In 1750, several people were called to testify against Dona Ana Maria Antunes de Almeida and Manoel da Silva Vieira. The couple lived in a consensual union in Icolo, having formerly resided in Golungo. Most of the witnesses, including two priests, hailed from these interior districts in the colony of Angola. Dona Ana Maria was accused of invoking the Devil with pagan rites for an ‘illness of her ancestors, which she had inherited’. According to the witnesses, Dona Ana Maria and Vieira had invited black sorcerers (magicos) to bring fortune for themselves and to harm their enemies. Among the people who Vieira was accused of harming was Manoel de Souza Manaya, whose murder Vieira had allegedly caused by witchcraft with the help of African witches. Dona Ana Maria, a widow who had been married twice, was claimed to have murdered her two husbands by ‘diabolic arts’ and to have used magic in order to make Vieira fall in love with her.Footnote 1
The witnesses, all of whom claimed that Dona Ana Maria’s and Vieira’s infringements were ‘public and notorious’ throughout the districts of Golungo and Icolo, named several Africans as the accomplices of the accused. They were Francisco de Porto, Antonio Mendes, Antonio Martins, Baxi or Sebastião á Dacala, Sebastião Vicente (also known as Lemba or Calemba),Footnote 2 Dom João and Jeronimo. Many of these Africans were designated by the witnesses as quimbares, referring to free or freed blacks who lived with whites and usually worked as itinerant traders.Footnote 3 From the outset, it was evident that these accusations concerned both healing and harming, with no clear distinction being made between these specialised roles. Markedly, many witnesses referred to these men not only as magicos, or sorcerers, but also as surgeons (cirurgião), pointing to their role as healers. One of the religious specialists, Sebastião Vicente, was referred to as a hermaphrodite, and he was also known as Sebastiana. Cross-dressing healer-diviners were known by the title kimbanda. They formed a discrete group of religious specialists in Angola and were mentioned in several documentary sources. Choosing to live together in bands, they formed a respected healing society offering a wide variety of spiritual services.Footnote 4
In addition to the male religious specialists, four of Dona Ana Maria’s slaves were named as being dedicated to spirits and playing an active role in their adoration. Witnesses pointed to several ‘idols’ or spirits adored by the accused, explaining that these were the same spirits invoked by pagan Angolans (gentio deste Reino). The spirits were Macongo, Kiteri, Muta, Kibuku, Casuto, Ginxi and Sucu. Some of the witnesses also named the spirits Dom Petello and Dom Pedro. Some of these spirits were well known in the interior of Angola. Many witnesses must have implicitly been referring to the spirit Kibuku when claiming that Vieira used black magic to rise in the colonial military hierarchy. Kibuku was known in Mbundu areas as a spirit of good fortune and wealth. Casuto was another well-known spirit in the interior of Angola, which was claimed to cause illness. Macongo was alternately referred to as Muene Congo, implying that it was a spirit of an ancestral ruler. According to one of the witnesses, Captain-Major Lope de Carvalho Fogaça, Sucu was a spirit that brought fortune and wealth.Footnote 5
Music was a central element in the rituals, a way to venerate the spirits. Participants played hand drums (atabailes) and other percussion instruments, they sang and they clapped their hands. In possession ceremonies, spirits entered into Dona Ana Maria Almeida, speaking through her mouth while she appeared like a ghost with deformed eyes. They could also enter any of the four female slaves, who would then speak with an altered voice a secret language understood only by other participants. A further element that raised suspicions against Vieira was that he wore string bracelets on his wrists as protective magic.Footnote 6
According to Father Antonio de Sousa Benevides, Dona Ana Maria and Vieira also believed in Zumbi, ‘because their understanding is that souls of the other world come to this one, and cause illness and infirmity in living bodies’. Benevides denounced Almeida for consulting the spirits to find out what caused her partner’s illness.Footnote 7 Another priest, Domingos de Lemos Terra, claimed that Vieira suffered from hearing problems, which, according to the African healer Baxi á Dacala, was caused by the Zumbi of Manoel de Souza Manaya, the man allegedly murdered by Vieira.Footnote 8
Denunciations against Dona Ana Maria and Vieira demonstrate the entanglements of healing and harming spiritual powers in Atlantic Africa. Although these rituals were dramatic, curing did not always entail supernatural elements. This chapter begins with a discussion of concepts related to health and illness in West-Central African societies. It then focuses on the plurality of African healing specialists in the region. Some of the African healers treated everyday occurrences of illness with natural remedies and could be referred to as herbalists. Other healer-diviners focused on treating social ills or so-called diseases of man. Besides offering herbal remedies, their methods often included religious rituals and ceremonial practices similar to the ones allegedly employed by Dona Ana Maria Antunes de Almeida and Manoel da Silva Vieira. Such activities were often scrutinised and investigated by the Inquisitional commissioners in Luanda. The activities of herbalists, on the contrary, rarely led to denunciations to the Portuguese religious or secular authorities. Methodologically, therefore, the activities and ritual practices of healer-diviners are over-represented in the Inquisition sources, which mostly remain silent on everyday herbalism in Angola.
