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Divining Slavery and Freedom
The Story of Domingos Sodré, an African Priest in Nineteenth-Century Brazil


Part of New Approaches to the Americas

  • Date Published: June 2015
  • availability: In stock
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781107439092

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About the Authors
  • Since its original publication in Portuguese in 2008, this first English translation of Divining Slavery has been extensively revised and updated, complete with new primary sources and a new bibliography. It tells the story of Domingos Sodré, an African-born priest who was enslaved in Bahia, Brazil in the nineteenth century. After obtaining his freedom, Sodré became a slave owner himself, and in 1862 was arrested on suspicion of receiving stolen goods from slaves in exchange for supposed 'witchcraft'. Using this incident as a catalyst, the book discusses African religion and its place in a slave society, analyzing its double role as a refuge for blacks as well as a bridge between classes and ethnic groups (such as whites who attended African rituals and sought help from African diviners and medicine men). Ultimately, Divining Slavery explores the fluidity and relativity of conditions such as slavery and freedom, African and local religions, personal and collective experience and identities in the lives of Africans in the Brazilian diaspora.

    • Revised and updated for the English edition (utilizes new primary sources and a new bibliography)
    • Uses Sodré's life as a means of exploring the fluidity and relativity of conditions such as slavery and freedom, African and local religions, personal and collective experience and identities in the lives of Africans in the Brazilian diaspora
    • Addresses historical problems, concepts, and methods that are at the center of contemporary academic discussion
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'The main character in this book was an African born in Lagos and taken to Brazil on a slave ship; but there he obtained manumission and became owner of slaves. Although a diviner and healer, the leading figure of a candomblé house of worship, Domingos Sodré married in a Catholic church. He led a society devoted to buying the freedom of enslaved Africans; however, the organization lent money for a profit. João José Reis offers a brilliant account of the complexities of life in Atlantic slavery. This book is an instant classic.' Sidney Chalhoub, University of Campinas, Brazil

    'The preeminent historian of slavery in Brazil has given us a powerful biography, set in the context of Afro-Atlantic history and religion, masterfully revealing how a talented slave regained his freedom, after which he then earned a living as a merchant, property owner, and candomblé priest with enormous authority and influence. Drawing on a rich archive and grounded in critical historical phases, the outcome of this careful and meticulous work profoundly reshapes our thinking on nineteenth-century slave society as well as the forces that shaped the foundation of modern Brazil.' Toyin Falola, University of Texas, Austin

    'This deeply researched and beautifully written book is a masterpiece of Atlantic history and slavery studies. Few scholars would be able to accomplish such a goal. The doyen of slave studies, João José Reis's storytelling skills and analytical power are unmatchable. While painstakingly analyzing the trajectory of Domingos Sodré, an African man who made his way out of slavery to become an important religious authority in Salvador, Brazil, he provides a broad and complex painting of Brazilian religious, social, and cultural fabrics. This landmark study represents social history at its best, and it will become an indispensable reference in Atlantic history.' Roquinaldo Ferreira, Brown University, Rhode Island

    'In Divining Slavery and Freedom a complex interpretation of imperial Brazil is woven from the meticulously reconstructed life of the African-born man Domingos Sodré, a healer and diviner who made his way in Bahian society by engaging both in the 'freedom business' and in the 'slavery business'. Historians often hope to offer analytic insight while narrating an engrossing story; João José Reis has achieved this goal beautifully.' Rebecca J. Scott, University of Michigan

    'Cambridge University Press must be commended for bringing this skillfully written and translated monograph to an English-speaking audience. The deftness with which Reis, one of Brazil's best historians, traces the interconnected details of thousands of documents within many archives demonstrates this fact. His book fits within a two-decade trend among historians of nineteenth-century Brazil to explore slavery and freedom by fashioning the larger meaning of the lives of one or several individuals, most often the African freedman … This 'microhistory' of nineteenth-century slavery and African religious practices provides fine detail of the actions of Domingos Sodré, a Candomblé priest in Brazil. Reis's biography of Sodré and others in this vein shows how 'elite slaves,' to use Sandra Lauderdale Graham's term, preternaturally escaped the claws of a monstrous system. Undergraduates studying Atlantic world slavery or Brazilian history would benefit to learn why many of these exceptional escapees and former slaves bought chattel themselves. … Highly recommended.' I. W. Read, Choice

    'Readers of Divining Slavery and Freedom will also not be reading Reis's precise words, but because of the excellent translation by Sabrina Gledhill, I do think they will be hearing his 'voice.' Throughout the book, Gledhill has succeeded in retaining Reis's familiar register, which engagingly combines the authoritative with the colloquial. … the book is a pleasure to read and we can thank both Reis and Gledhill for that.' Barbara Weinstein, The American Historical Review

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    Product details

    • Date Published: June 2015
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781107439092
    • length: 370 pages
    • dimensions: 229 x 153 x 20 mm
    • weight: 0.51kg
    • contains: 55 b/w illus. 4 maps 1 table
    • availability: In stock
  • Table of Contents

    1. Cops and Candomblé in Domingos Sodré's day
    2. From an African in Onim to a slave in Bahia
    3. Domingos Sodré, diviner
    4. Witchcraft and slavery
    5. Witchcraft and manumission
    6. Meet some friends of Domingos Sodré, 7. Domingos Sodré

  • Author

    João José Reis, Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brazil
    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
    H. Sabrina Gledhill is the author of many scholarly articles, essays and book chapters, and has translated over thirty books.

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