Pre-Colonial Africa: Society, Polity, Culture

  • Hunting a Crocodile, Senegal, 1780s

    The crocodile, the author writes (pp. 82-83), is very common along the riverbanks. The hunter covers his right arm with several layers of strong cowhide and carries a dagger or Flemish knife in his hand. He approaches the animal holding out his arm, and the instant the crocodile
  • Wolof King, Senegal, 1787

    Captioned
  • Settlements of the American Colonization Society, Liberia, 1840s-1850s.

    Ink and watercolor. Three of the settlements of the American Colonization Society as approached from the sea, showing rectangular houses of the American colonists and the circular ones with conical thatched roofs of the indigenous Africans. From top to bottom: 1) Bassa, the settlement of Bassa Cove (established in 1832). A (two-story?) rectangular house in the center is labeled Ramboís. Jacob Rambo, a Protestant Episcopal Church missionary, was head of the Bassa Cove mission starting in 1855.. He arrived in Liberia from Pennsylvania in 1849 and initially spent some time at Cape Palmas. Mary Louise Rambo, his first wife, died at Bassa Cove in November 1855. 2) Sinou, probably the settlement of Greenville not far from the mouth of the Sinou (Sino/Sinoe) river. 3) Cape Palmas (Maryland in Liberia colony), established in 1834, showing the town of Harper with its various churches. Several denominations were represented at Harper in the 1830s and 1840s. On the right a flagpole with a flag (probably of the Maryland in Liberia colony) adjacent to a lighthouse; the latter is probably the stone lighthouse constructed in 1834 or 1835 not long after the settlement of the cape (Latrobe, p. 65). The round houses probably depict the quarter or section inhabited by the Grebo/Glebo, the indigenous inhabitants of the area. Dead Manís Isle is in the right hand corner. Before the arrival of American colonists, the Glebo buried their dead on Dead Island, near Cape Palmas. In 1840, about 300 American colonists lived at Cape Palmas whose settlement was, in the words of an American visitor, situated on a small promontory or a high bluff (Brooks, p. 166). Sources: African Repository, June 1851, pp. 163-171; Anon. Traditional History and Folklore of the Glebo Tribe (Bureau of Folkways/Folklore, Liberia, 1965), p. 123; Horatio Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser (New York, 1845), p. 117; George Brooks, A Salem Merchant at Cape Palmas, Liberia, in 1840 (Essex Institute Historical Collections, vol. 98 [1962], pp. 166, 169; Samuel D. Ferguson, An Historical Sketch of the African Mission of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. (New York, 1884), passim; Maryland Colonization Journal, vol. 9 (1857), passim; John Latrobe, Maryland in Liberia (Baltimore, 1885), p. 65; John L. Wilson, Western Africa (New York, 1865), p. 402; Robert Nassau, Crowned in Palm-Land (Philadelphia, 1874), p 73; Anna Scott, Day Dawn in Africa (New York, 1858), passim. See other image references UVA on this site. For background to this and other UVA images, see image reference UVA01.
  • Cape Mount and Cape Mesurado (Monrovia), Liberia, 1840s-1850s

    Ink, watercolor, pencil. In 1822, the American Colonization Society established the settlement at Cape Mesurado, later named Monrovia. Among other features, this drawing shows the rectangular houses of the settlers and the circular houses of the indigenous population (Bassa?); churches are also shown. The promontory on the right has a flagpole (another is on the left) and lighthouse. The latter is probably the first lighthouse at Cape Mesurado, erected in 1836. The drawing of Cape Mount does not display man-made features. Sources: Harry Johnston, Liberia (Dodd, Mead, 1906); Richard Hall, On Africís Shore (Baltimore, 2003). See other image references UVA on this site. For background to this and other UVA images, see image reference UVA01.
  • King of Benin (Oba) in procession, late 17th cent.

