I first became aware of Domingos’ remarkable story more than ten years ago when I stumbled upon his massive Inquisition file in the Portuguese national archives. The file contains more than 600 pages of manuscript material, covering two different Inquisition cases, recounting events on three different continents. As I transcribed all of the documents included in the cases, a disjointed, fragmented narrative of Domingos’ life began to emerge from the manuscript pages. Yet the story that ultimately unfolded is more than a simple biographical sketch; these two Inquisition cases provide a unique perspective on the breadth and scope of the South Atlantic world during the first half of the eighteenth century. Domingos himself delivered dozens of pages of confessions and answers to interrogatories put forth by Inquisitors. Though filtered through the institutional apparatus of the Portuguese Holy Office, these pages reveal much about Domingos’ understandings of the worlds he traveled. In addition to Domingos’ own ideas and versions of events, nearly four dozen others recounted their interactions with Domingos throughout the Atlantic world. These witnesses came from all parts—Allada, Recife, Rio, Languedoc, Seville, Tavira, and Faro—and from all walks of life—slaves, market women, sugar planters, merchants, housewives, ship’s captains, soldiers, and priests. The brief life histories and testimonies provided by each of these individuals give us invaluable insights on the various social, political, cultural, and economic landscapes that Domingos encountered. At the same time, taken as a whole, these eyewitness accounts reflect the ways local histories connected with much larger Atlantic forces of empire, slavery, mercantilism, and colonialism.

Even though the Inquisition documents are remarkably complete in recording nearly twenty years of Domingos’ life, crucial gaps remain. In order to frame the varied contexts and questions that emanate from Domingos’ lived experiences, I supplement the Inquisition cases 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. My goal in each chapter is to provide a layered history, one that begins at the micro level of Domingos, runs through the peculiarities of local and regional concerns, and finally connects to the broader histories of the Atlantic. In some instances, Domingos’ social world comes vividly to life, as the supplementary sources speak directly to people and incidents outlined in the Inquisition cases. Often, this cross-fertilization of sources illustrates the breadth and depth of Atlantic connections. In other instances, Domingos disappears from the narrative for brief periods of time. This is particularly true in the early chapters of the book, where the evidence of Domingos’ life in West Africa and northeastern Brazil is frustratingly sparse. In these sections, the histories are far more episodic and conjunctural. While I am able to place Domingos in the broad context of important and well-documented historical events, I cannot always outline his specific roles in the events as they unfolded. Instead, I draw lines between the evidentiary dots specific to Domingos’ experiences and the broader historical contexts, filling in the gaps with details from other sources.

MAP I.1 Travels of Domingos Álvares, 1730–1750. Map created by the University of Wisconsin Cartography Lab.

Though Domingos eventually became a subject of Portuguese imperial power and European institutions sometimes shaped his possibilities, it would be shortsighted to conclude that Domingos, as well as others like him, was completely circumscribed by these institutions. To that end, the primary focus of this Black Atlantic history is not Enlightenment ideals, colonial legal systems, Christianity, or Portuguese Crown rule. To be sure, these are important topics deserving of the ample attention they have received in recent years. Scholars in a variety of fields have shown the ways that Africans and their descendants engaged European institutions and ideas, employing them for their own ends, ultimately transforming metropolitan imperatives into thoroughly American ones. There can be little doubt that this new Atlantic scholarship has recast our understanding of the African-descended contribution to ideas about encounter, enlightenment, revolution, and independence.²

