In which the Voyager attempts cautiously to approach the subject of Fetish, and gives a classification of spirits, and some account of the Ibet and Orunda.
Having given some account of my personal experiences among an African tribe in its original state, i.e. in a state uninfluenced by European ideas and culture, I will make an attempt to give a rough sketch of the African form of thought and the difficulties of studying it, because the study of this thing is my chief motive for going to West Africa. Since 1893 I have been collecting information in its native state regarding Fetish, and I use the usual terms fetish and ju-ju because they have among us a certain fixed value — a conventional value, but a useful one. Neither “fetish” nor “ju-ju” are native words. Fetish comes from the word the old Portuguese explorers used to designate the objects they thought the natives worshipped, and in which they were wise enough to recognise a certain similarity to their own little images and relics of Saints, “Feitico.” Ju-ju, on the other hand, is French, and comes from the word for a toy or doll, 25 so it is not so applicable as the Portuguese name, for the native image is not a doll or toy, and has far more affinity to the image of a saint, inasmuch as it is not venerated for itself, or treasured because of its prettiness, but only because it is the residence, or the occasional haunt, of a spirit.
Stalking the wild West African idea is one of the most charming pursuits in the world. Quite apart from the intellectual, it has a high sporting interest; for its pursuit is as beset with difficulty and danger as grizzly bear hunting, yet the climate in which you carry on this pursuit — vile as it is — is warm, which to me is almost an essential of existence. I beg you to understand that I make no pretension to a thorough knowledge of Fetish ideas; I am only on the threshold. “Ich weiss nicht all doch viel ist mir bekannt,” as Faust said — and, like him after he had said it, I have got a lot to learn.
I do not intend here to weary you with more than a small portion of even my present knowledge, for I have great collections of facts that I keep only to compare with those of other hunters of the wild idea, and which in their present state are valueless to the cabinet ethnologist. Some of these may be rank lies, some of them mere individual mind-freaks, others have underlying them some idea I am not at present in touch with.
The difficulty of gaining a true conception of the savage’s real idea is great and varied. In places on the Coast where there is, or has been, much missionary influence the trouble is greatest, for in the first case the natives carefully conceal things they fear will bring them into derision and contempt, although they still keep them in their innermost hearts; and in the second case, you have a set of traditions which are Christian in origin, though frequently altered almost beyond recognition by being kept for years in the atmosphere of the African mind. For example, there is this beautiful story now extant among the Cabindas. God made at first all men black — He always does in the African story — and then He went across a great river and called men to follow Him, and the wisest and the bravest and the best plunged into the great river and crossed it; and the water washed them white, so they are the ancestors of the white men. But the others were afraid too much, and said, “No, we are comfortable here; we have our dances, and our tom-toms, and plenty to eat — we won’t risk it, we’ll stay here”; and they remained in the old place, and from them come the black men. But to this day the white men come to the bank, on the other side of the river, and call to the black men, saying, “Come, it is better over here.” I fear there is little doubt that this story is a modified version of some parable preached to the Cabindas at the time the Capuchins had such influence among them, before they were driven out of the lower Congo regions more than a hundred years ago, for political reasons by the Portuguese.
In the bush — where the people have been little, or not at all, in contact with European ideas — in some ways the investigation is easier; yet another set of difficulties confronts you. The difficulty that seems to occur most easily to people is the difficulty of the language. The West African languages are not difficult to pick up; nevertheless, there are an awful quantity of them and they are at the best most imperfect mediums of communication. No one who has been on the Coast can fail to recognise how inferior the native language is to the native’s mind behind it — and the prolixity and repetition he has therefore to employ to make his thoughts understood.
The great comfort is the wide diffusion of that peculiar language, “trade English”; it is not only used as a means of intercommunication between whites and blacks, but between natives using two distinct languages. On the south-west Coast you find individuals in villages far from the sea, or a trading station, who know it, and this is because they have picked it up and employ it in their dealings with the Coast tribes and travelling traders. It is by no means an easy language to pick up — it is not a farrago of bad words and broken phrases, but is a definite structure, has a great peculiarity in its verb forms, and employs no genders. There is no grammar of it out yet; and one of the best ways of learning it is to listen to a seasoned second mate regulating the unloading or loading, of cargo, over the hatch of the hold. No, my Coast friends, I have NOT forgotten — but though you did not mean it helpfully, this was one of the best hints you ever gave me.
Another good way is the careful study of examples which display the highest style and the most correct diction; so I append the letter given by Mr. Hutchinson as being about the best bit of trade English I know.
“To Daddy nah Tampin Office, —
Ha Daddy, do, yah, nah beg you tell dem people for me; make dem Sally-own pussin know. Do yah. Berrah well.
Ah lib nah Pademba Road — one bwoy lib dah oberside lakah dem two Docter lib overside you Tampin office. Berrah well.
Dah bwoy head big too much — he say nah Militie Ban — he got one long long ting so so brass, someting lib dah go flip flap, dem call am key. Berrah well. Had! Dah bwoy kin blow! — she ah! — na marin, oh! — nah sun time, oh! nah evenin, oh! — nah middle night, oh! — all same — no make pussin sleep. Not ebry bit dat, more lib da! One Boney bwoy lib oberside nah he like blow bugle. When dem two woh-woh bwoy blow dem ting de nize too much too much.