    Mounted on a horse, the king is depicted being surrounded by retainers playing various musical instruments. This image appears to be derived from one edition or another of Dapper (e.g., 1668, 1686); see image reference BO17 on this website.
  • Crossing a Bridge, Western Sudan, 1790s

    Captioned, A view of the bridge over the Ba-Fing or Black River, this engraving was based on a sketch made by Park. He crossed this river (a branch of the Senegal river) on a bridge of bamboos, of a very singular construction . . . two tall trees, when tied together by the tops, are sufficiently long to reach from one side to the other; the roots resting upon the rocks, and the tops floating in the water. When a few trees have been placed in this direction, they are covered with dry bamboos, so as to form a floating bridge, with a sloping gangway at each end, where the trees rest upon the rocks. This bridge is carried away each year by the swelling of the river in the rainy season, and is constantly rebuilt by the inhabitants . . . who on that account expect a small tribute from every passenger (p. 338). See also image vile-188 on this website.
  • Mode of Transporting Ivory, Central Africa, mid-1860s

    Captioned, Mode of Carrying Ivory, the engraving shows a Central African village scene with people gathered in front of their houses, a woman carrying a jar on her head, a man smoking a pipe; in the foreground a male is carrying a large elephant's tusk on his shoulder while holding two spears in his right hand. This volume is based on the writings of David Livingstone, but it is unclear if the engraving was done specifically for this volume or is based on another source.
  • Interior of Kitchen, Sierra Leone, 1856

    A kitchen is a most important appendage to the domestic establishment of the Africans (p. 436). The kitchen, described in detail on p. 436, is constructed of wattle-and-daub. Utensils include iron pots, stones on which the pots rest, bellows, pottery, basketry; poultry are also shown. See also illustration Exterior of Kitchen, Sierra Leone, image reference ILN435b.
  • Exterior of Kitchen, Sierra Leone , 1856

    Kitchen is made of wattle-and-daub with a thatched roof; grain being pounded with a wooden pestle and mortar. The scene is near Freetown.See also illustration, Interior of Kitchen, Sierra Leone , image reference ILN435c.
  • Marketplace and Houses, Sierra Leone, 1856

    Caption, Waterloo Market, shows what is described as the second most important market in Sierra Leone, after Freetown. The marketplace occupies one side of a spacious quadrangle, which has in its centre a circular inclosure (p. 436); the building at the right is inhabited by the British colonial official.
  • House and Village Scene, Sierra Leone , 1856

    Caption, interior of piazza, shows houses, hammock, and various items in village near Freetown; described in article (p. 436).
  • House Construction and Roofing, Sierra Leone, 1856

    Caption, Bambooing a hut, near Freetown. Bambooing refers to thatching of the house, described in the article (p. 436).
  • Fishing Canoes, Cape Verde, 1880

    Line fishing from canoes. Also shows loin cloths and hairstyles of fishermen, and gives some idea of the heavy surf.
  • Woman Playing Warri/Wari, West Africa, 1780s

    Caption: A young Negress, studying [learning] the game of ouri [warri]. Golbèry (1742-1822), a captain in the French military, was requested by the new governor of Senegal to explore the territory and provide economic, social, and political information that could be useful to the colonial government. In describing this engraving, he wrote: The young Foulha, Manding, and Jolof Negresses are passionately fond of a game, which they call ouri; it is a complex [complicated] game, which they study attentively, and pride themselves on playing with propriety [and are proud when they play it with dexterity]. A long description is given of this widespread West African board game which the author finds to be more complex than draughts; and yet [it] is played by women only (pp. 422-424). Another translation of this work (London, 1803), by William Mudford, with some variations in wording, contains the same image but reversed; differences between the two translations are given in brackets [ ] above.
  • West African Domestic Life, late 17th cent.

    Center background, palisaded village (cases des negres); in center, a woman with child on her back cultivating a garden; foreground, European trading with Africans (captioned il faut achepter [sic] la permission de faire de l'eau en faisant present d'eau de vie a l'alcaty [ i.e., in order to acquire fresh water one needs permission from the chief and must give him a present of brandy]); note, smoking pipe and weapons on figures on right. The 1699 Amsterdam edition contains a similar, albeit derivative copy, of this image (facing p. 7).
  • Scenes of West African Life, late 17th cent.

    Top, comme les singes portent des enfans sur les arbres (how monkeys carry their babies in the trees); left bottom, habillement des circoncis (dress/costume of circumcised/initiated young men); right bottom, Negre jouant du balafo (Negro playing the balafon); note conical house with thatched roof. The 1698 English edition (London) contains this image, but facing p. 33, while the 1699 Amsterdam edition contains a similar, albeit derivative and not identical copy (facing p. 45). The image of a Negre Jouant du Balafo is found in Jean Baptiste Labat , Nouvelle Relation de l'Afrique Occidentale (Paris, 1728), vol. 2, facing p. 332.
  • Scenes of West African Life and Slave Trading with Europeans, late 17th cent.

