Weapons in Context
Weapons and Society
Weapons and Warfare
History and the 'Ethnographic Present'
Earth and Fire: Iron Technology and the Blacksmith
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(pp 9-19; references given by Spring are fully cited in the bibliography)
This book is primarily intended as a celebration of African artistry and ingenuity. It also attempts to show the way in which arms and armour are incorporated into the complex material systems which express the structure of non-industrialised societies. The book takes as its subject a particular category of artefact which may not conform to Western preconceptions of what constitutes African art, but this should not be allowed to detract from our appreciation. Furthermore, the creativity which has gone into the production of African arms and armour must not be obscured by the fact that these artefacts are often used in a context which attests to man's most negative and destructive cultural proclivity. At the risk of playing devil's advocate, I believe that to underrate the significance of these artefacts within the societies which produced them would be to overlook a whole range of human endeavour and activity.
Weapons and Society
It is difficult both to detect and to analyse the concept of aesthetic appreciation in societies which do not appear to have a perception of 'art' as we in the West understand it. However, there is some evidence to suggest that there is a considerable difference between the type of object which might be considered of aesthetic significance in an African as opposed to a Western context. As Vaughan (1973) has pointed out, the Marghi of Northern Nigeria 'do not consider rock paintings or calabash decorations fitting topics for artistic activity, while they do view weapons as products which are worthy of an aesthetic appreciation'.
One can point to other examples, such as that of the Azande and Mangbetu of northeast Zaire, where the tradition of figurative carving and pottery appears to have been largely inspired by the taste for such work shown by the first Europeans to visit that part of Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Before that time non figurative metalwork, particularly weaponry, may well have been of supreme significance in many social as well as military contexts. The potency of at least one aspect of metalwork was reduced by the power of the firearms the Europeans carried, and it may well be significant that some of the earliest examples of figurative carving appeared on the hilts of iron weapons, perhaps as a tacit acknowledgement of changing values and power structures.
In his analysis of Marghi aesthetics Vaughan goes on to suggest that 'were this view carried far enough it could revolutionize our museums of primitive art and material culture. But more to the point it could seriously alter most of our studies of art in the non-literate societies.' This is, perhaps, overstating the case, but nonetheless it would be unwise to ignore Vaughan's observations, especially in relation to this book.
If our aesthetic appreciation of African arms and armour demand that we re-evaluate the strictures of a few scholars and dealers who have arbitrarily defined the parameters of African art, we must similarly rid ourselves of Western preconceptions of the functions of weapons and the contexts in which they are used. Furthermore, any such reappraisal must consider the varying relationship between women and weaponry in Africa which is frequently overlooked. For example, in the kingdom of Dahomey the elite of the army was for a long period composed of women, the famous regiments of Amazons, and among the Teda of the Tibesti region of the Sahara, a variety of weaponry is made especially for use by women (Lopatinsky 1968). By contrast, many central African peoples believe that except on a few designated occasions, women should not be associated with iron or its production. To do so could render a woman barren and destroy the power of the iron products with which she comes into contact.
African weaponry has always had a non-utilitarian significance which is expressed in a wide variety of adapted forms developed for use in political, religious or other ritual and ceremonial contexts. A study of the embellishment of arms and armour can provide a fascinating insight into societies in which, for example, the distinction between 'military' and 'civilian' life is not so obvious as it is in the West. The sword ornaments of the Asante, the complex engravings on Ingessana throwing knives and the Maasai warrior's curriculum vitae emblazoned on his shield all reveal far more about the societies which produced these objects than simply how they intended to make war.
The terms 'parade weapon' or 'prestige weapon' are sometimes used to describe apparently non-utilitarian artefacts whose precise function or significance remains unclear. In African studies 'prestige' is a rather nebulous word, though frequently used to describe a variety of attributes and qualities inherent in a particular person, a number of which may be hard to define in Western terms. Material objects may be an expression of their owner's prestige in society, though their precise significance may not always be obvious and may perhaps never be fully understood. For example among the Bushoong, the ruling group of the Kuba people of southern Zaire, the right to wear an eagle's feather was reserved to chiefs of the royal lineage, whereas the carrying and use of certain weapons, while certainly a significant act, cannot always be so easily defined (see Chapter 5). However, it is clear that functional weaponry confers this quality of 'prestige', just as non-utilitarian 'parade' weapon retains sufficient suggestion of a deadly potential to add to its significance as a prestigious artefact. A hard and fast distinction between the two may therefore be misleading.
