Divining Slavery and Freedom

The Story of Domingos Sodré, an African Priest in Nineteenth-Century Brazil

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João José Reis
H. Sabrina Gledhill
New Approaches to the Americas
  • New York, NY: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , April
     370 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this translation and revision of his 2008 book, João José Reis provides a complex history of slave society and the religious resistance to it—focusing on one man in particular, diviner Domingos Sodré, as representative of Africans in the earliest days of Brazilian Candomblé. Reis, a renowned historian of slavery in imperial Brazil (1822-1889), drew on thirty years of archival research on enslaved Africans to complete this unusual tale of the “life and times” (297) of a freed African in the former colonial capital, Salvador, Bahia.

Sodré was arrested for “witchcraft” in 1862, and Reis uncovered not only the records of his arrest, but also reports of other events in his life. With these, Reis develops the richest possible context for the circumstances under which the Brazilian religions shaped by the African diaspora emerged. Following a brief but compelling history of slavery in Brazil, Reis opens the book by exposing the baroque bureaucracy of police in Salvador, as the various and competing officials both arrested and protected the freed and enslaved Africans who were practicing rituals from West African traditional religions in the heart of their Catholic city. The drumming sessions and divination centers disrupted the imagined modern ethos promoted by the white elite, while complaints about theft, lascivious entertainment, and corruption heightened tensions between the police and residents of the neighborhood where Sodré lived and practiced divination.

When Sodré was arrested, he had long been freed from his slave status. In chapter 2, Reis discusses the likely events surrounding his birth and enslavement in Africa, and the historical struggles of the Yoruba and Dahomean captives. Reis details the family and properties of his former master, Colonel Francisco Maria Sodré Pereira, before offering a comprehensive view of slave rebellion and freedom in northeastern Brazil. While there is no evidence that Sodré himself participated in the well-known rebellions in the region, he was certainly affected by their aftermath, including the repressive legislation that diminished all efforts that enslaved and freed Africans might make on their own behalf.

Although the police invaded the diviner’s home and threatened his religious devotions, Sodré relied on his affluent neighbors and influential associates—even among the African population—to regain his freedom. As Reis explains in chapter 3, Sodré was a well-established religious leader in Salvador, with his own residence and slaves. The inventory of goods seized at his arrest included not only merchandise exchanged by Africans, but also an abundance of sacred articles recognized by the arresting officers only as “objects used for witchcraft” (91). These rattles, shells, beads, necklaces, lengths of cloth, wooden statues, and blunted swords might have been used in divination practices, or by the early practitioners of Candomblé in Salvador. Sodré was undoubtedly an important religious leader himself, and he consulted with several of the newly founded Candomblé temples as an independent diviner.

In the midst of the religious changes in the 1800s, Sodré was a force to be reckoned with, owing both to his extensive relations in the enslaved and free communities, and to his knowledge of divination, healing, and herbal lore. In chapter 4, Reis outlines the varied attempts to ameliorate individual circumstances through the African and Afro-Brazilian diagnoses and cures that took over the labels of “superstition” and “witchcraft” from the earlier European folk practices, providing both relief and power as Brazilians struggled to overcome the violence of the patriarchal slave system. Under the threat of deportation to Africa, Sodré followed his own religious path and aided others in their resistance—even loaning money and directing an independent manumission society so that enslaved persons might work toward purchasing their own freedom. In chapters 5-6, Reis examines the corruptive influence of slave society that trapped both slave and freed alike in dangerous relations. Sodré himself was embroiled in a series of lawsuits alleging fraud and theft while relying on a network of African friends and white patrons to bolster his religious and personal interests. The life stories of other freed Africans reveal how their struggles to develop economic and religious freedom shaped Bahian society, and its fragile cosmopolitan modernity.

Reis concludes his book with Sodré’s final years as a “ladino man of means,”—that is, as an African knowledgeable about Brazilian culture and language but still deeply bound to his African heritage. His new connections with crioulos and whites through Catholic ceremonies offered public acknowledgement of his standing. However, his solidarity with Africans, whether in Candomblé rituals or through manumission societies, represented the foundation of his life even towards its end. Reis also addresses the thorny issue of Sodré’s own slaves, leaving the reader with a much better understanding of the economics and personal repercussions of slave and free life in Atlantic societies. Perhaps this then, is the best way to understand Sodré himself, as a man who adapted to the contradictions of slave society in Brazil, managing to preserve his religious traditions and personal integrity, but not to escape the burdens he was given.

As a whole, Divining Slavery and Freedom offers the biography of a man nearly hidden in the “shadows” of slavery (296), and weaves his life into the fabric of Afro-Brazilian culture. While some readers may find the archival details somewhat daunting, I consider this an essential read for those who study religions in Brazil. In this single volume, Reis makes it possible to glimpse the lives damaged by Brazilian slave society and salvaged by courage and spirit.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carole A. Myscofski is McFee Professor of Religion and Director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

João José Reis is Professor of History at the Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brazil. An award-winning historian and lifetime Honorary Foreign Member of the American Historical Association, he has published extensively on the history of slavery in nineteenth-century Brazil.

H. Sabrina Gledhill is the author of many scholarly articles, essays and book chapters, and has translated over thirty books.


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