Fetishizing Drugs: Feitiçaria and Poison in West Central Africa, 1640-1800

Thursday Lecture Series

Early modern European visitors tended to perceive equatorial Africa as a landscape haunted by the threat of poisoning, strange fevers, demonic possession, and madness. But the flip side to this conception of a poisoned landscape was that Europeans regarded African medical practitioners as both skilled and dangerous competitors to their own physicians. This was a dynamic that passed across the Atlantic largely intact, leading to several well-studied instances of enslaved healers accused of poisoning or, conversely, lauded for their skill in formulating novel antidotes. Yet the African context has received much less attention, potentially in the Portuguese sphere. In religiously and culturally hybrid zones like coastal West Central Africa, feiticeiros (as the Portuguese called them) or “fetisheers” (as the English did) bridged the gap between spiritual and medical practice – a gap that, at any rate, was quite ambiguous even in a domestic European setting, and doubly so in the supposedly preternatural environs of the tropics.