Weapons and Warfare
Even within a specifically military context, an African weapon must usually be perceived as a part of a highly complex system of interdependent actions and beliefs from which it is quite inseparable. In common with certain types of wood sculpture, some weapons may only be empowered by the application of magical substances. No matter how thick the hide of a shield or well-tempered the blade of a sword, both may be considered incomplete without the symbolic designs and devices applied to them. Accessories may also be of great importance and must be given equal recognition with the weapons to which they relate. A sword cannot be considered without its sheath, sword belt or baldric.
A whole range of magical charms, both offensive and defensive, may be employed together with a variety of rituals preceding and following any military campaign. Sound may also be a potent weapon: the blowing of horns, the clatter of spear on shield, the discharge of gunpowder, the chanting of spells and propaganda slogans. These magico-religious and other types of weaponry are a legitimate subject for discussion. Without some analysis of them it would be impossible to discuss more 'conventional' African arms and armour in any meaningful way.
History and the 'Ethnographic Present'
In any study of African material culture it is important to establish a historical perspective which dispels the notion of the 'ethnographic present', that mythical pre-colonial period on the eve of contact with Western civilization in which all of Africa is imagined to have been going about the 'traditional' life it had pursued, unchanged, for millennia. The colonial episode is so close, particularly in South Africa, that its exaggerated significance and impact has tended to overwhelm a rational perspective of African history, which, in reality, is as long, complex and turbulent as that of any other part of the world. For example, the support for 'folk life traditions' and the creation of 'homelands' in which separate, ethnically distinctive material cultures could supposedly flourish, forms part of the background against which apartheid was established. In this context the possession of 'cultural weapons' could be justified both by the Zulu who carried them and by the white South African regime. The tacit permission granted by the authorities to Inkatha members to carry knobkerries and assegais does not necessarily spring from any liberal inclinations towards Zulu 'traditional life'. To some it looks little more than a thinly disguised incitement to violence against the government's political opponents, a cynical exploitation of a people's heritage for political ends. Yet this subtle manipulation of Zulu militancy by the white authorities - if such it be - has been practised since the beginning of the nineteenth century. The intention then, as today, was to recreate an idea of a turbulent, pre-colonial period of African history into which the white man restored calm and order. Turbulent it certainly was, but the dynamic period of socio-political change which took place in South Africa during the first half of the nineteenth century was no different to the political and military upheavals which have taken place in the West throughout the twentieth century.
Although the myth of the nineteenth century discovery of Africa still lingers in the popular imagination, 'contact' had progressively been made for thousands of years before the colonial period, not just with Europe but also with the Middle East, the Orient and within Africa itself. In the process Africa had developed a dynamic, adaptable and resilient artistic tradition. Europeans are right to be ashamed of many aspects of colonialism, but it is equally an immense arrogance to assume that although African art may enrich our own artistic traditions, it is in itself so fragile as to be irrevocably tainted by exposure not only to Western commercialism and technology, but also the ethos of European 'fine art', both in the way it is taught and practised. Yet there is still a perception that the African craftsman entered the colonial period carving sculptural masterpieces and emerged whittling tourist knick-knacks for sale at Nairobi airport, and that the African warrior went in hurling his spear and throwing knife and came out lobbing hand grenades and firing a machine gun. In both instances there is a fallacious assumption that the traditions underlying such activities have vanished, simply because the contexts and technologies relating to their pursuit have changed.
Each chapter of this book is therefore set within a broad historical perspective. Firearms are referred to regularly in the hope that this will act as a kind of touchstone throughout the book, an effective antidote to the spectre of the 'ethnographic present'. Firearms were widely used in many parts of Africa for several centuries before the colonial period. With some notable exceptions (McNaughton 1988) small arms were mainly imported, and are therefore in some ways peripheral to the central subject of this book. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note, particularly with reference to contemporary African hand-crafted artefacts, the comparatively limited and by no means always negative impact which a technology of this kind had on the development of indigenous weaponry. Traditional arms and armour were undoubtedly affected by the increasing use of single shot firearms but, in common with other parts of the world including Europe, were not abandoned on a large scale in Africa until efficient repeating rifles and machine guns became available in the twentieth century. Even then the transformation was dependent on the accessibility of such an expensive commodity.