When white man blow dat ting and pussin sleep he kin tap wah make dem bwoy carn do so? Dem bwoy kin blow ebry day eben Sunday dem kin blow. When ah yerry dem blow Sunday ah wish dah bugle kin go down na dem troat or dem kin blow them head-bone inside.
Do nah beg you yah tell all dem people ‘bout dah ting wah dem two bwoy dah blow. Till am Amtrang Boboh hab febah bad. Till am titty carn sleep nah night. Dah nize go kill me two pickin, oh!
Plabba done. Good by Daddy.
Now for the elementary student we will consider this letter. The complaint in Crashey Jane’s letter is about two boys who are torturing her morning, noon, and night, Sunday and weekday, by blowing some “long long brass ting” as well as a bugle, and the way she dwells on their staying power must bring a sympathetic pang for that black sister into the heart of many a householder in London who lives next to a ladies’ school, or a family of musical tastes. “One touch of nature,” etc. “Daddy” is not a term of low familiarity but one of esteem and respect, and the “Tampin Office” is a respectful appellation for the Office of the “New Era” in which this letter was once published. “Bwoy head big too much,” means that the young man is swelled with conceit because he is connected with “Militie ban.” “Woh woh” you will find, among all the natives in the Bights, to mean extremely bad. I think it is native, having some connection with the root Wo — meaning power, etc.; but Mr. Hutchinson may be right, and it may mean “a capacity to bring double woe.”
“Amtrang Boboh” is not the name of some uncivilised savage, as the uninitiated may think; far from it. It is Bob Armstrong — upside down, and slightly altered, and refers to the Hon. Robert Armstrong, stipendiary magistrate of Sierra Leone, etc.
“Berrah well” is a phrase used whenever the native thinks he has succeeded in putting his statement well. He sort of turns round and looks at it, says “Berrah well,” in admiration of his own art, and then proceeds.
“Pickin” are children.
“Boney bwoy” is not a local living skeleton, but a native from Bonny River.
“Sally own” is Sierra Leone.
“Blow them head-bone inside” means, blow the top off their heads.
I have a collection of trade English letters and documents, for it is a language that I regard as exceedingly charming, and it really requires study, as you will see by reading Crashey Jane’s epistle without the aid of a dictionary. It is, moreover, a language that will take you unexpectedly far in Africa, and if you do not understand it, land you in some pretty situations. One important point that you must remember is that the African is logically right in his answer to such a question as “You have not cleaned this lamp?” — he says, “Yes, sah” — which means, “yes, I have not cleaned the lamp.” It does not mean a denial to your accusation; he always uses this form, and it is liable to confuse you at first, as are many other of the phrases, such as “I look him, I no see him “; this means “I have been searching for the thing but have not found it”; if he really meant he had looked upon the object but had been unable to get to it, he would say: “I look him, I no catch him,” etc.
The difficulty of the language is, however, far less than the whole set of difficulties with your own mind. Unless you can make it pliant enough to follow the African idea step by step, however much care you may take, you will not bag your game. I heard an account the other day of a representative of Her Majesty in Africa who went out for a day’s antelope shooting. There were plenty of antelope about, and he stalked them with great care; but always, just before he got within shot of the game, they saw something and bolted. Knowing he and the boy behind him had been making no sound and could not have been seen, he stalked on, but always with the same result; until happening to look round, he saw the boy behind him was supporting the dignity of the Empire at large, and this representative of it in particular, by steadfastly holding aloft the consular flag. Well, if you go hunting the African idea with the flag of your own religion or opinions floating ostentatiously over you, you will similarly get a very poor bag.
A few hints as to your mental outfit when starting on this sport may be useful. Before starting for West Africa, burn all your notions about sun-myths and worship of the elemental forces. My own opinion is you had better also burn the notion, although it is fashionable, that human beings got their first notion of the origin of the soul from dreams.
I went out with my mind full of the deductions of every book on Ethnology, German or English, that I had read during fifteen years — and being a good Cambridge person, I was particularly confident that from Mr. Frazer’s book, The Golden Bough, I had got a semi-universal key to the underlying idea of native custom and belief. But I soon found this was very far from being the case. His idea is a true key to a certain quantity of facts, but in West Africa only to a limited quantity.
I do not say, do not read Ethnology — by all means do so; and above all things read, until you know it by heart, Primitive Culture, by Dr. E. B. Tylor, regarding which book I may say that I have never found a fact that flew in the face of the carefully made, broad-minded deductions of this greatest of Ethnologists. In addition you must know your Westermarck on Human Marriage, and your Waitz Anthropologie, and your Topinard — not that you need expect to go measuring people’s skulls and chests as this last named authority expects you to do, for no self-respecting person black or white likes that sort of thing from the hands of an utter stranger, and if you attempt it you’ll get yourself disliked in West Africa. Add to this the knowledge of all A. B. Ellis’s works; Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy; Pliny’s Natural History; and as much of Aristotle as possible. If you have a good knowledge of the Greek and Latin classics, I think it would be an immense advantage; an advantage I do not possess, for my classical knowledge is scrappy, and in place of it I have a knowledge of Red Indian dogma: a dogma by the way that seems to me much nearer the African in type than Asiatic forms of dogma.
