chapter  3
20 Pages

Black Medical Practitioners and Knowledge as Cultural Capital in the Greater Caribbean

WithChelsea Berry

The accumulation and employment of knowledge was indeed the basis of power for medical practitioners of African descent in the slave societies of the Greater Caribbean. These practitioners, many of whom were enslaved, incorporated multiple sources of knowledge in their efforts to diagnose and cure illnesses. From divination to printed books, practitioners cast a wide net and built their reputations on their claims to and evidence of expertise. These practitioners were valued and feared by both planters and slaves for their skills, placing them in a relatively powerful but precarious social position. This chapter uses the 1749 cases of two free medical practitioners in Bahia as a springboard to explore knowledge as cultural capital in medical transactions. In addition to their alleged acts of healing and harm, the denouncers also described Gomes’ efforts to develop as a practitioner, from acquiring a Castilian book of spells and remedies to trips to meet with other “sorcerers” in other cities. Gomes’ pursuit of knowledge offers a window into the shared word of poison, medicine, and sorcery navigated by practitioners of African descent—and the dangers therein.