Health and Illness in West-Central African SocietiesHistorical linguistics help elucidate ancestral concepts related to health and illness. Many terms pertaining to health and healing are assumed to have been part of the earliest Bantu-speaking societies several thousand years ago. These concepts remained relatively unchanged as populations migrated from their original homelands in West Africa to populate Central, Southern and East African environments. Cognate terms pertaining to therapeutic concepts that appear in one or several major West-Central African language groups – Kikongo, Kimbundu and Umbundu – include, for example:Footnote 9
C.S. 677 * -dúád- to become ill; C.S. 678 * -dúádì- illness; C.S. 679 *-dúáídé- illness
C.S. 786 * -gàngà- / * -ngàngà- medicine man, doctor; C.S. 787 * -ganga- medicine
C.S. 1564 * -pód- to become cold, to cool down; C.S. 1565 * -pód- to become cured, to get well
C.S. 412 * -cúkù- cupping horn; C.S. 440 * -cúmo- cupping horn; C.S. 439 * -cumik- bleed by cupping; C.S. 700 * -dumik- bleed by cupping
C.S. 1072 * -kítì- fetish, charm; C.S. 1073 * -kítì-, or -kícì- spirit
C.S. 1474 * -pémbà- white clay; C.S. 1477 * pémbé- white clay
Recognition of sickness is signalled by the cognate term dúád, or dúádì, whose verb form luala in Kikongo expresses the existential quality of suffering, injury or misfortune. This is differentiated from physical injury or soreness, for which pútá or púté is used. Numerous metaphors are used to refer to health, including ‘balance’ and ‘purity’. The cognate pód, signifying ‘to become cool, or cool down’ or to ‘become well, healthy’, stands in contrast to the heat of disease or witchcraft. In Kikongo and Kimbundu, this is related to the action of the cupping horn (mpodi); the cupping horn ‘sucks out’ (hola mpoka) the impurity. Terms for the cupping horn and for the process of bleeding by cupping in Eastern and Western Bantu dialects suggest that this is an ancient therapy system, although there may have been an even older cognate that is now lost. Sickness and misfortune are also related to the concept of interdiction, prohibition or abstinence. It emerges in the context of ritual activities, initiations or naming, but also with abstinence from specified foods in connection with an ailment or an affliction.Footnote 10
In West-Central Africa and elsewhere on the continent, misfortunes or afflictions stemming from ‘natural’ or God-given causes are distinguished from those stemming from human involvement. Terms for God are associated with illness and misfortunes that are ‘in the order of things’, or ‘of God’. Unnatural or inauspicious misfortunes are, by contrast, said to be caused by ‘people’. In Kikongo, this is expressed as [kimbevo] kia muntu. Human-caused misfortunes could be described by terms related to the use of powerful words and the intentions behind them. In Kikongo, loka signifies the use of powerful words in an oath or curse, and kindoki their imputed use, which is believed to cause sickness and misfortune.Footnote 11 It is worth noting that the interpretation of illness might change as the illness itself changes through time. Illness episodes interpreted as ‘natural’ at an early stage might later be explained in terms of sorcery or spirit causes.Footnote 12 From the patient’s perspective, this meant that in many quotidian occurrences of illness, a herbalist would be sought first, but if the sickness persisted, a different diagnostician would be consulted.
If the use of sorcery was imputed, these diagnostic encounters had to consider the harming register prevalent in Central African societies. In contrast to helpful and beneficent sorcery idioms, witchcraft anxieties and spiritual insecurities were all part of the negative register of vernacular therapeutic practice. Medicines, medicinal charms and power objects were used to curse and harm enemies in politics and everyday life.Footnote 13 Further, in many African languages the term for medicine refers to wholesome as well as harmful substances.Footnote 14 The attempts to abolish witchcraft by legal means, which were part of the colonial state apparatus in the twentieth century, were still absent (except for the Inquisition) in the early modern period, when the Portuguese and other European settlers in Atlantic Africa commonly shared a belief in magic and sorcery. The ambivalence of ‘medicines’, broadly defined, to heal and harm is notable in some Inquisitional cases. This ambivalence made healing specialists suspect in the eyes of Portuguese officials and European priests, but it must have been a cause of distrust also for many of the patients. Healers needed to build a reputation as benign, yet powerful, experts in the use of medicinal herbs and charms.
Among the Kongo, in the colonial period common and simple problems like headache, stomach ache, cold, fever or accidental wounds were generally categorised as mild and benign afflictions, and therefore, as ‘natural’. They were only suspected to be caused by spiritual beings or living humans if they did not respond to systematic treatment. Minor ailments such as these were typically treated at home or by a specialist called nganga mbuki. Perhaps the best English translation for this title would be ‘herbalist’. Nganga mbuki used medicine (bilongo) not connected to nkisi objects and spirits. Their curing methods also included scarifications, incisions, bonesetting, steam baths, massage and head-pack applications. In contrast to specialists who dealt with problems of nkisi and kindoki, nganga mbuki were usually tolerated by missions and colonial rulers.Footnote 15
When the Portuguese first encountered foreign medical systems in Atlantic Africa, they immediately found overlaps with Hippocratic-Galenic medicine. The hot/cold distinction of diseases was especially important for cultural translation. Conceptual convergence between African and Hippocratic-Galenic medicine was made possible by the concept of pód (to become cold, to cool down or to become cured, to get well), because humouralism recognised excess heat, caused by yellow bile, as a cause of illness. Bloodletting as medical technology was practised in Portugal and elsewhere in Europe not only by the cutting of a vein, but also by cupping. This was done by scratching the surface of the skin and applying a cup to it. A sucking force was introduced either by directly sucking air out of a hole in the base of the cup or by first heating the cup and then letting it cool while attached to the body. But bloodletting was not limited to Europe. On the island of São Tomé, the Portuguese witnessed how the locals used cupping horns to relieve symptoms of fever, which afflicted them especially when cold winds began to blow from the south in June. They applied cupping horns on the forehead and temples and occasionally on the shoulders.Footnote 16