Armed with these instruments of observation, with a little industry and care you should in the mill of your mind be able to make the varied tangled rag-bag of facts that you will soon become possessed of into a paper. And then I advise you to lay the results of your collection before some great thinker and he will write upon it the opinion that his greater and clearer vision makes him more fit to form.
You may say, Why not bring home these things in their raw state? And bring them home in a raw state you must, for purposes of reference; but in this state they are of little use to a person unacquainted with the conditions which surround them in their native homes. Also very few African stories bear on one subject alone, and they hardly ever stick to a point. Take this Fernando Po legend. Winwood Reade (Savage Africa, p. 62) gives it, and he says he heard it twice. I have heard it, in variants, four times — once on Fernando Po, once in Calabar and twice in Gaboon. So it is evidently an old story:—
“The first man called all people to one place. His name was Raychow. ‘Hear this, my people’ said he, ‘I am going to give a name to every place, I am King in this River.’ One day he came with his people to the Hole of Wonga Wonga, which is a deep pit in the ground from which fire comes at night. Men spoke to them from the Hole, but they could not see them. Raychow said to his son, ‘Go down into the Hole’ — and his son went. The son of the King of the Hole came to him and defied him to a contest of throwing the spear. If he lost he should be killed, if he won he should go back in safety. He won — then the son of the King of the Hole said, ‘It is strange you should have won, for I am a spirit. Ask whatever you wish,’ and the King’s son asked for a remedy for every disease he could remember; and the spirit gave him the medicines, and when he had done so, he said, ‘There is one sickness you have forgotten — it is the Krawkraw, and of that you shall die.’
“A tribe named Ndiva was then strong but now none remain (Winwood Reade says four remain). They gave Raychow’s son a canoe and forty men, to take him back to his father’s town, and when he saw his father he did not speak. His father said, ‘My son, if you are hungry eat.’ He did not answer, and his father said, ‘Do you wish me to kill a goat?’ He did not answer; his father said, ‘Do you wish me to give you new wives?’ He did not answer. Then his father said, ‘Do you want me to build you a fetish hut?’ Then he answered, ‘Yes,’ and the hut was built, and the medicines he had brought back from the Hole were put into it.
“‘Now,’ said the son of King Raychow, ‘I go to make Moondah enter the Orongo’ (Gaboon); so he went and dug a canal and when this was finished all his men were dead. Then he said, ‘I will go and kill river-horse in the Benito.’ He killed four, and as he was killing the fifth, the people descended from the mountains against him. So he made fetish on his great war-spear and sang
My spear, go kill these people,
Or these people will kill me;
and the spear went and killed the people, except a few who got into canoes and flew to Fernando Po. Then said their King, ‘My people shall never wear cloth till we have conquered the M’pongwe,’ and to this day the Fernando Poians go naked and hate with a special hatred the M’pongwe.”
Now this is a noble story — there is a lot of fine confused feeding in it, as the Scotchman said of boiled sheep’s head.
You learn from it —
A. The name of the first man, and also that he was filled with a desire for topographical nomenclature.
B. You hear of the Hole Wonga Wonga, and this is most interesting because to this day, apart from the story, you are told by the natives of a hole that emits fire, and Dr. Nassau says it is always said to be north of Gaboon; but so far no white man has any knowledge of an active volcano there, although the district is of volcanic origin. The crater of Fernando Po may be referred to in the legend because of the king’s son being sent home in a canoe; but I do not think it is, because the Hole is known not to be Fernando Po, and it has got, according to local tradition, a river running from it or close to it.
C. The kraw-kraw is a frightfully prevalent disease; no one has a remedy for it, presumably owing to Raychow’s son’s forgetfulness.
D. The silence of the son to the questions is remarkable, because you always find people who have been among spirits lose their power of asking for what they want, for a time, and can only answer to the right question.
E. The sudden way in which Raychow’s son gets fired with the desire to turn civil engineer just when he has got a magnificent opening in life as a doctor is merely the usual flightiness of young men, who do not see where their true advantages lie — and the conduct of the men in dying, after digging a canal is normal, and modern experiences support it, for men who dig canals down in West Africa die plentifully, be they black, white, or yellow; so you can’t help believing in those men, although it is strange a black man should have been so enterprising as to go in for canal digging at all. There is no other case of it extant to my knowledge, and a remarkable fact is, that the Moondah does so nearly connect, by one creek, with the Gaboon estuary that you can drag a boat across the little intervening bit of land.
F. Is a sporting story that turns up a little unexpectedly, certainly; but the Benito is within easy distance north of the Moondah, so the geography is all right.
G. The inhabitants of Fernando Po have still an especial hatred for the M’pongwe, and both they and the M’pongwe have this account of the one tribe driving the other off the mainland. Then the Bubis26 — as the inhabitants on Fernando Po are called, from a confusion arising in the minds of the sailors calling at Fernando Po, between their stupidity and their word Babi = stranger, which they use as a word of greeting — these Bubis are undoubtedly a very early African race. Their culture, though presenting some remarkable points, is on the whole exceedingly low. They never wear clothes unless compelled to, and their language depends so much on gesture that they cannot talk in it to each other in the dark.
