“Domingos Álvares: Healing, Community, and Resistance in the Atlantic World”
by Dr. Rochelle Rojas
Domingos Álvares, an eighteenth-century African healer, traversed the early modern Atlantic World like few of his time. From Africa to Brazil to Portugal, Domingos navigated these forced border crossings through his therapeutic technologies, religious authority, and political subversion.
Domingos, as he was called by the Europeans writing of him, ascended from a long line of priests of Vodun, the dominant religion of the Fon-Gbe-speaking region in present-day Benin. His societal status and powerful healing knowledge threatened the rulers of the mighty and expanding kingdom of Dahomey, which enslaved him (among countless others) and sold him to Portuguese traders. Though his forced transatlantic migration uprooted him violently from his prestige and community, Domingos drew from his healing technologies to create new ritual communities throughout Brazil, wrest himself from multiple enslavers, purchase his freedom, commodify his healing, and eventually, recross the Atlantic to Portugal where a suspicious Inquisition awaited him.
Around 1732, Álvares was transported across the Atlantic to rural Pernambuco, Brazil, where he was forced to work on large sugar plantations in the region. But Álvares had no intention of acquiescing to forced manual labor, and quickly cultivated his reputation as a powerful diviner and healer, one who might alleviate the suffering of enslavement. Beyond treating their physical ailments, Domingos addressed the psychological alienation that slavery caused, and brought otherwise politically different Africans together. The power he gained quickly in this community threatened the authority of his enslaver who wasted no time in removing Álvares from the plantation, while boasting simultaneously of his healing powers to prospective buyers.
When Domingos Álvares arrived in Rio de Janeiro around 1734, his reputation preceded him. His eager new enslaver had purchased him specifically for his skills and to heal his ailing wife. Álvares quickly found clients in this setting, using rituals learned in his homeland, pharmacological knowledge, and religious beliefs to create a small healing community. But his healing authority threatened his enslaver’s dominance, and his wife was not getting better, so he sold Domingos to remove his influence from his household. Domingos’s final enslaver appreciated fully both his healing knowledge and the profits he could earn from his skills. With a newly granted bit of freedom, Álvares expanded his healing practice rapidly, making his owner eventually set up an office in the center of Rio to accommodate the burgeoning demand for his services. By 1739, Domingos Álvares’s medical skills had brought in enough money for him to purchase his freedom.
Álvares quickly capitalized on his status as a freedman and opened several healing centers around Rio. Just south of the city, he also established a vibrant ritual community consisting mostly of his compatriots but including also Portuguese and mixed-race clients. Domingos married a Mina woman, and together with their young daughter, and a group of ritual adherents, he built a new healing community from the uncertain and fractured lives of various African pasts. Each of these individuals reclaimed selfhood through idioms of healing, kinship, and collective identification that bound the ritual and religious community. And, despite forced baptism, Álvares never renounced his traditional religion. Instead, he remained a practitioner of Vodun and used this knowledge to reaffirm Africa and as a form of resistance to the estrangement caused by enslavement.
Domingos was the colonial project’s worst nightmare, and his freedom and success only made him more suspicious in its eyes. Domingos’s intellectual traditions challenged the authority of enslavers, the legitimacy of priests, and a racial hierarchy which refused to accept his therapeutic skills as scientific. Yet, far from being prescientific faith, much of Álvares’s knowledge of the pharmaceutical properties of roots and plants has in fact been subsequently confirmed by medical science. Still, holding on to his freedoms proved to be challenging as local priests raided his healing centers and denounced him to the Inquisition. The Portuguese Inquisition, astounded by the extraordinary powers Domingos was said to possess, called for him to report to Lisbon, one of only a few dozen Africans sent to Portugal to appear before its inquisitors. And so again Álvares was uprooted violently from his home, family, and community and forced back across the Atlantic to Portugal in 1742.
Domingos Álvares’s intellectual traditions of healing perplexed the binary and prescribed epistemologies of the Portuguese Inquisition. Though throughout his trial Álvares argued compellingly that his cures were “natural” remedies learned in his homeland and drawn from the properties of plants and herbs, the inquisitors concluded nonetheless that Domingos must have made a “pact with the devil.” Despite his sophisticated pharmacological knowledge of natural medicine, the inquisition sentenced him to exile in a small frontier village in the extreme southeast corner of Portugal. From there, Domingos traveled hundreds of miles across the Portuguese Algarve, once again establishing his healing practice, this time among the Portuguese themselves. Domingos moved cleverly and quickly from one place to the next to not arouse inquisitorial attention, and along the way, continually remade himself to adhere to Portuguese expectations, while maintaining his knowledge as a healer, one rooted in West African practices and traditions.
For three years Domingos worked and traveled throughout the rugged terrain and scorching coasts of the Algarve. With few Africans in the region and his facial and dental tribal markings, his status as an exile was obvious, which no doubt made his foundation of a healing community impossible. He peddled, labored, and sometimes cured. Still the inquisition stalked him, and he was rearrested. His second trial differed little from the first and again he was shuttled off to serve his exile in the mountains. At this point, Álvares–a forty-year-old African making at least the fifth forced migration of his lifetime–disappeared from the available records.
The carefully calculated ways Domingos navigated colonial systems of power invite us to appreciate how he and countless other diasporic Africans forged the Atlantic World. Drawing on West African healing practices and epistemologies, Domingos Álvares cured ailing bodies, contributed to eighteenth-century science, and offered kinship and community to the oppressed.
Questions regarding this story – contact Dr. Rochelle Rojas (Rochelle.Rojas@kzoo.edu); for questions about the 19 stories, especially if interested in submitting a story – contact Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss (Regina.Stevens-Truss@kzoo.edu)