Cupping was also widely used on the other side of the southern Atlantic in Brazil. João Ferreira da Rosa’s Trattado unico da constituiçam pestilencial de Pernambuco (1694), the first published vernacular medical treatise on colonial Brazil, points to the different kinds of cupping horns used in Recife. Bull’s horns were the most widely used. Obviously, this therapeutic practice was used both by surgeons and folk healers. Although he did not specify the ethnic origins of folk practitioners, Rosa specifically referred to female folk healers (curandeiras), who operated within a humoural framework and told their patients that the humour drawn out with the cupping horns was the one that had caused the illness. However, Rosa then criticised them for using bull’s horns. According to him, surgeons using glass horns performed cupping with much more precision.Footnote 17
Early modern European illness causation resembled African medicine in that disease aetiologies were divided into natural and magical causes. Natural factors, such as the imbalance in the four bodily humours, were linked to factors like diet, evacuations, exercise, air, sleep and strong emotions. Hippocratic-Galenic medical knowledge was confronted with social illness causation and popular healing forms. Social illness causation in Europe was intellectually linked to the African idea of ‘diseases of man’ and was based on the use of spells to harm other people, or in other words, on expressions of antagonism and tension within the community. Magical charms and spells were regarded as potent because the Devil gave them power to work.Footnote 18
Herein lay the common ground between precolonial West-Central African and early modern European concepts of illness, health and healing. When Portuguese and other Europeans fell ill, they turned to indigenous Africans for help in order to obtain local cures. Eventually, this led to compilations of pharmacopoeias in manuscript form. Herbal knowledge also found its way into missionary and travel accounts. The composition of these works was simple and followed a general outline. The African name for the medicinal was followed by instructions on how to use it, for which illnesses it was used and occasionally information on where it could be found. Pharmacopoeias provide copious information on illness and disease in West-Central Africa.Footnote 19
Evidence on the social diagnosis of diseases can be found in pharmacopoeias and travel accounts, which listed local medicines that enjoyed widespread use. These medicinals have been identified and classified by José Pedro Sousa Dias, who listed 124 different drugs based on their composition – animal, vegetable or mineral. In West-Central Africa, these were used to treat almost 100 diseases and injured body parts. Yet, Dias’s schematic listing does not address which were the most common afflictions among the local population and European settlers. Neither does it analyse regional or chronological variations in disease prevalence. Most afflictions named in pharmacopoeias and missionary accounts referred to genital-urinary afflictions, venereal and gastrointestinal illnesses, skin diseases and fevers. Antidotes were an important category of herbal remedies, and they were used to cure poisoning and snake bites.Footnote 20
Individual pharmacopoeias compiled by Portuguese officers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (see Chapter 2) could include as many as fifty medicinal substances. They were compiled with the help of local herbalists, and although written down by Europeans, the African input weighed heavily in listing the diseases that could be cured with these natural medicines. It is noteworthy that trained physicians for the most part disregarded African healing practices, and the collecting of household remedies was left in the hands of laypersons. The widespread use of plants as antidotes demonstrates that remedies for animal bites were extremely important in local societies. Diseases that abound in Francisco Buitrago’s pharmacopeia, composed in the early eighteenth century, include fevers, eye diseases, epilepsy and kidney stones, but more commonly it lists bodily symptoms quite generally: swellings, pain in the stomach or womb, internal sores and headaches. A large percentage of African household medicines clearly concentrated on treating easily definable symptoms.Footnote 21
While most diseases could clearly affect anyone regardless of sex, West-Central Africans acknowledged a gendered aspect of medicine by pointing to medicinals that were especially useful in treating women’s health complaints. These were generally related to menstruation, childbirth and abortions. West-Central African women were known to use abortifacients. The best-known case concerns the Kongo prophet Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, whose position as a leader of a religious movement was undermined by her pregnancy in 1705. She had formed a close relationship with a man named João Barro, and twice had recourse to abortive medicine. On the third occasion, however, it failed to work.Footnote 22 In the late eighteenth century, the Portuguese recognised one of the local abortifacients as a plant called matangas suesue. According to a contemporary description, this powerful and forceful remedy caused an immediate abortion.Footnote 23
The question is, to what extent did cross-cultural interaction lead to convergence in African and European medicine during the era of the Atlantic slave trade? Linguistic changes give some indication of the translations and adaptations that resulted from medical encounters. Cannecattim’s early nineteenth-century Kimbundu dictionary indicates that the Portuguese word for fever (febre) had become a loan word (febele) in Kimbundu. Fevers were further divided into malign, continuous, small and intermittent types.Footnote 24 Assis Junior’s twentieth-century dictionary offers another clue to the transformations that had taken place. He defined the Kimbundu word ndúa as diseases caused by excess blood.Footnote 25 The proto-Bantu term C.S. 677 * -dúád- signifies ‘to become ill’, but it acquired a new connotation as a result of therapeutic interaction. In a European humoural framework, illness was treated primarily by bloodletting and purging. As Cannecattim’s and Assis Junior’s dictionaries show, there were numerous Kimbundu expressions for different illnesses. Cannecattim distinguished only between illness (uh’achi or mah’achi), headache, sore throat, pain in the womb and an ache in the legs. Assis Junior’s dictionary demonstrates a larger variety and more precise (biomedical) translations of the names of diseases. The same applies to Bentley’s late nineteenth-century dictionary of Kikongo, which lists thirty-nine different diseases.Footnote 26
Much like Dona Ana Maria’s and Vieira’s case, another Inquisition trial preceding theirs contained the same dramatic elements: harming by witchcraft, healing by spirit possession. Captain-major of Ambaca, João Pereira da Cunha, his Angolan concubine, Catarina Juliana, and the couple’s slaves were taken to Lisbon for trial in 1750.Footnote 27 Cunha was accused of adoring the spirits Muta, Gangazumba and Kibuku. He had allegedly killed his predecessor by poisoning or witchcraft and hired local sorcerers to protect him from misfortune. Cunha passed away soon after arriving in Lisbon, and his trial never really commenced. However, following lengthy investigations in Angola, he was posthumously deemed innocent.