Nevertheless, these approaches largely fail to accommodate African historical perspectives, either on their own terms or as integral parts of a tightly braided Atlantic world. As one historian recently put it, If the category of the Atlantic is to mean anything, it ought to include Africa, but there seems to be no room for this often overlooked fourth continent in most new versions of the Atlantic.³ Even as Atlantic scholars lament the absence of Africa and Africans from the field, they often fail to recognize the ways that categories for analyzing the Atlantic remain preponderantly American and European. In the developing Atlantic episteme, many of the questions that animated old-style colonial and imperial histories are simply recycled in a framework that continues to privilege the European-American nexus. By definition, Atlantic Africans march down the inevitable path of Americanization, an Americanization in dialogue with European ideas and institutions but very rarely African ones. In this way, Africans are often mechanically inserted into historical processes that are predetermined by the boundaries of European empire and colonialism. Atlantic Africans speak European languages, dress in European-style clothes, marry in the Catholic Church, and lodge legal complaints in colonial Crown courts. Ironically, this reduction of the Atlantic to European colonial processes now even proliferates in the scholarship on Africa in the form of Eurafricans, African Christians, and Atlantic creoles. Thus, the Americanization of Africans begins in Africa, rendering them uniquely equipped to address the challenges of enslavement and colonialism in the Americas.⁴ As these Africans move forward into the Atlantic, some of them embrace the principles of liberty and equality articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and other Enlightenment- and revolutionary-era philosophies. In short, Africans are almost seamlessly woven into the narrative of Western democratic triumphalism, their political challenges framed as crucial to our understandings of liberty, equality, and freedom.

All of this is well and good for understanding revolutionary and emancipatory outcomes, but it does little to reveal the impacts of African institutions and ideas on the making of the Americas (let alone on Europe), especially in the years prior to 1750. Nor does it take into account the ways that processes of empire building, social dislocation, and transculturation, often understood as exceptional to the Americas, unfolded in parallel and overlapping fashion in West Africa. This erasure of African categories of knowledge reduces the history of the Atlantic to a European-American anachronism, assuming that the only Black Atlantic history worth telling is one in which African aspirations are expressed through colonial American languages and institutions. It bears remembering that between 1500 and 1820, more than three out of four immigrants to the Americas was African.⁵ Millions of these enslaved Africans never learned European languages or ways of negotiating colonial bureaucracies of church and state. Others understood these institutions but rejected them in favor of those they found more efficacious. Surely, the histories of these Africans deserve to be told, if not for a fuller understanding of the ideas and institutions that shaped their own lives, then to better contextualize the historical processes that resulted in a polysemic, interconnected, and entangled Atlantic world.

In this early eighteenth-century Atlantic world, European dominance was rarely a foregone conclusion, particularly in those colonial spaces where Africans and their descendants figured prominently in the overall population. By offering alternate ways of thinking about family, religion, medicine, economics, and politics, Africans like Domingos Álvares contested the very legitimacy of European imperial power. For Portuguese authorities, Domingos constituted a threat far exceeding the boundaries of simple criminality; he was their worst colonial nightmare. As a healer, Domingos performed crucial social and political roles in society. His primary function was that of an intellectual, a function that [was] directive, organizational, or educative. Thus, it was not so much the individual quality and content of Domingos’ behaviors that rendered him powerful. Rather, it was his position within the ensemble of social relations, his ability to extract broader political meanings from illness, imparting these meanings to his clients and building new communities around ideas of collective redemption and well-being.

Wherever he traveled, Domingos offered this political discourse of health and healing as an alternative to imperialist discourses. He often operated under a different episteme and communicated in an African vernacular indecipherable to most Europeans. Nevertheless, Domingos spoke a universally understood language of anti-imperial, anticolonial political contestation that echoed far and wide in the Atlantic world. Both consciously and unconsciously, he engaged the most potent political issues of the day—colonialism, mercantilism, warfare, slavery, religious disputes, and contentious kingship.

Tracing Domingos’ travels provides a unique opportunity to reveal conjunctural conflict and accommodation in the forging of the Atlantic world. In isolation, political struggles in Abomey, Rio de Janeiro, or Castro Marim might seem purely local, and indeed, the peculiarities of local histories and environments bear heavily on the possibilities presented to Domingos at any given moment. At the same time, the conceptual tools for analyzing new political contingencies, forged first in Africa and then through the various encounters that followed, never faded from Domingos’ memory. Like a palimpsest, Domingos accrued new ways of reading the worlds he encountered, layering these ideas one on top of the other. But the parchment and the original etchings were definitively African, shaped by twenty years of formative experiences in his homeland. As a vehicle for social and political empowerment, Domingos carried various Africas to Brazil and various Africas and Brazils to Portugal, calling upon those traditions that best suited the circumstances of the moment. In this way, local histories of Africa also became Brazilian and Portuguese histories. Likewise, Brazilian and Portuguese histories became African. Sewn together through a series of forced migrations, Domingos’ African, Brazilian, and Portuguese histories collectively became Atlantic.