    Lower left, woman pounding corn with mortar and pestle in front of a thatched house ( coscou); on right, a European buying two African men ( commerce des esclaves; note, leg irons on both); background, European ships and a canoe with paddlers (comme les Negres rament de bout). The 1699 Amsterdam edition contains a similar, albeit derivative copy, of this image (facing p. 16).
  • Europeans Arriving on African Coast, 18th cent.

    An engraved print, giving idealized view of Africans with trade goods greeting Europeans landing from a long boat; ocean -going vessel in the background.
  • Gezo, King of Dahomey, 1849

    King in regalia with one of his retainers holding umbrella. Forbes describes his audience with the king: His Dahoman Majesty, King Gezo, is about 48 years of age, good looking . . . . his appearance commanding, and his countenance intellectual, though stern in the extreme. That he is proud there can be no doubt. . . . the king was plainly dressed, in a loose robe of yellow silk slashed with satin stars and half-moons, Mandingo sandals, and a Spanish hat trimmed with gold lace; the only ornament being a small gold chain of European manufacture (vol. 1, pp. 76-77).
  • Female Soldier (Amazon), Dahomey, 1849-50

    Caption, Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh. An Amazon in the Dahoman army. Image shows her in war uniform, holding rifle in one hand and decapitated head of enemy in the other. The amazons are not supposed to marry . . . . All dress alike, diet alike . . . . what the males do, the amazons will endeavor to surpass. They all take great care of their arms, polish the barrels, and, except when on duty, keep them in covers. There is no duty at the palace, except when the king is in public, and then a guard of amazons protect the royal person . . . . The amazons are in barracks within the palace enclosure, and under the care of eunuchs . . . . In every [military] action (with males and females), there is some reference to cutting off heads (Forbes, vol. 1, pp. 23-24). In Dahomey, these female soldiers were known as ahosi. For a modern study, see Robert Edgerton, Warrior Women: The Amazons of Dahomey and the Nature of War (Westview Press, 2000).
  • Dutch Ambassadors Greeting the King of Kongo, late 17th cent.

    This fanciful and embellished rendition appears to be derived from one edition or another of Dapper (e.g., 1668, 1686); see image reference B019 on this website.
  • Rice Granary, Madagascar, 1850s

    The author does not appear to describe this granary in his text; shows people storing rice and threshing it. Rice one of the staples of Madagascar at the time.
  • Iron Working, Madagascar, 1850s

    Caption, (left) iron smelting in Madagascar; (right) Malagasy forge and native smiths. Their smelting furnaces . . . are always fixed near a stream, and the ore . . is broken small, and the earth . . . removed by frequent washings. The sides of the furnaces, usually sunk two or three feet in the ground, are made of stones, covered outside with clay, . . . . The blast is supplied by two pairs of pistons working in wooden cylinders . . . From the bottom of each cylinder a tube, formed by a bamboo or an old gun-barrel, is inserted into a hole through the stones round the furnace. After the contents of the furnace have been kept some time at a white heat it is left to cool, and when opened the iron is found in pigs or lumps at the bottom. In this state, as well as when heated again, [it is] beaten into bars or rods.... (Ellis, 1888, p. 243).
  • Madagascar Women, Showing Hairstyles, 1850s

    Caption, (left) Betsimasarka mother and child; (right) Hova woman. The Hova women wear their hair plaited in extremely fine braids, and tied in a number of small knots or bunches all over the head . . . . The Betsimasaraka women wear near their hair braided for two or three inches, and then arranged in a sort of circular mass or ball, two or three hanging down on each side (Ellis, 1888, p. 135).
  • Enslaved Females Drawing Water and Pounding Rice, Madagascar, 1850s

    Caption, (left) house occupied by Mr. Ellis in 1854; (center) female slaves filling bamboos with water at the well; (right) female slaves pounding rice. Ellis (1888, p. 114) writes: My house was . . . situated in the midst of the settlement . . . . Their houses . . . stood in a large enclosure, part of which was cultivated as a garden. In the front was a well . . . . about twenty feet deep, sunk through the sand, which was kept up by boards at the sides. The water was drawn up in a large bullock's horn fastened to the end of a string made of bark, and let down by the hand to the water. Numbers of slave-girls came every morning with long bamboo-canes for water. These canes were six or eight feet long, and, the partitions at the joints inside being broken, formed cylinders three or four inches wide, in which the water was conveyed from the well to the adjacent houses. . . . In the same enclosure other slaves might often be seen pounding rice in a large wooden vessel to separate the husk from the grain.
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