João Pereira da Cunha’s partner, Catarina Juliana, was given her own trial. Her confession from 1758 included a detailed description of a xinguila’s ritual practice in the interior of Angola. Catarina related how, in the mid-1740s, while living in Ambaca, she had suffered from a swelling and had gone to visit a free black named Matheus Capichi. Matheus directed Catarina to the house of Esperança, who was a xinguila by profession. Esperança told Catarina that her sickness was caused by two spirits, Kibuku and Muta. The healer called on people to gather in her house, and they began a spirit possession ceremony. Esperança, entranced, performed a dance Catarina called the calandúz and called on the spirits Kibuku and Muta. After the dance, she killed a chicken and mixed its blood with some herbal powders. She applied this potion to Catarina, who did not immediately experience any improvement in her condition. The treatment was continued, however, and Esperança made four visits to Catarina’s home, bringing her herbal medicine, which she mixed with castor oil and applied.Footnote 28
In connection with João Pereira da Cunha’s and Catarina Juliana’s trials, several African sorcerers were arrested in or near Ambaca and sent to Lisbon, where their trials never progressed. However, their houses were searched at the time of the arrest and their wealth was confiscated. Three of the sorcerers had significant collections of religious items and natural medicines (Table 1.1). These inventories provide an invaluable glimpse inside a healer’s hut and into the everyday life of popular healers in Ambaca.
|João Pedro Macollo|
• macua (calabash shell)
• buffalo tail
• buffalo horn filled with black powder, with two skins and a shell encircled by pieces of bark from a mulemba tree
• three charm packages in pots (basouras) with red and white legs
• gonguinha (small clapperless bell) filled with pale brown powder and five bones and shells
• gonguinha filled with feathers and a shell, rosary made of shells, nine small bones and packs of red and brown powder
|• gonguinha filled with a black feather, five bones, a rosary of shells, pale brown powder and a piece of wood|
Dedicated to no particular spirit
• pemba reserved for his prayers
|Felipe Dias Chaves|
• belt with a leather pouch attached, containing black powder, two small horns, three iron rings and two bones (all mandingas, according to Chaves)
• buffalo tail
Dedicated to no particular spirit
• two pouches containing cards with drawings of ‘demons’
• a monkey’s skull for curing headaches
|• black, pale brown and red powders for curing sores on feet|
• pemba reserved for his prayers
|Danla á Tango|
• horn of quihoé and in it tied two skins, one of cabindo and another of caxingia, which are mandingas and in it a belt of skin of sengui
Dedicated to no particular spirit
• a bell with red powders, which he said were quilembas against paralysis
• a Luanda and two skins of caxingia and an amulet of sengui and a hummingbird, which he said were all for women giving birth to twins and called it cacullo e cabassa
• a pack of yellow powders ‘for lunch’
• a pack of black powders to apply on eyebrows
• another pack of black powders ‘for lunch’
|• a human tooth|
• an amulet (xillo) of inta, which he said was from sonna Kibundo
• four mocotes of antelope that he said was medicine for huene huene
• a jaguar’s nail of gombo, used when performing spirit possession (xinguilão)
• six small pieces of wood, which are ‘banzes’ for a successful march (trip)
• a cord attached to a piece of wood
• a twisted straw meant to protect children from the wind
• an egg of perdir for protection
• four pegs of wood, two with feathers, one red and the other white, which he said were of Lufaco
|• a small pack of powder to apply on eyebrows|
• two knots of wood, which he said were worn to cover his body
• two beaks of cossa called bambis, whistles used to scare away birds from their fields by virtue of the Devil
• two small whistles to prevent children from dying
• two small bones from a cripple to cure diphteria
• a bone from a jaguar and an antelope to cure diphtheria
• mucollos or cables, which he said were his
• a piece of hucuso to be used when beginning his devilries
• five pieces of curida said to heal neck pain
1 ANTT, TSO/IL, Processo 10120, Processo de João Pedro Macollo, 9r–10r; ANTT, TSO/IL, Processo 14150, Processo de Felipe Dias Chaves, 4r–4v; ANTT, TSO/IL, Processo 14150, Processo de Danla á Tango, 7r–8r.
As is clear, Muta was the spirit that connected the three men, as they all had items dedicated to it. However, none of them mentioned items dedicated to Kibuku. Muta, or Muta Kalombo, was venerated in the interior of Angola as a personal spirit related to hunting, warfare and fire.Footnote 29 Macongo, which was mentioned as one of the spirits adored by Dona Ana Maria and Vieira, was apparently also adored by João Pedro. It may well have been one of the seventeenth-century ancestors and may refer to a person who was once an Umbundu lord, or a spirit of the hunt.Footnote 30 João Pedro had a special connection to this spirit, as objects pertaining to Macongo were the most numerous. He also adored Vunji, which might have referred to an ancestral spirit from Matamba.Footnote 31
Of the three arrested healers, most items were confiscated from Danla á Tango. Only one of them was identified as being dedicated to Muta, but the rest were not connected to any particular spirit, or at least such connections were not documented. Some items, such as the whistles to prevent children from dying or the jaguar’s nail used in spirit possession ceremonies, clearly had magical uses. Others were part of Angola’s rich folk pharmacopoeia (see Chapter 2) and used to treat specific bodily disorders. Powders to apply on eyebrows were possibly used to cure fevers and headaches. While it is clear that Danla á Tango relied on magical rituals to heal and divine, he could perhaps best be referred to as a healer-herbalist, who also offered everyday remedies to ailing people. All three arrested healers were versed in local idioms of healing and practised in local circumstances. Despite their contact with Portuguese settlers, the items inventoried in their huts demonstrate no global medical influences, unless one counts the rosary of shells confiscated from João Pedro Macollo as a hybrid item.