Domingos’ Atlantic experience began in a small village in the central region of contemporary Benin. Though the Portuguese monitored Domingos for almost ten years and produced hundreds of pages of manuscript material on his activities, there are only a handful of substantive references to Africa in the official correspondence. Throughout the documents, Domingos is most often described as being from the Costa da Mina, but this referent is little help since the term Mina encompassed a broad region from Ghana to Nigeria.⁷ More useful are two descriptions, one from an African woman and the other from Domingos himself, that point toward a homeland in the region of present-day Benin now commonly known as Mahi. In 1742, an African woman from Allada described Domingos as Cobú, a reference to the Agonli-Cové region, about forty miles northeast of Abomey.⁸ Shortly thereafter, in 1743, Domingos testified that he was thirty-four years old more or less . . . born in Nangon on the Mina Coast. Nangon is almost certainly Naogon, a village that lies only one mile from the town of Cové, in the center of the Agonli-Cové region.⁹ Together, these scraps of evidence strongly suggest that Domingos Álvares was born in the village of Naogon sometime around 1710.¹⁰

This was an inauspicious time to come into the world. Domingos’ entire passage from infancy to adulthood unfolded in the shadow of Dahomean military expansion, and he witnessed firsthand the panic, flight, famine, and disease triggered by violent warfare. What did these threats mean to him? How did they shape his life? What kinds of transformations did Agonli-Cové experience during this period? The answers to these questions are only partially addressed in European documentary sources, and even then, in fragmented fashion. In order to piece together the historical changes wrought by the empire of Dahomey, I combine European sources with Dahomean oral traditions, as well as an examination of specific Fon-Gbe terms found in the Inquisition documents. As several generations of Africanist historians have shown, these multiple, overlapping methodological approaches are the most effective means of capturing the internal histories of precolonial African societies. However, the methodologies of oral tradition and linguistics can be pushed one step further by considering accounts from the lives of enslaved Africans in the Americas. If read carefully, the voices and actions of the enslaved can reveal much about their earlier experiences in Africa, thereby enriching our knowledge not only of slave life in the Americas but also of Africa itself. Thus, the quest for understanding Domingos’ African background is dialectical to understanding his experiences in Brazil and in the broader Atlantic. Domingos’ spiritual, social, and political consciousness was forged in conflict with the empire of Dahomey. The impacts of these Dahomean conflicts resonated broadly across the Atlantic world, inspiring Domingos to deploy crucial elements of his African past in a continuing struggle for freedom, while at the same time responding to the changing conditions of new Atlantic environments.

1 Dahomey

You have nearly all the people of this family in your country. They knew too much magic. We sold them because they made too much trouble.

—Dahomean informant remembering why a certain clan was sold away to slavery in the Americas, 1930s, quoted in Melville J. Herskovits, Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom

In late March 1727, English ship captain William Snelgrave steered the galley Katherine toward the shore near the West African port of Ouidah with the intention of purchasing slaves. Snelgrave, a veteran captain of more than twenty years, had traded extensively at Ouidah, most recently in 1720. Upon anchoring his ship and forging the several miles inland to the English fort, he discovered a dismal scene. The land was decimated, buildings burned, and fields strewn with human remains. Just three weeks earlier, the army of Dahomey had overrun the port city. In the ensuing chaos, thousands of people fled. Others were captured and made prisoners of war. Among the prisoners were about forty . . . white Men, English, French, Dutch and Portuguese, who occupied the various European forts at Ouidah. After being marched nearly forty miles inland to Allada, one of the European prisoners, the governor of the Royal African Company, was given an audience with the king of Dahomey, Agaja. Apologizing for the inconveniences suffered by the Europeans, Agaja explained that he was very sorry for what had happen’d, for he had given Orders to his Captains . . . to use the white Men well; but he hoped they would excuse what had befallen them, which was to be attributed to the Fate of War: Confessing, he was much surprized when he was first informed, so many white People were made Prisoners, and soon after brought to his Camp. That in the Confusion of Things he had not regarded them so much as he ought; but for the future, they should have better Treatment.