I give this as a sample of African stories. It is far more connected and keeps to the point in a far more business-like way than most of them. They are of great interest when you know the locality and the tribe they come from; but I am sure if you were to bring home a heap of stories like this, and empty them over any distinguished ethnologist’s head, without ticketing them with the culture of the tribe they belonged to, the conditions it lives under, and so forth, you would stun him with the seeming inter-contradiction of some, and utter pointlessness of the rest, and he would give up ethnology and hurriedly devote his remaining years to the attempt to collect a million postage stamps, so as to do something definite before he died. Remember, you must always have your original material — carefully noted down at the time of occurrence — with you, so that you may say in answer to his Why? Because of this, and this, and this.
However good may be the outfit for your work that you take with you, you will have, at first, great difficulty in realising that it is possible for the people you are among really to believe things in the way they do. And you cannot associate with them long before you must recognise that these Africans have often a remarkable mental acuteness and a large share of common sense; that there is nothing really “child-like” in their form of mind at all. Observe them further and you will find they are not a flighty-minded, mystical set of people in the least. They are not dreamers, or poets, and you will observe, and I hope observe closely — for to my mind this is the most important difference between their make of mind and our own — that they are notably deficient in all mechanical arts: they have never made, unless under white direction and instruction, a single fourteenth-rate piece of cloth, pottery, a tool or machine, house, road, bridge, picture or statue; that a written language of their own construction they none of them possess. A careful study of the things a man, black or white, fails to do, whether for good or evil, usually gives you a truer knowledge of the man than the things he succeeds in doing. When you fully realise this acuteness on one hand and this mechanical incapacity on the other which exist in the people you are studying, you can go ahead. Only, I beseech you, go ahead carefully. When you have found the easy key that opens the reason underlying a series of facts, as for example, these: a Benga spits on your hand as a greeting; you see a man who has been marching regardless through the broiling sun all the forenoon, with a heavy load, on entering a village and having put down his load, elaborately steal round in the shelter of the houses, instead of crossing the street; you come across a tribe that cuts its dead up into small pieces and scatters them broadcast, and another tribe that thinks a white man’s eye-ball is a most desirable thing to be possessed of — do not, when you have found this key, drop your collecting work, and go home with a shriek of “I know all about Fetish,” because you don’t, for the key to the above facts will not open the reason why it is regarded advisable to kill a person who is making Ikung; or why you should avoid at night a cotton tree that has red earth at its roots; or why combings of hair and paring of nails should be taken care of; or why a speck of blood that may fall from your flesh should be cut out of wood — if it has fallen on that--and destroyed, and if it has fallen on the ground stamped and rubbed into the soil with great care. This set requires another key entirely.
I must warn you also that your own mind requires protection when you send it stalking the savage idea through the tangled forests, the dark caves, the swamps and the fogs of the Ethiopian intellect. The best protection lies in recognising the untrustworthiness of human evidence regarding the unseen, and also the seen, when it is viewed by a person who has in his mind an explanation of the phenomenon before it occurs. The truth is, the study of natural phenomena knocks the bottom out of any man’s conceit if it is done honestly and not by selecting only those facts that fit in with his preconceived or ingrafted notions. And, to my mind, the wisest way is to get into the state of mind of an old marine engineer who oils and sees that every screw and bolt of his engines is clean and well watched, and who loves them as living things, caressing and scolding them himself, defending them, with stormy language, against the aspersions of the silly, uninformed outside world, which persists in regarding them as mere machines, a thing his superior intelligence and experience knows they are not. Even animistic-minded I got awfully sat upon the other day in Cameroon by a superior but kindred spirit, in the form of a First Engineer. I had thoughtlessly repeated some scandalous gossip against the character of a naphtha launch in the river. “Stuff!” said he furiously; “she’s all right, and she’d go from June to January if those blithering fools would let her alone.” Of course I apologised.
The religious ideas of the Negroes, i.e. the West Africans in the district from the Gambia to the Cameroon region, say roughly to the Rio del Rey (for the Bakwiri appear to have more of the Bantu form of idea than the negro, although physically they seem nearer the latter), differ very considerably from the religious ideas of the Bantu South–West Coast tribes. The Bantu is vague on religious subjects; he gives one accustomed to the Negro the impression that he once had the same set of ideas, but has forgotten half of them, and those that he possesses have not got that hold on him that the corresponding or super-imposed Christian ideas have over the true Negro; although he is quite as keen on the subject of witchcraft, and his witchcraft differs far less from the witchcraft of the Negro than his religious ideas do.
The god, in the sense we use the word, is in essence the same in all of the Bantu tribes I have met with on the Coast: a non-interfering and therefore a negligible quantity. He varies his name: Anzambi, Anyambi, Nyambi, Nzambi, Anzam, Nyam, Ukuku, Suku, and Nzam, but a better investigation shows that Nzam of the Fans is practically identical with Suku south of the Congo in the Bihe country, and so on.