The term pemba,Footnote 32 which the witnesses in the Inquisition trials referred to as white clay, had several meanings in Central Africa. It played an important role in West-Central African spirit possession ceremonies. Several of the witnesses who denounced Dona Ana Maria and Vieira said that participants in spirit possession rituals smeared their bodies with pemba and put it on their tongue.Footnote 33 Similarly, pemba was confiscated from the three men who were accused of sorcery and of being João Pereira da Cunha’s accomplices in Ambaca. It referred not only to white clay, but also to kaolin and manioc flour. Significantly, the German naturalist Friedrich Welwitsch mentions stone material known as pedra pemba found in several mountainous districts of Angola, including Golungo, where Dona Ana Maria and Vieira lived. According to Welwitsch, who was active in Angola in the 1850s, the powder ground from this mineral had a very important social and domestic role in the lives of Angolans. It was mixed into the majority of remedies used by blacks and used in various types of fetishes buried in the ground or exposed in caverns. It was also used for painting bodies and houses.Footnote 34
In West-Central Africa, the colour white was a conspicuous feature in most rituals of healing. It was either employed as the only colour element or else in combination with red. In early twentieth-century Kongo, nkisi (pl. minkisi) spirits were the objects of domination and manipulation by humans, which was made possible through their material incarnation in man-made objects. They were mainly used to treat illness. Rituals that contained white as the only colour element were used to treat diseases that were in some way connected with the simbi spirits. The white minkisi of healing were all classified as water minkisi, or in other words, as minkisi containing a simbi spirit from the water. There were five minkisi in this category: Mbwanga, Nsonde, Musansi bitutu, Nkita and Mukisi nsi. These water minkisi were believed to cure headache, depression and madness, epilepsy, leprosy, swellings and boils all over the body, stomach complaints and swollen eyes and legs. These white minkisi contained chalk among the ingredients, but not the colours red or black.Footnote 35
White and red could also be used concurrently in connection with the curing of certain diseases. The illnesses thought to have been caused by witches or wizards (bandoki), or by the most powerful spirits of the most distant ancestral origin, were always cured by rituals or minkisi in which white and red were found together, mixed with the medicine. A common procedure in curing illnesses caused by witches was to consult the healer of a certain nkisi specialising in these types of diseases. Nkisi Kula was the most common nkisi used in connection with the treatment. Kula consisted of a large bundle containing many small bags of cloth filled with chalk, yellow or red ochre, and medicines. Some of the bags also contained pungent red pepper. The ill body was struck or massaged with the bags of cloth, so that the burning pepper penetrated into the skin and disturbed the spirit that had taken possession of the ill person. The treatment of a person thought to have been attacked by a witch began with the healer giving the sick person medicine to drink and to smear on his or her body. Relatives and other participants in the ritual then began to sing, make invocations and fall into ecstasy while the sick person was massaged with banana stalks. This was done in order to squeeze out the spirit possessing the body.Footnote 36
The use of a white substance in a spirit possession ceremony was observed by eight soldiers sent on an errand by the captain-major of the presídio of Massangano in 1719. On the estate owned by Dona Catherina Correa, the soldiers heard noise generated by a large gathering of people. They encircled the place and saw that the people were ‘invoking the demon’. When they were detected, most of the participants managed to run away, including the ‘master’ in charge of the ceremony. The soldiers arrested a free black woman named Domingas de João and a slave named José Correa, who belonged to the owner of the estate. She told the soldiers that the ritual was arranged to cure her son, who had been caught by a zumbi. The soldiers found a bag of medicine left by the healer. They also saw that an abundance of food and drink had been prepared for the ritual.