This unbalanced approach to the study of African material culture is well illustrated by a comparison of two artefacts from Gabon, one a figurative sculpture, the other a weapon. Both objects are produced by the linguistically related peoples living in the eastern Ogowe river region and known collectively as the Kota. The first is a brass-plated, highly stylised human face carved in wood. Such figures were designed to be attached to packages or baskets containing the skulls and other remains of important chiefs, the powerful 'ancestors' of the people. The second artefact is the musele knife which was a prestigious weapon, the possession of chiefs and high-ranking ritual specialists. Both objects are among the most well known and striking images within the entire canon of African art. Both are sculpturally very closely allied, not only in the materials used (brass, iron, wood and copper) but also in the multitude of effects achieved with simple motifs such as lozenges, ovals and triangles. Yet the Kota reliquary guardian figures have inspired a voluminous body of scholarship by contrast with the comparatively slight and sometimes misleading documentation relating to the musele.
Kota guardian figures achieved particular notoriety among Western art historians because of their supposed 'influence' on the development of Cubism in the European avant-garde. The painter Juan Gris is reputed to have made a cardboard replica of one of these figures, which in turn was supposed to have inspired many of his contemporaries. However it is facile to talk too generally about such specific 'influences' on the eclectic tastes of early twentieth-century European artists, just as we would be wary of describing African artefacts in terms of a Western aesthetic. For example, the musele has been described (Donne 1980) as 'a throwing knife ... conceived as a bird in profile with a long bill ... both eyes are shown, giving a Picasso-like effect'. The description is both functionally and artistically misleading, firstly because the musele was almost certainly not designed to be thrown. Secondly, while it is true to say that Picasso and his contemporaries were aware of and impressed by African and other non-Western art, it is misleading to imply a connection between the creative intention of an African craftsman and a European artist's use of form and motif. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Fang or Kota smiths were attempting to depict birds when forging the onzil or the musele. A similar claim that certain throwing knives of the Wadai region of the Sahara were ornithologically inspired (see Chapter 3) is also unsubstantiated by the Wadai smiths themselves.
Louis Perrois (1986) describes the ritual use of the musele thus: 'The nganga-mungala, or dance chief, plays the role of mungunda monster. He crawls along on the ground, uttering raucous cries, brandishing the musele, and attempting to hurt the initiates who must jump above him as energetically as possible. the sculptural theme 'toucan beak' suggests the form of the blade but is not fully explained'.
Even from this short description it is obvious that the musele forms an integral part of the dance costumes worn by perceptors of the Mungala cult, a male secret society similar to the Bwiti cult for which the reliquary guardians were made. Leaving aside the fact that toucans are not found in Africa, it is unlikely that the blade is intended to portray any particular species of bird, just as the Bwiti reliquary figures do not represent any particular ancestor. In the mythology of Bwiti, an evil spirit constantly seeks to gain access to the human body; it may well be that the musele plays this role in the dance drama described above. Weapons of various types are widely used in African dance and masquerade, and together with the movements imparted to them by the dancers, they constitute an element which is as important as any other in the drama. Too often, however, masks are discussed and depicted without attention to the rest of the costume and the performance in which they appear.
Among the Kota and the closely related Fang people, spears and knives and swords, including the musele, were considered to be emblems of the owner's status and were left on tombs of chiefs after death, along with the family reliquary. Leon Siroto (1968) suggested that the Mahongwe guardian figures, a variant of the Kota artefacts described above, might derive their distinctive form from 'a weapon maker's synthesis of man and sword'. Certainly it is hard to ignore the similarities between the diagnostic features of the guardian figures and of swords and other types of weaponry from the region. The blade-like crests with their 'eye' motifs surmounting certain types of guardian figure are strongly reminiscent of the musele. The brass strips wound around the hilt of the musele and the embossed designs on their brass-plated sheaths echo the windings around the 'necks' of the guardian figures and the designs on their plated wooden bases. Furthermore the distinctive projections which, in varying forms, are found to right and left of the lower face of the guardian figures are also characteristic of both spear heads and sword blades from the region.
One cannot, then, study Kota reliquary figures in isolation from the musele and other weaponry. The two complement and elucidate one another. Almost all African artefacts, including arms and armour, have a significance beyond their more obvious utilitarian function. To overemphasise or negate the importance of one category of objects within a system of material culture inevitably means that our understanding of all categories will be diminished.