The Europeans returned to their forts, where Snelgrave found them in a miserable and uncertain state. Assessing the situation, Snelgrave decided there was little hope for conducting business at Ouidah. The Katherinelifted anchor and sailed twenty miles down the coast to the port of Jakin, arriving on the morning of April 3. Snelgrave had not conducted business in Jakin before, but he knew its bad reputation. All details of the trading arrangement needed to be established before Snelgrave went ashore since the ruler of Jakin had formerly plaid base Tricks with some Europeans, who had not taken such a Precaution. In order to secure his interests, Snelgrave sent the ship’s surgeon ashore to negotiate the terms of trade. By nightfall, an agreement was reached and Snelgrave retired to a house that would serve as his trading factory.

MAP 1.1 Dahomey, Òyó, and Mahi. Map created by the University of Wisconsin Cartography Lab.

The following day, on April 4, a royal messenger arrived at Snelgrave’s door inviting him to meet with King Agaja at his camp in Allada. Given what he had witnessed at Ouidah, Snelgrave received Agaja’s invitation with trepidation. He said that he would consider the proposal and provide a response the following day. Recognizing Snelgrave’s unease, the messenger threatened that if he did not go to Allada, he would highly offend the King and would not be permitted to trade, besides other bad Consequences [that] might follow. Four days later Snelgrave abandoned his camp at Jakin and struck out for Allada. Over the course of two days, Snelgrave rode more than forty miles in a hammock carried by a team of twelve servants. Accompanying Snelgrave were the Duke of Jakin and a Dutch captain, also in hammocks, which is the usual way of travelling in this Country for Gentlemen either white or black. A retinue of 100 slaves attended to the men’s needs. As they traveled, Snelgrave again witnessed the carnage of war—the burned-out remains of towns and villages, bones littered across the fields.

Immediately upon arriving in Allada, Snelgrave was greatly perturbed by the numerous flies that swarmed the area. Though he was given several servants to keep the flies away when he was eating, he observed that it was hardly possible to put a bit of Meat into our Mouths without some of those Vermin with it. The source of these flies was a mystery to Snelgrave until later that afternoon, when, approaching the king’s gate, he saw two large Stages, on which were heaped a great number of dead Men’s Heads, that afforded no pleasing sight or smell. Snelgrave’s interpreter informed him that these were the heads of 4,000 Huedas who had been sacrificed by the Dahomeans to their God as gratitude for their victory at Ouidah. The following evening, Snelgrave witnessed the arrival of yet more prisoners of war, 1,800 Tuffoes brought before Agaja to determine their fate. Many were sacrificed in the same manner as the 4,000 Huedas. Others were kept as slaves for Agaja’s own use. And still others were reserved for sale to Europeans. In a public ceremony, Agaja’s soldiers received 800 cowry shells for each male prisoner of war; for women and children, 400 cowries each. In addition, soldiers received 200 cowries for each enemy head they returned.¹ Snelgrave claimed that some soldiers appeared at the court with three, or more Heads hanging on a String. Over time, these amounted to thousands of skulls that Agaja collected with designs to build a Monument with them.

After several days in Allada, Snelgrave met with Agaja and expressed his desire to fill my ship with Negroes; by which means I should return into my own Country in a short time; where I should make known how great and powerful a King I had seen. Agaja agreed that he would trade, but not before settling on a Custom, or fee to conduct trade. Snelgrave cleverly argued that because Agaja was a far greater Prince than King Huffon of Ouidah, he should not command a fee as high as that which was customary under Hueda rule. Agaja retorted that as he was a greater Prince, he might reasonably expect the more Custom, but since Snelgrave was the first English captain to arrive after the conquest of Ouidah, he would treat him as a young Wife or Bride, who must be denied nothing at first. Snelgrave was asked to name his price and eventually requested a fee one-half of that previously charged by Huffon. Moreover, he asked that the king deliver three male slaves for every female and that he be given the right to reject any slaves that he found unfit. Agaja agreed, noting that he

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