For the purposes of the ritual, Domingas and other people were ‘smeared with various things’ and covered with flour.Footnote 37 Although pemba was not specifically mentioned in this case, it is likely that the white flour would have been designated as pemba by the locals who witnessed the ritual. In form, the ritual followed the rule that the chief participants were made to appear white, in this case by using manioc flour. Although the ritual was led by a healer, the ‘master’ who managed to run away, it seems that Domingas had an equally important role in it. Both she and José Correa, who seems to have been a mere onlooker present at the ceremony, were sent to a prison in Luanda. The jailer was baffled by his new prisoners, writing to the Inquisition and wanting to know what he was supposed to do with the two and ‘so many other blacks, who have been arrested during recent years for the same reason’.Footnote 38
After returning to Lisbon, the Capuchin missionary Frei Joseph de Modena gave his deposition of this case to the Inquisition in 1721. When asked to explain the term zumbi to the Inquisitors, he answered that it was a belief that a sickness, which had ‘come naturally’, was caused by ‘a soul of one of the ancestors’ of the sick person. In other words, that is what the healers told their patients in order to extract payment in kind from them. The patients duly offered a banquet to appease the zumbi, but in Modena’s view the only purpose of the ritual was to invoke the demon. Modena also noted that despite the remedies applied by the healers, the patients often died. Although Modena had not encountered another ritual in which the participants would have been covered with flour, he did mention that ‘on some occasions the blacks paint their throat, chests, and backs’ with something called ‘Mono-Mono’.Footnote 39
Attributing sickness to spiritual forces – a so-called disease of man – was a common explanation for illness in West-Central Africa and elsewhere on the continent among speakers of the Bantu languages. In a medical context, zumbi generally referred to unsatisfied ancestral spirits. Already in the seventeenth century, chronicler António de Oliveira de Cadornega recorded that sick people commonly expressed their malady by saying that a zumbi had entered them or infected them. People were often very cautious of all signs referring to zumbi, for example the appearance of their ancestors or any other dead people in their dreams. If the dead appeared in dreams, it was taken as a sign that they had come to fetch the person into the Other World. To avert this, a sacrificial offering was made at the grave of the ancestor.Footnote 40
In the denunciations made to the Inquisition from Angola, it was often said that people suffered from zumbi. A number of cases from the 1710s and 1720s concerned people who the healers had ‘diagnosed’ with zumbi. One of the best-known cases is that of a black soldier named Antônio de Freitas Galvão, who in 1720 sought a cure for a hernia, which had bothered him for several years. A healer from Dombe suggested that Galvão, who had already sought a variety of remedies in Benguela, heal himself by using local methods. The healer convinced Galvão that his hernia was caused by the zumbi of his deceased wife. In order to appease her spirit, Galvão organised a ceremony in his house with drummers and dancers. Along with his slaves and children, numerous people participated in the ritual. He sacrificed a calf that was eaten by the participants. The priest in charge of the investigation noted in his conclusion that in all the sertões of Angola, both baptised and non-Christian blacks healed their infirmities with ‘superstition and heathen rites’, a practice that missionaries preaching in the sertão could not eradicate.Footnote 41
Plurality and Mobility of African Healing Specialists
The primary responsibility of popular healers was safeguarding the health of communities and individuals. Besides their ritual expertise, they were esteemed for their knowledge of medicinal plants and herbal cures for illness and diseases. In addition to the already mentioned xinguilas, who specialised in spirit possession rituals, there were numerous other specialist healers with different titles. Some provided protective magic, others specialised in healing a certain illness and some merely predicted whether cures would be successful or not. As anthropologists have shown, societies across Africa continue to rely on generalists and specialists attending to internal medicine, broken bones, joint pains, fevers, childbirth complications, and an array of complex problems.Footnote 42
According to Capuchin Father Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi (Table 1.2), among those offering protective magic were specialists with the title ntinu-a-maza, who were also known as ‘kings of water’. They hid amulets in the bottom of rivers and made them reappear on the surface by throwing a gourd or another open container into the water. These amulets were then distributed to their followers as the most potent nkisi against all diseases. Nconi and nzazi were healers, who made their clients follow sets of taboos in order to regain health. Nzazis used four small statues and a bell in their ceremonies. Some healers focused only on certain ailments. For example, a ngodi was responsible for treating the deaf, but, according to Cavazzi, they never succeeded. Perhaps more important were healers titled nsambi, who treated a common disease resembling leprosy. They offered the sick a cup from which they drank first; then they said that the sick were cured thanks to their lips having made contact with the liquid. However, a more plausible reason for their success lay in their use of the bark of a certain tree, which, when ground and spread on the skin, produced a cure. Without specifying their specialties or methods, Cavazzi also listed healers titled makuta, matamba, ngulungu and mbazi.Footnote 43
|nganga-ia-nzumbi||priest of the spirits|
|Xinguilas||spirit possession, healing|
|ntinu-a-maza (kings of water)||preparing amulets against all diseases|
|Nconi||healing, restoring patients to health by following prohibitions (taboos)|
|Nzazi||healing, restoring patients to health by following prohibitions (taboos)|
|Ngodi||treating the deaf|
|Nsambi||treating a disease resembling leprosy|
|nganga-itiki||receiving offerings from the sick and placing them in shrines; collecting the first rain after the dry season and selling it as medicine|