Earth and Fire: Iron Technology and the Blacksmith
It is difficult to appreciate the significance of iron-bladed weaponry without understanding the position occupied by blacksmiths in non-industrial African societies. In European mythology, the smith has been demoted from a thunderbolt-hurling god to a purveyor of demoniacally fast deliveries at village cricket matches, and his ritual rôle is confined to officiating at wedding ceremonies. In African societies the smith is variously perceived, though almost always as a figure surrounded by mystery and magic. He may also be responsible for a number of specialist activities, bothutlitarian and ritual, other than simply forging metal. While there is little analysis of his products, a voluminous smith-related literature exists which, in the words of one commentator, Nigel Barley (1984), indicates 'an ongoing obsession of social anthropology'.
It is sometimes simplistically stated that in sedentary horticultural societies the smith is usually highly esteemed, while in nomadic, cattle-rearing communities he is ostracised, feared, sometimes despised and often reputed to indulge in all sorts of outlandish rituals and to eat the flesh of various creatures considered to be unclean (Clement 1948). Smiths may belong to a socially distinct group within the society, and myths concerning their supernatural origins abound. They may also be ethnically different, and even if they are not, are often considered to be so by the rest of the community. Among the Tuareg of the Sahara and Sahel, smiths, inaden, frequently speak their own language known as tenet, certainly when in the company of people other than smiths to whom they do not wish to disclose trade secrets (Rasmussen 1992). However, as Rasmussen persuasively argues, at least some of the apparent 'marginality' perceived by anthropologists to be common to certain groups of ritual specialists, including smiths, may in fact stem from the marginality of anthropologists themselves as outside observers. Given that social interaction with smiths is so highly ritualised, it would be facile to consider them as holding either a higher or a lower status in any one society. Even the Maasai, a people among whom blacksmiths appear to be ostracised and despised, nonetheless esteem their swords and spears at their most precious possessions after their cattle. In many East African pastoralist societies hunters (Dorobo among the Maasai) are looked upon with the disdain which elsewhere may be reserved for smiths.
The mythology which surrounds the smith and which separates him from the rest of the society provides the very elements which, in the eyes of his clients, invest with power the knives, swords and other metal objects which he forges. In fact, smiths may positively encourage the perceived differences between themselves and other members of society which liberate them from a number of their normal obligations and strengthen their monopoly of trade and ritual activities.
Some of the reasons for the unique position of the smith and the growth of the mythology surrounding him may be found in the history of iron technology in Africa. There was no Bronze Age in sub-Saharan Africa. Apart from some limited copper smelting in West Africa, the earliest evidence of metal working is in iron. Smelting furnaces in Rwanda excavated by archaeologists have been dated to 800 BC, well before such technology was established in Britain and only marginally later than in ancient Greece or Italy. By the third or fourth centuries BC, well before such technology was established in Britain and only marginally later than in ancient Greece or Italy. By the third or fourth centuries BC iron working technology was employed in north-western Tanzania, at Taruga on the Jos Plateau of northern Nigeria, and at Meroe in the Sudan. It seems likely that iron technology developed independently at these sites rather than being diffused from the North African coast and Egypt. Meroe has been incorrectly described as the likely source for iron technology throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but it now seems probable that smelting did not begin there in earnest until the first century AD.
Iron smelting was carried out in furnaces up to ten feet tall which were situated in areas where iron or deposits could easily be mined. The resulting 'bloom' was moulded into ingots or some other manageable form and was traded to distant communities for the use of local smiths. Both the quality of the metal produced and the technological sophistication of the process have often been underestimated (Goucher 1981). Pre-heating of the air blast by means of inserting numerous clay tuyeres deep into the base of the furnace created temperatures sufficient to produce a form of mild steel which for many centuries was preferred to brittle imports from overseas, and which is described by Matthews in 1788:
In the interior country, south of Sierra-Leone, they have a white iron, very malliable (sic), of which they make knives and sabres; and esteem it preferable to European iron for everything but edge tools.
The smelting process gradually declined due to a number of factors including the dwindling supplies of charcoal and, from the nineteenth century onwards, the cheapness and the improving quality of imported European iron bars. However, locally smelted iron continued to be produced in certain areas well into the twentieth century.
