Enslaved Background Image

Stories / Domingos Álvares

Domingos Álvares

Domingos Álvares, intellectual and healer, who was born around 1710 in the Mahi region of modern-day Benin in a Vodou community. In the 1720s, Álvares witnessed the rise of the Dahomean Empire and the displacement of refugees and the death of many, including his parents. In the wake of their deaths, Álvares took over their positions in the Vodou community and garnered a large following as he developed a deep knowledge of medicines and spirit possession. His large following threatened the Dahomean King Agaja who ordered Álvares be captured and sold to Atlantic slave traders and taken to northeastern Brazil.

Upon arrival in Brazil, Álvares began working on a sugar plantation. Álvares refused to work as a cane cutter, instead returning to his work as a healer. His master refused to allow him to forgo his work in favor of his healing practices and Álvares allegedly poisoned him and his family. Álvares was jailed for this crime and eventually sold south in Rio de Janeiro. He arrived in Rio already well-known for his healing skills. Eventually, a merchant purchased Álvares as an investment and allowed him to set up a permanent healing practice. Shortly after the establishment of this practice, local priests raided his facility and chased off Álvares’ followers. Álvares himself was not present when the attack took place and went on the run when news of the attack reached him. Although on the run, Álvares opened more healing centers and established a small community of Vodou initiates comprised mainly of Africans from the Bight of Benin.
In 1742, Catholic authorities finally arrested Álvares and sent him to Lisbon where he was tried by the Portuguese Inquisition for witchcraft. Although interrogators attempted to get Álvares to admit to agreeing to entering into a pact with the devil, he refused to admit this and explained in great detail the nature of his work during the two years of his investigation. Álvares insisted that he never departed from the tenets of Roman Catholicism but the inquisitors refused to accept his explanations and he was tortured on the rack. In 1744, he was forced to march to Lisbon’s main public square and make a public confession, at which point he was punished by whipping and banished for life to Castro Marim, Portugal.
Álvares went to Castro Marim but ultimately abandoned the terms of his banishment and went on the run, working multiple jobs during this time to make ends meet. He was eventually captured by agents of the Inquisition in 1747 and held in inquisitorial jails for many years before being tried in 1749. At this time, he was exiled again and disappears from the historical record.

Read the full, original biography by James H. Sweet in The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography

View complete story (pdf)


Sweet, James H.. "Álvares, Domingos." Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography , edited by Ed. Franklin W. Knight. , edited by and Henry Louis Gates Jr.. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t456/e61 (accessed Thu Sep 05 11:04:25 EDT 2019).

Sweet, James H. Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Sweet, James H. “Mistaken Identities? Olaudah Equiano, Domingos Álvares, and the Methodological Challenges of Studying the African Diaspora.” American Historical Review 114 (2009): 279–306.

Adapted by

Elizabeth Timbs and David Glovsky

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

Map of West Africa (Guinea, the Bight of Benin, Congo)

Key Events

c. 1710

Born in Vodou community dedicated to the earth spirit Sakpata in the Mahi region of the modern-day West African nation of Benin to spiritual leaders of the community, Afnaje and Oconon.


During the rise of the Dahomean Empire, Álvares’ parents die and he takes over their position in the community. In the wake of the destruction connected to the rule of King Agaja, Álvares’ community offers refuge and comfort for many who are displaced by the violence.

c. 1729-1730

King Agaja begins to view Álvares as a threat and orders Álvares to be captured and sold by Atlantic slave traders. Álvares is taken to sugar plantations in northeastern Brazil and continues his work as a healer.

c. 1738

Álvares is jailed and sold to a planter in Rio after allegations that he poisoned his former master and his family when he was not allowed to go to the woods to collect his medicines. His new master hoped Álvares would help heal his wife who was suffering from an unknown illness. When the couple refused to let Álvares gather medicines in the woods to help her and the wife’s condition deteriorated, Álvares was turned over to the custody of the governor of Rio de Janeiro.

Mid-1730s/early 1740s

Álvares is granted property in the city by the governor and builds a community of followers, splitting the profits from his endeavors with the governor. Based on this increasing wealth and influence (and attention of the Portuguese Inquisition) the governor grants Álvares manumission. After earning his freedom, Álvares’ healing community is attacked by priests and he goes on the run, establishing other healing centers while evading the reach of the local Catholic priests.


Álvares is captured and sent to Lisbon where he is tried by the Portuguese Inquisition for witchcraft.


For his perceived crimes against Roman Catholicism, Álvares is tortured in the rack, publicly whipped and banished for life to the village of Castro Marim in southern Portugal.


Shortly after arriving in Castro Marim, Álvares abandons his banishment and travels throughout Portugal, taking odd jobs to support himself and aid in opening more healing centers. He is captured again by Inquisition authorities in 1747 and held in jail for two years before going on trial in 1749. He is exiled again to the town of Bragança in northeast Portugal.