1 Cavazzi, Istorica descrizione, 69–83.
Offerings to spirits were an integral part of healing an illness. According to Cavazzi, a religious specialist called a nganga-itiki was responsible for receiving the offerings from the sick and for placing them on altars in front of the statues of spirits. The statues included images of men and women, representing ancestral spirits, and of animals and monsters, depending on the traditions prevailing in the community. The nganga-itiki was responsible for establishing the days for the sacrifices. In addition, this religious specialist collected the first rainwater after the dry season and sold it as a remedy against misfortune.Footnote 44
Among important West-Central African healing societies were the Kimpasi, which proliferated in Kongo in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Kimpasi was a kind of social remedy, a secret society that sought to help a community or a group of communities suffering from calamities and problems. The initiates experienced ritual death, from which they emerged with a new identity.Footnote 45 In the 1660s, Christian Kongo elite took drastic measures to prevent the Kimpasi from spreading. They ordered the seizure of nkisi and meted out severe penalties for Kimpasi initiates, and the Capuchins burned innumerable nkisi and Kimpasi enclosures. After the persecution, many former Kimpasi initiates affirmed their Christian faith.Footnote 46 During his eight-year stay in Kongo in the late eighteenth century, missionary Rafael de Castelo de Vide encountered Kimpasi houses that had never disappeared completely despite missionary efforts in the seventeenth century. According to Castelo de Vide, Kimpasi houses were places where many people, enticed by ‘feiticeiros’ or sorcerers, went to seek cures for illness.Footnote 47
Between those of Cavazzi and Castelo de Vide, one finds P. Giuseppe Monari da Modena’s account of healers in the 1710s. Residing in West-Central Africa between 1711 and 1713, Monari recorded his reminiscences in 1723, possibly basing them on a manuscript he had written earlier. He noted that in each Kongo village (libata), there were male and female ‘masters of medicine’ who were very good doctors. Among the Mbundu, he reported three classes of ‘surgeons’ – the good, the wicked and the bad. Monari’s use of the term ‘surgeon’ indicates that even Capuchin priests gave some credibility to African popular healers; they were not mere sorcerers and witches. However, it is clear from Monari’s account that the ‘surgeons’ he described as good might better be termed herbalists. Their methods of using baths, herbs and roots were based on experience. They healed in the open without using secret words or ceremonies. Herbalists were above suspicion and did not constitute a threat to Catholic religion. The wicked ones, however, pretended to know what they did not know. They used superstitious words and actions, but the positive results of their healing activities were always based on the work of nature. They always carried a sack of various medicines with them, which they randomly mixed. According to Monari, the bad healers were the ones who invoked spirits and tried to keep their practice secret, although they also used natural remedies. Fearing arrest, they avoided being seen by white men and preferred lonely and hidden places to perform their rituals. They were often regarded as very powerful healer-diviners who had the gift of seeing into the future.Footnote 48
Monari’s moral taxonomy outlined the plurality of African popular healers from a Catholic perspective. Although motivated by the Capuchin’s religious fervour, it makes a clear distinction between everyday herbalism and secret spiritual practices. It also demonstrates that African popular healers could enjoy a status comparable to physicians and surgeons even in European eyes. It echoes an earlier textual source concerning Benguela. Its unidentified author insisted that among Africans living in Benguela were ‘great herbalists and doctors, who possessed natural experience of the quality of the herbs’.Footnote 49 This is the only reference I have found in early modern Portuguese sources concerning Angola that employs the term herbalist (erbolario).
Beyond general descriptions and anecdotal evidence on the plurality of healers contained in Capuchin sources, information on the activities of healers and diviners in West-Central Africa can be gleaned from sporadic denunciations made to the Inquisition. Following an edict published by the Inquisition and distributed in Luanda, a batch of denunciations was collected in the town’s Jesuit college in 1698 and 1699.Footnote 50 Of the eleven denunciations, seven dealt with healers or diviners. Six of the denouncers were slaves, with two of them being slaves of the Jesuits and the others owned by individual whites. Two of the denouncers were free blacks and only three were white.
Witnesses who had personally dealt with popular healers rarely wanted to admit that they had taken the initiative in seeking help from healers. This was the case with João Inácio, the first of the Jesuits’ slaves, who had sought a healer to find a cure for his wife Izabel Inácio, also a slave at the college. João himself was occupied at the college as a barbeiroFootnote 51 and sangrador, or medical officer, who administered bloodletting to his patients. At his wife’s request, he had called a Mbundu ‘surgeon’ to divine the cause of her illness. The healer had performed his ceremonies ‘with his hands’ and said that the infirmity was called casuto. He gave Izabel some herbs to cook in a pot filled with water. She then washed herself with the herbal medicine.Footnote 52
In his denunciation, João Inácio did not explain what casuto meant, or at least it was not recorded by the Jesuit scribe. However, casuto seems to have been a well-known spirit or deity in the Ganguela province of Matamba and was described by Cavazzi in the seventeenth century. In Ganguela, there was a healer-diviner (xinguila) devoted to the spirit Casuto. The xinguila had a large calabash called iaco, and one could pass a hand through its mouth. The xinguila first put small items on the bottom of the calabash and then added the bones, hooves and tails of sacrificial goats, chicken and dogs to it. These were mixed with olive oil and the juice of datura and distributed to the sick to be used as seasoning in their cooking. If the illness was serious, the bones were crushed and used as anointment on the painful parts of the body or as face paint.Footnote 53
João Inácio revealed that the healer-diviner he had called for was a slave named Hieronimo, whose origins were not revealed. However, Cavazzi’s account indicates that adoration of casuto had originated in Matamba. It would have spread to Luanda with slaves imported from the interior. João’s statement also reveals that Central-African paradigms of therapeutic practice had remained dominant for baptised slaves owned by whites, even by Jesuit priests, in Luanda. The fact that João worked in medical practice as taught to him by Jesuits and still invited a popular healer to his house shows that he did not fully trust European medical practices. Furthermore, by adopting the Portuguese term ‘surgeon’ to designate the healer, he was placing Hieronimo’s healing arts on equal standing with European practices.