At about the beginning of the first millennium AD there began a great easterly and southerly expansion of Bantu-speaking peoples living in the woodlands to the north of the equatorial rain forest. These migrating peoples brought with them blacksmiths whose knowledge of iron technology must have had an immense impact on societies whose agricultural implements and weapons of war had previously been made of stone and wood. From the very early days of iron working in sub-Saharan Africa, blacksmiths may well have formed themselves into guilds in order to maintain a monopoly on the specialist skills which were their livelihood and source of power.
The itinerant smith could set up his forge and, provided a supply of charcoal (only a few species of tree were suitable) and of smelted iron was available, could begin work within a few hours. He would use an anvil of stone, hammers of stone and iron, tongs which might be no more than a split stick or a piece of bent iron and, of course, bellows. These might simply consist of a pair of animal skin bags, or in a more complex form, two or four solid chambers covered with a loose diaphragm of skin, each being pierced at the centre with a long stick which the smith's assistant(s) would pump to produce the necessary blast. In both cases the air would be conducted to the fire by means of coarse clay tubes, tuyeres. With the aid of these relatively simple tools the African blacksmith mastered all the techniques of his trade. A detailed and informative description of an African smith at work is given by Felix (1991) in the introduction to his study of throwing knives.
As soon as European goods and materials became available in Africa, particularly after the beginning of the colonial period in the late nineteenth century, the African smith began to use imported iron in his work, though with the reservations noted above. During the twentieth century the increasing availability of scrap metal, particularly in the form of junked automobiles, has also been skilfully utilised. Steering columns are converted into gun barrels and springs into the blades of knives and swords. Smiths of the pastoralist Maasai peoples eagerly converted Western agricultural tools into bladed weaponry, thus neatly inverting the Biblical 'swords into ploughshares' invocation. African smiths also began to use imported files to finish their work, though traditionally the final polish to metal implements would be painstakingly applied with abrasives such as sand. File marks or the lack of them on the blades of weapons sometimes provide a clue to their date of manufacture. Where European weapons replaced those of African make, the smith forged bladed weaponry which was increasingly used for ritual or ceremonial purposes, sometimes developing into new and elaborate forms. Though some of the smith's 'lines' might be discarded as a result of contact with European technology and materials, probably at least as many new ones would take their place. Firearms needed constant maintenance and repair, and in some cases complete, locally made examples were used and continue to be produced to the present day (McNaughton 1988), earning their makers great prestige.
Early Bantu people seem to have used a word meaning 'a thing of value' to describe iron (Phillipson 1985). In addition to producing ceremonial regalia, weapons of war and agricultural tools, blacksmiths also made metal currency for many hundreds of years before the institution of minted coinage by the colonial authorities in the late nineteenth century. This currency might come simply in the form of ingots or crosses of iron, but also in a variety of forms modelled on functional items including the various currency 'blades' such as the enormous spear blades of the Topoke and the Mbugbu ngindza, both from Zaire, the latter deriving its basic form from a certain type of throwing knife, though its blades are blunt and bulbous, quite unlike the sharp, narrow, pointed blades of its morphological model. Frequently, currency pieces adopted the functional forms of weaponry but were encrusted with particularly valuable metals such as copper or brass. Knives and swords, whether made specifically for the purpose or not, were favoured items of trade, which is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to attribute particular forms of weapon accurately to a specific ethnic group.
It is no wonder that in some parts of Africa the smith, far from being a despised social outcast, became closely associated with kings and the process of state formation. The creation myths of certain Central African peoples portray a blacksmith as metaphorically giving birth to the nation's culture (de Maret 1980), and among the Bushoong, only smiths and members of the royal family may wear a distinctive brass hat pin ornamented with a miniature bell (Torday 1925). One Kuba king, Mbop Pelyeeng aNce, a renowned iron worker, is commemorated in a wooden figure ndop in which he is portrayed seated in front of a (now broken) representation of an anvil stand. On a material level the smith would make the weapons of war which gave the kingdom its military might, and the items of currency which ensured the acquisition of wealth through trade. On a spiritual level, he forged many of the items of regalia which would be the outward and visible signs of what has been referred to as 'divine kingship' (Fagg 1970), that characteristically African institution in which the monarch was the focus of the both political and religious organisation within the kingdom.
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