They regard their god as the creator of man, plants, animals, and the earth, and they hold that having made them, he takes no further interest in the affair. But not so the crowd of spirits with which the universe is peopled, they take only too much interest and the Bantu wishes they would not and is perpetually saying so in his prayers, a large percentage whereof amounts to “Go away, we don’t want you.” “Come not into this house, this village, or its plantations.” He knows from experience that the spirits pay little heed to these objurgations, and as they are the people who must be attended to, he develops a cult whereby they may be managed, used, and understood. This cult is what we call witchcraft.
As I am not here writing a complete work on Fetish I will leave Nzam on one side, and turn to the inferior spirits. These are almost all malevolent; sometimes they can be coaxed into having creditable feelings, like generosity and gratitude, but you can never trust them. No, not even if you are yourself a well-established medicine man. Indeed they are particularly dangerous to medicine men, just as lions are to lion tamers, and many a professional gentleman in the full bloom of his practice, gets eaten up by his own particular familiar which he has to keep in his own inside whenever he has not sent it off into other people’s.
I am indebted to the Reverend Doctor Nassau for a great quantity of valuable information regarding Bantu religious ideas — information which no one is so competent to give as he, for no one else knows the West Coast Bantu tribes with the same thoroughness and sympathy. He has lived among them since 1851, and is perfectly conversant with their languages and culture, and he brings to bear upon the study of them a singularly clear, powerful, and highly-educated intelligence.
I shall therefore carefully ticket the information I have derived from him, so that it may not be mixed with my own. I may be wrong in my deductions, but Dr. Nassau’s are above suspicion.
He says the origin of these spirits is vague — some of them come into existence by the authority of Anzam (by which you will understand, please, the same god I have quoted above as having many names), others are self-existent — many are distinctly the souls of departed human beings, “which in the future which is all around them” retain their human wants and feelings, and the Doctor assures me he has heard dying people with their last breath threatening to return as spirits to revenge themselves upon their living enemies. He could not tell me if there was any duration set upon the existence as spirits of these human souls, but two Congo Francais natives, of different tribes, Benga and Igalwa, told me that when a family had quite died out, after a time its spirits died too. Some, but by no means all, of these spirits of human origin, as is the case among the Negro Effiks, undergo reincarnation. The Doctor told me he once knew a man whose plantations were devastated by an elephant. He advised that the beast should be shot, but the man said he dare not because the spirit of his dead father had passed into the elephant.
Their number is infinite and their powers as varied as human imagination can make them; classifying them is therefore a difficult work, but Doctor Nassau thinks this may be done fairly completely into:—
1. Human disembodied spirits — Manu.
2. Vague beings, well described by our word ghosts: Abambo.
3. Beings something like dryads, who resent intrusion into their territory, on to their rock, past their promontory, or tree. When passing the residence of one of these beings, the traveller must go by silently, or with some cabalistic invocation, with bowed or bared head, and deposit some symbol of an offering or tribute even if it be only a pebble. You occasionally come across great trees that have fallen across a path that have quite little heaps of pebbles, small shells, etc., upon them deposited by previous passers-by. This class is called Ombwiri.
4. Beings who are the agents in causing sickness, and either aid or hinder human plans — Mionde.
5. There seems to be, the Doctor says, another class of spirits somewhat akin to the ancient Lares and Penates, who especially belong to the household, and descend by inheritance with the family. In their honour are secretly kept a bundle of finger, or other bones, nail-clippings, eyes, brains, skulls, particularly the lower jaws, called in M’pongwe oginga, accumulated from deceased members of successive generations.
Dr. Nassau says “secretly,” and he refers to this custom being existent in non-cannibal tribes. I saw bundles of this character among the cannibal Fans, and among the non-cannibal Adooma, openly hanging up in the thatch of the sleeping apartment.
6. He also says there may be a sixth class, which may, however only be a function of any of the other classes — namely, those that enter into any animal body, generally a leopard. Sometimes the spirits of living human beings do this, and the animal is then guided by human intelligence, and will exercise its strength for the purposes of its temporary human possessor. In other cases it is a non-human soul that enters into the animal, as in the case of Ukuku.
Spirits are not easily classified by their functions because those of different class may be employed in identical undertakings. Thus one witch doctor may have, I find, particular influence over one class of spirit and another over another class; yet they will both engage to do identical work. But in spite of this I do not see how you can classify spirits otherwise than by their functions; you cannot weigh and measure them, and it is only a few that show themselves in corporeal form.
There are characteristics that all the authorities seem agreed on, and one is that individual spirits in the same class vary in power: some are strong of their sort, some weak.
They are all to a certain extent limited in the nature of their power; there is no one spirit that can do all things; their efficiency only runs in certain lines of action and all of them are capable of being influenced, and made subservient to human wishes, by proper incantations. This latter characteristic is of course to human advantage, but it has its disadvantages, for you can never really trust a spirit, even if you have paid a considerable sum to a most distinguished medicine man to get a powerful one put up in a ju-ju, or monde, 27 as it is called in several tribes.
The method of making these charms is much the same among Bantu and Negroes: I have elsewhere described the Gold Coast method, so here confine myself to the Bantu. This similarity of procedure naturally arises from the same underlying idea existing in the two races.
