JAMES H. SWEET. Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. xvii, 320. $30.00. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-4696-0975-1.

The subject of James Sweet’s biography and self-described intellectual and “Black Atlantic” history, Domingos Álvares, was an African healer and diviner. He came from Naogon, a village of the Mahi confederacy in the West African region of Agonli Cové. This Gbe-speaking area was on the interior of the so-called “Slave Coast” in the early-eighteenth century and it is now part of central Benin. Álvares was probably born around 1710 to parents who were priests—or vodunon—of the Sakpata, a group of deities mainly associated with smallpox. When the expanding kingdom of Dahomey conquered Agonli Cové, its ruler, Agaja, sold these priests into the Middle Passage out of a fear for their ritual abilities. Such was the inciting incident in an Atlantic odyssey that took Álvares to two additional continents over the course of two decades.[1]

Álvares was an Atlantic globetrotter. Around 1730, he was shipped from the port of Jakin to Goiana in Pernambuco, northeastern Brazil, where he became a slave on a sugar plantation. Afterward, he was taken south, first to Recife and then to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, where he purchased his freedom and became a renowned healer with a congregation and disciples. Nonetheless, in 1742, he was accused of being a fetisher and sent to Lisbon, Portugal, to stand trial before the Inquisition Court. After imprisonment, torture, interrogation, and banishment in Castro Marim, a hamlet in the Algarve of southern Portugal, Álvares appeared before the court once again in 1747. Finally, he disappeared from the historical record sometime around 1749 after being ordered to Bragança in northern Portugal, the location of his second exile.[2]

In Domingos Álvares, Sweet has reconstructed this biography from many primary sources. He used oral traditions, censuses, slave trade database statistics, ethnographies, newspapers, maps, genealogies, colonial legal documents, parish records, and travel accounts. When these materials were rare, he extrapolated from secondary literature on pre-colonial Africa, the slave trade, anthropology, historical linguistics, and more. Regardless, his story would not have been possible without Inquisition transcripts. Foremost among these was a more than 600-page dossier in the Portuguese national archives, originally produced by the Holy Office during Álvares’ trials. This case file contains copies of Álvares’ confessions, some Fon-Gbe terms that suggest his African origins, and depositions from nearly four-dozen eyewitnesses.[3]

For Sweet, his Domingos Álvares is a model for overcoming one of Atlantic histories shortcomings—its inability to “accommodate African historical perspectives” on their own terms. Here he takes aim at the work of scholars like Ira Berlin, Linda Heywood, and John Thornton, who have defined Africans in the Atlantic World by the degree to which they were in dialogue with “European ideas and institutions.” These scholars are often uninterested in challenging “the boundaries of European empire and colonialism.” Instead, they seek to trace the Americanization of Africans, and so they emphasize when Africans speak European languages, read Enlightenment texts, dress in European clothes, or appeal to European institutions like the Catholic church or imperial Crown. In theory, Sweet embraces the premise of the “Atlantic creole,” to borrow the phrase of Berlin, as an individual whose power derives from their ability to adapt and cross cultural boundaries. However, Sweet demands that Africa be a more central component of this creolized identity.[4]

While Sweet sees Domingos Álvares as a model for critiquing a Eurocentric approach to Atlantic history, he also sees Álvares’ life as an embodied critique of European colonial ideologies in his own time. “Wherever he traveled,” writes Sweet, “Domingos offered this political discourse of health and healing as an alternative to imperial discourses.” Instead of his African culture being stripped by the social alienation of war and enslavement—as many scholars have argued—Álvares retained and used his native culture throughout his journey. Both his freedom and healing “shifted over time,” defying imperial categories in the process. For example, his healing crossed boundaries by appealing to slaves and freed people, reinforced and threatened colonial legitimacies, and wavered between the criminal and the blessed. Ultimately, the story climaxes in a confrontation between Álvares and his inquisitor in which Álvares is punished for daring to put “African divination and spirit possession on the same therapeutic plane as the rituals of the Catholic church.[5]

In sum, Domingos Álvares is the biography of an African intellectual who challenged European epistemologies, written by an historian who wants to challenge those epistemologies in the scholarship today. As such, Sweet is likely to be critiqued by empiricists for bending his evidence toward his interpretation, especially in moments where he reads Álvares’ intentions into the omissions of the Inquisition records, or when he takes what might be coerced testimony as honest recollection. Others will be uncomfortable when Sweet makes analytical leaps from African oral traditions that are two hundred years removed, or when he reduces Álvares to the level of an ambiguous yet politicized symbol, calling him “an exemplar of modernity but also its fiercest opponent.” But despite these predictable critiques, Sweet has set a bold and remarkable new standard for integrating Africa into the Atlantic. Many will be excited to see how this standard is taken forward, especially in those cases where there is no hefty inquisition file to draw upon.[6]


[1] James H. Sweet, Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 5, 7, 14-15, 20, 24, 26.

[2] Ibid. 26, 129.

[3] Ibid. 2-4, 7.

[4] Ibid. 2, 4-5, 235 n4.

[5] Ibid. 6, 105, 177.

[6] Ibid. 233.