Execution of a Witch, 1840s-1850s

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This record was last updated on 27 Jun 2017

Image Reference

Drawings of Western Africa (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections, MSS 14357, no 16).

Ink and watercolor with crayon. Captioned “Condemned as a witch,” this is a unique visual depiction of the execution and burial of a convicted witch. To what extent the image is based on direct observation is unknown and efforts to identify the people and location have been unsuccessful; the artist does not identify either. Moreover, it is unclear if this image represents a single event or is a composite of several events; in any case, it is a difficult scene to interpret. The belief in witchcraft was widespread in Africa and was invariably regarded as a very serious crime. Witches were usually executed (methods varied from group to group) and were usually buried apart from other interments, if they were buried at all and not simply thrown into the bush, burned, or cast into a river. Here, the victim is being buried alive in an excavated grave which itself is within a large excavated pit; he is being held in the grave, or pinned to the bottom, by a man with a long pole while four other men place a heavy object (a wooden, Euro-American style, coffin; or, more probably, a section of a canoe boxed up at both ends) over the grave. Three men are firing rifles/muskets or holding spears and cutlasses, and two are blowing trumpets or horns, made from what appear to be the horns of a large animal, e.g., eland, antelope or, perhaps, elephant. The noise made by the guns and horns may have been intended to frighten away the spirit of the witch should it return to haunt the living, a custom reported among some Equatorial West African peoples, including those of Corisco Island, in the 19th century. Shown in the foreground are a spear, axe, cutlass, and two containers; one of the latter appears to be a European glass bottle, the other a gourd or calabash container. The scene is witnessed by a bearded male, perhaps an American missionary; his presence is not explained or identified by the artist. This scene does not resemble available published descriptions of the treatment of witches among indigenous peoples of Liberia. The location may be Corisco Island or its neighboring coastal areas, where American Protestant missionaries had established stations. Sources: Robert H. Nassau, Fetichism in West Africa [London, 1904], pp. 58, 224, 232-233); John L. Wilson, Western Africa (New York, 1856), pp. 210, 231); Anna Scott, Day dawn in Africa [New York, 1858], pp. 61-65; Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (London, 1897), pp. 479- 481. For an overview of witch burials in West Africa, see Jerome Handler, A Prone Burial from a Plantation Cemetery in Barbados, West Indies, Historical Archaeology 30 (1996): 76-86. See other image references "UVA" on this site. For background to this and other UVA images, see image reference UVA01.