You call in the medicine man, the “oganga,” as he is commonly called in Congo Francais tribes. After a variety of ceremonies and processes, the spirit is induced to localise itself in some object subject to the will of the possessor. The things most frequently used are antelopes’ horns, the large snail-shells, and large nutshells, according to Doctor Nassau. Among the Fan I found the most frequent charm-case was in the shape of a little sausage, made very neatly of pineapple fibre, the contents being the residence of the spirit or power, and the outside coloured red to flatter and please him — for spirits always like red because it is like blood.
The substance put inside charms is all manner of nastiness, usually on the sea coast having a high percentage of fowl dung.
The nature of the substance depends on the spirit it is intended to be attractive to — attractive enough to induce it to leave its present abode and come and reside in the charm.
In addition to this attractive substance I find there are other materials inserted which have relation towards the work the spirit will be wanted to do for its owner. For example, charms made either to influence a person to be well disposed towards the owner, or the still larger class made with intent to work evil on other human beings against whom the owner has a grudge, must have in them some portion of the person to be dealt with — his hair, blood, nail-parings, etc. — or, failing that, his or her most intimate belonging, something that has got his smell in — a piece of his old waist-cloth for example.
This ability to obtain power over people by means of their blood, hair, nails, etc., is universally diffused; you will find it down in Devon, and away in far Cathay, and the Chinese, I am told, have in some parts of their empire little ovens to burn their nail — and hair-clippings in. The fear of these latter belongings falling into the hands of evilly-disposed persons is ever present to the West Africans. The Igalwa and other tribes will allow no one but a trusted friend to do their hair, and bits of nails and hair are carefully burnt or thrown away into a river; and blood, even that from a small cut or a fit of nose-bleeding, is most carefully covered up and stamped out if it has fallen on the earth. The underlying idea regarding blood is of course the old one that the blood is the life.
The life in Africa means a spirit, hence the liberated blood is the liberated spirit, and liberated spirits are always whipping into people who do not want them.
Charms are made for every occupation and desire in life — loving, hating, buying, selling, fishing, planting, travelling, hunting, etc., and although they are usually in the form of things filled with a mixture in which the spirit nestles, yet there are other kinds; for example, a great love charm is made of the water the lover has washed in, and this, mingled with the drink of the loved one, is held to soften the hardest heart.
Some kinds of charms, such as those to prevent your getting drowned, shot, seen by elephants, etc., are worn on a bracelet or necklace. A new-born child starts with a health-knot tied round the wrist, neck, or loins, and throughout the rest of its life its collection of charms goes on increasing. This collection does not, however, attain inconvenient dimensions, owing to the failure of some of the charms to work.
That is the worst of charms and prayers. The thing you wish of them may, and frequently does, happen in a strikingly direct way, but other times it does not. In Africa this is held to arise from the bad character of the spirits; their gross ingratitude and fickleness. You may have taken every care of a spirit for years, given it food and other offerings that you wanted for yourself, wrapped it up in your cloth on chilly nights and gone cold, put it in the only dry spot in the canoe, and so on, and yet after all this, the wretched thing will be capable of being got at by your rival or enemy and lured away, leaving you only the case it once lived in.
Finding, we will say, that you have been upset and half-drowned, and your canoe-load of goods lost three times in a week, that your paddles are always breaking, and the amount of snags in the river and so on is abnormal, you judge that your canoe-charm has stopped. Then you go to the medicine man who supplied you with it and complain. He says it was a perfectly good charm when he sold it you and he never had any complaints before, but he will investigate the affair; when he has done so, he either says the spirit has been lured away from the home he prepared for it by incantations and presents from other people, or that he finds the spirit is dead; it has been killed by a more powerful spirit of its class, which is in the pay of some enemy of yours. In all cases the little thing you kept the spirit in is no use now, and only fit to sell to a white man as “a big curio!” and the sooner you let him have sufficient money to procure you a fresh and still more powerful spirit — necessarily more expensive — the safer it will be for you, particularly as your misfortunes distinctly point to some one being desirous of your death. You of course grumble, but seeing the thing in his light you pay up, and the medicine man goes busily to work with incantations, dances, looking into mirrors or basins of still water, and concoctions of messes to make you a new protecting charm.
Human eye-balls, particularly of white men, I have already said are a great charm. Dr. Nassau says he has known graves rifled for them. This, I fancy, is to secure the “man that lives in your eyes” for the service of the village, and naturally the white man, being regarded as a superior being, would be of high value if enlisted into its service. A similar idea of the possibility of gaining possession of the spirit of a dead man obtains among the Negroes, and the heads of important chiefs in the Calabar districts are usually cut off from the body on burial and kept secretly for fear the head, and thereby the spirit, of the dead chief, should be stolen from the town. If it were stolen it would be not only a great advantage to its new possessor, but a great danger to the chief’s old town; because he would know all the peculiar ju-ju relating to it. For each town has a peculiar one, kept exceedingly secret, in addition to the general ju-jus, and this secret one would then be in the hands of the new owners of the spirit. It is for similar reasons that brave General MacCarthy’s head was treasured by the Ashantees, and so on.