Hieronimo’s owner was Captain Manoel Simões Colaço, one of the richest and most influential merchants in Luanda. It is possible that he had purchased the healer on purpose to treat his slaves. This would have been a fairly common practice in the southern Atlantic world, where Brazilian slave owners often employed African healers as the primary medical specialists to take care of illnesses that slaves suffered from. This general trend began in the colonial period and persisted in imperial Brazil into the nineteenth century. For example, one of the best-known African healers in mid-nineteenth-century Bahia was Anacleto Urbano da Natividade, who was originally from Yorubaland. During a cholera epidemic in 1855, he treated people in their homes and also healed his owner’s family members.Footnote 54
Among the denounced, there were some slaves who had sought help from healers in order to cure their masters. Bernardino Correa da Gama, one of the white witnesses, denounced five of his slaves who had hired a Mbundu ‘surgeon’ named Thomé de Angonga from Massangano. Bernardino, however, had driven the healer away because he believed that Africans divined with ‘diabolic arts’. Bernardino had inherited the five slaves from his father, Bernardo Correa, and it is reasonable to ask whether the slaves had similarly called a healer to treat their former master with his approval.Footnote 55 In a similar vein, the slaves of the widow Antonia de Sá sought to cure a child of their master. They were denounced by a slave named Domingas de Duarte, who related how she and other female slaves named Izabel, Mariana and Maria had sought out a healer. Either the slaves considered African therapeutic practices more potent than those brought to Luanda by the Portuguese or they could not afford to consult Portuguese medical practitioners. Izabel was nursing her master’s daughter and called a ‘feiticeiro of the sertão’ or a ‘sorcerer from the backcountry’ to divine the cause of the child’s illness. The healer asked for a twined basket and maize flour and began a divination ceremony, speaking out words that Domingas did not understand. The diviner made the basket move in circles and, after the ceremony, gave herbal medicine to apply as a cure for the child.Footnote 56
Following John Janzen, the slaves who were seeking help from healers for someone else’s illness could be termed a ‘therapy managing group’. In anthropological fieldwork carried out in the 1960s and 1970s, Janzen observed that ‘[t]he management of illness and therapy by a set of close kin is a central aspect of the medical scene in central Africa’. The therapy managing group of kinsmen or their advocates came into being whenever an individual or set of individuals became ill or was confronted with overwhelming problems.Footnote 57 Historical evidence from West-Central Africa suggests that therapy managing groups were meaningful in Angola throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The therapy managing group exercised a brokerage function between the sufferer and the specialist, and for many Portuguese who fell ill in Angola they undoubtedly facilitated access to local healers.
Only one of the witnesses came to confess to having actually used the services of a healer to cure his own malady. Alexandre, a free black fisherman from Luanda, told how he had once been on a business trip in Libolo, which he called ‘heathen lands’. He had hurt his leg and, being in great pain, decided to call for a local healer. The healer told Alexandre that he could not treat him before divining the cause of the illness, which he commenced to do by conducting ceremonies ‘with a pan’. The healer told Alexandre that his illness was ‘inherited from his parents’ and was called miginga in the language of the healer. However, the medicine did not have the desired effect because the pain in the leg continued to bother Alexandre. The healer was named Domingos and he was from the region of Ambaca, although Alexandre did not know the name of his village.Footnote 58
Other slaves also confessed to being present at healing ceremonies. This was the case with Gregório de Pascoal, owned by a priest named João Rodrigues da Rocha. He confessed that a neighbour named Victoria had called him to participate in the sacrifice of a goat in service to and veneration of a dead ancestor. Gregorio called the diviners in charge of the ceremony ‘Mbundu surgeons, who divine the cause of illness and other things’. He referred to Victoria as a ‘surgeon’ and a ‘master of divination’ who was consulted by many people seeking a cure for their illnesses. More than thirty people had watched the sacrifice of the goat, three of them also belonging to the same priest as Gregorio. All of them had eaten the sacrificed goat. Tellingly, Victoria’s owner was identified as Sergeant-Major Inácio Matozo de Andrade. Here, then, is another case of a Portuguese officer owning an enslaved African healer.Footnote 59
Finally, a similar sacrifice had taken place on one of the Jesuit estates in the district of Bengo. This was relayed by Matheos Sebastião, another slave of the college. He had seen how a free black healer named Paulo Cambundo, a resident in Bengo, and his diviner comrades, who lived in ‘distant lands’, had killed many chickens and a goat. They had also placed a pot over a fire. In the pot, Matheos observed blood, wild honey, red feathers and the bones of animals. Three men had danced around the fire, accompanied by musicians playing maconzas.Footnote 60 The purpose of the ceremony was to cure a sick black woman. Paulo, the master of the ceremony, invoked a spirit named Angola,Footnote 61 clearly a reference to the title Ngola, and in a ceremonial context to a former ruler’s ancestral spirit.
These denunciations point to an important feature of the popular healers’ sphere of operations in Angola in that they reveal their geographical mobility. In West-Central Africa, healers did not operate simply in their home villages but also travelled to serve their clients in different locations, perhaps enjoying considerable fame and notoriety in so doing. In the first case, the healer Thomé de Angonga lived in the presídio of Massangano, not in the vicinity of Luanda, where he was invited to heal. In the second case, the unnamed healer hired by the slaves of Antonia de Sá did not live in Luanda but came from the sertão to offer his services. Similarly, Alexandre was treated in Libolo by a healer from Ambaca. Finally, Paulo Cambundo was joined in Bengo by a number of his healer-diviner colleagues from far and wide.Footnote 62
This chapter has documented and identified the presence of several kinds of African healing specialists in West-Central Africa. Medical pluralism is a fitting term to describe the context of healing in this region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Ancient concepts related to health and illness point to widely shared and relatively unchanged therapeutic practices. There was room for many kinds of competing practitioners, from simple herbalists to powerful spiritual healers who operated in secret. Healers could specialise in the treatment of select afflictions or operate as ‘generalists’ treating a variety of maladies. Disease concepts changed slowly, but by the early nineteenth century there are indications that some Portuguese terms had been adopted to describe fevers.
From the point of view of cross-cultural medical interaction, the Portuguese shared a number of assumptions about illness causation and therapeutic practice. Among Europeans, this common ground led to widespread reliance on African healing and harming specialists. Not all medicines were beneficent, but accusations about the use of sorcery and poison occasionally emerged in the Inquisition documentation. This documentation points to the fact that even in and around Portuguese slaving ports in Luanda and Benguela, African idioms of healing remained a vibrant alternative for health seekers. In the hinterland of Luanda and presídios of the interior, African herbalists, healers and diviners were always the primary source of healing knowledge and power. The imagined powers of individual healers were made manifold by their mobility. Mobile healers offered the possibility of new cures, both spiritual and medicinal.