Charms are not all worn upon the body, some go to the plantations, and are hung there, ensuring an unhappy and swift end for the thief who comes stealing. Some are hung round the bows of the canoe, others over the doorway of the house, to prevent evil spirits from coming in — a sort of tame watch-dog spirits.
The entrances to the long street-shaped villages are frequently closed with a fence of saplings and this sapling fence you will see hung with fetish charms to prevent evil spirits from entering the village and sometimes in addition to charms you will see the fence wreathed with leaves and flowers. Bells are frequently hung on these fences, but I do not fancy ever for fetish reasons. At Ndorko, on the Rembwe, there were many guards against spirit visitors, but the bell, which was carefully hung so that you could not pass through the gateway without ringing it, was a guard against thieves and human enemies only.
Frequently a sapling is tied horizontally near the ground across the entrance. Dr. Nassau could not tell me why, but says it must never be trodden on. When the smallpox, a dire pestilence in these regions, is raging, or when there is war, these gateways are sprinkled with the blood of sacrifices, and for these sacrifices and for the payments of heavy blood fines, etc., goats and sheep are kept. They are rarely eaten for ordinary purposes, and these West Coast Africans have all a perfect horror of the idea of drinking milk, holding this custom to be a filthy habit, and saying so in unmitigated language.
The villagers eat the meat of the sacrifice, that having nothing to do with the sacrifice to the spirits, which is the blood, for the blood is the life. 28
Beside the few spirits that the Bantu regards himself as having got under control in his charms, he has to worship the uncontrolled army of the air. This he does by sacrifice and incantation.
The sacrifice is the usual killing of something valuable as an offering to the spirits. The value of the offering in these S.W. Coast regions has certainly a regular relationship to the value of the favour required of the spirits. Some favours are worth a dish of plantains, some a fowl, some a goat and some a human being, though human sacrifice is very rare in Congo Francais, the killing of people being nine times in ten a witchcraft palaver.
Dr. Nassau, however, says that “the intention of the giver ennobles the gift,” the spirit being supposed, in some vague way, to be gratified by the recognition of itself, and even sometimes pleased with the homage of the mere simulacrum of a gift. I believe the only class of spirits that have this convenient idea are the Imbwiri; thus the stones heaped by passers-by on the foot of some great tree, or rock, or the leaf cast from a passing canoe towards a promontory on the river, etc., although intrinsically valueless and useless to the Ombwiri nevertheless gratify him. It is a sort of bow or taking off one’s hat to him. Some gifts, the Doctor says, are supposed to be actually utilised by the spirit.
In some part of the long single street of most villages there is built a low hut in which charms are hung, and by which grows a consecrated plant, a lily, a euphorbia, or a fig. In some tribes a rudely carved figure, generally female, is set up as an idol before which offerings are laid. I saw at Egaja two figures about 2 feet 6 inches high, in the house placed at my disposal. They were left in it during my occupation, save that the rolls of cloth (their power) which were round their necks, were removed by the owner chief; of the significance of these rolls I will speak elsewhere.
Incantations may be divided into two classes, supplications analogous to our idea of prayers, and certain cabalistic words and phrases. The supplications are addresses to the higher spirits. Some are made even to Anzam himself, but the spirit of the new moon is that most commonly addressed to keep the lower spirits from molesting.
Dr. Nassau gave me many instances out of the wealth of his knowledge. One night when he was stopping at a village, he saw standing out in the open street a venerable chief who addressed the spirits of the air and begged them, “Come ye not into my town;” he then recounted his good deeds, praising himself as good, just, honest, kind to his neighbours, and so on. I must remark that this man had not been in touch with Europeans, so his ideal of goodness was the native one — which you will find everywhere among the most remote West Coast natives. He urged these things as a reason why no evil should befall him, and closed with an impassioned appeal to the spirits to stay away. At another time, in another village, when a man’s son had been wounded and a bleeding artery which the Doctor had closed had broken out again and the haemorrhage seemed likely to prove fatal, the father rushed out into the street wildly gesticulating towards the sky, saying, “Go away, go away, go away, ye spirits, why do you come to kill my son?” In another case a woman rushed into the street, alternately objurgating and pleading with the spirits, who, she said, were vexing her child which had convulsions. “Observe,” said the Doctor in his impressive way, “these were distinctly prayers, appeals for mercy, agonising protests, but there was no praise, no love, no thanks, no confession of sin.” I said, considering the underlying idea, I did not see how that could be, thinking of the thing as they did, and the Doctor and I had one of our little disagreements. I shall always feel grateful to him for his great toleration of me, but I am sure this arose from his feeling that I saw there was an underlying idea in the minds of the people he loved well enough to lay down his life for in the hope of benefiting and ennobling them, and that I did not, as many do, set them down as idiotic brutes, glorying in an aimless cruelty that would be a disgrace to a devil.
Regarding the cabalistic words and phrases, things which had long given me great trouble to get any comprehension of, the Doctor gave me great help. He says some of these phrases and words are coined by the person himself, others are archaisms handed down from ancestors and believed to possess an efficacy, though their actual meaning is forgotten. He says they are used at any time as defence from evil, when a person is startled, sneezes, or stumbles. Among these I think I ought to class that peculiar form of friendly farewell or greeting which the Doctor poetically calls a “blown blessing” and the natives Ibata. I thought the three times it was given to me that it was just spitting on the hand. Practically it is so, but the Doctor says the spitting is accidental, a by-product I suppose. The method consists in taking the right hand in both yours, turning it palm upwards, bending your head low over it, and saying with great energy and a violent propulsion of the breath, Ibata.
Idols are comparatively rare in Congo Francais, but where they are used the people have the same idea about them as the true Negroes have, namely, that they are things which spirits reside in, or haunt, but not in their corporeal nature adorable. The resident spirit in them and in the charms and plants, which are also regarded as residences of spirits, has to be placated with offerings of food and other sacrifices. You will see in the Fetish huts above mentioned dishes of plantain and fish left till they rot. Dr. Nassau says the life or essence of the food only is eaten by the spirit, the form of the vegetable or flesh being left to be removed when its life is gone out.
In cases of emergency a fowl with its blood is laid at the door of the Fetish hut, or when pestilence is expected, or an attack by enemies, or a great man or woman is very ill, goats and sheep are sacrificed and the blood put in the Fetish hut as well as on the gateways of the village. These sacrifices among the Fan are made with a very peculiar-shaped knife, a fine specimen of which I secured by the kindness of Captain Davies; it is shaped like the head of a hornbill and is quite unlike the knives in common use among the tribes, which are either long, leaf-shaped blades sharpened along both edges, or broad, trowel-shaped, almost triangular daggers. All Fan knives are fine weapons, superior to the knives of all other Coast tribes I have met with, but the sacrifice knife is distinctly peculiar. I found to my great interest the same superstition in Congo Francais that I met with first in the Oil Rivers. Its meaning I am unable to fully account for, but I believe it to be a form of sacrifice. In Calabar each individual has a certain forbidden thing or things. These things are either forms of food, or the method of eating. In Calabar this prohibition is called Ibet, and when, in consequence of the influence of white culture, a man gives up his Ibet, he is regarded by good sound ju-juists as leading an irregular and dissipated life, and even the unintentional breaking of the Ibet is regarded as very dangerous. Special days are set apart by each individual; on these days he eats only the smallest quantity and plainest quality of food. No one must eat with him, nor any dog, fowl, etc., feed off the crumbs, nor any one watch him while eating. I suspect on this day the Ibet is eaten, but I have not verified this, only getting, from an untrustworthy source, a statement that supported it.
Dr. Nassau told me that among Congo Francais tribes certain rites are performed for children during infancy or youth, in which a prohibition is laid upon the child as regards the eating of some particular article of food, or the doing of certain acts. “It is difficult,” he said, “to get the exact object of the ‘Orunda.’ Certainly the prohibited article is not in itself evil, for others but the inhibited individual may eat or do with it as they please. Most of the natives blindly follow the custom of their ancestors without being able to give any raison d’etre, but again, from those best able to give a reason, you learn the prohibited article is a sacrifice ordained for the child by its parents and the magic doctor as a gift to the governing spirit of its life. The thing prohibited becomes removed from the child’s common use, and is made sacred to the spirit. Any use of it by the child or man would therefore be a sin, which would bring down the spirit’s wrath in the form of sickness or other evil, which can be atoned for only by expensive ceremonies or gifts to the magic doctor who intercedes for the offender.”
Anything may be an Orunda or Ibet provided only that it is connected with food; I have been able to find no definite ground for the selection of it. The Doctor said, for example, that “once when on a boat journey, and camped in the forest for the noon-day meal, the crew of four had no meat. They needed it. I had a chicken but ate only a portion, and gave the rest to the crew. Three men ate it with their manioc meal, the fourth would not touch it. It was his Orunda.” “On another journey,” said the Doctor, “instead of all my crew leaving me respectfully alone in the canoe to have my lunch and going ashore to have theirs, one of them stayed behind in the canoe, and I found his Orunda was only to eat over water when on a journey by water.” “At another place, a chief at whose village we once anchored in a small steamer when a glass of rum was given him, had a piece of cloth held up before his mouth that the people might not see him drink, which was his Orunda.”
I know some ethnologists will think this last case should be classed under another head, but I think the Doctor is right. He is well aware of the existence of the other class of prohibitions regarding chiefs and I have seen plenty of chiefs myself up the Rembwe who have no objection to take their drinks coram publico, and I have no doubt this was only an individual Orunda of this particular Rembwe chief.
Great care is requisite in these matters, because a man may do or abstain from doing one and the same thing for divers reasons.
25 It is held by some authorities to come from gru-gru, a Mandingo word for charm, but I respectfully question whether gru-gru has not come from ju-ju, the native approximation to the French joujou.
26 The proper way to spell this name is booby, i.e. silly, but as Bubi is the accepted spelling, I bow to authority.
27 This article has different names in different tribes; thus it is called a bian among the Fan, a tarwiz, gree-gree, etc., on other parts of the Coast.
28 Care must be taken not to confuse with sacrifices (propitiations of spirits) the killing of men and animals as offerings to the souls of deceased persons.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10