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“Bewitching matter”: Highlights from African History and Culture, 1540-1921

Posted on 06/01/2016

Included in the latest release of African History and Culture, 1540-1921, are these illustrated works from the holdings of the Library Company of Philadelphia:

· a four-volume examination of the Moors, Wolofs and other ethnic groups;

· an early 19th-century account of Southern Africa by a resident;

· and a description of “three years’ travels and adventures in the unexplored regions of Central Africa from 1868 to 1871.” 

 The World in Miniature: Africa (1821) 

Edited by Frederic Shoberl 

Born in London, Frederic Shoberl (1775-1853) worked as a journalist, translator, editor, and illustrator. He began editing Rudolph Ackerman’s Repository of Arts in 1809 and continued working with Ackerman on The World in Miniature series. The Africa edition contains “a Description of the Manners and Customs, with some Historical Particulars of the Moors of the Zahara and of the Negro Nations between the Rivers Senegal and Gambia,” maps, and many incredible color illustrations. 


In the first of this beautifully illustrated multi-volume set, Shoberl writes this of the Moors: 

In the seventh century, a new religion, founded on the spirit of conquest, sprung up and changed the face of the globe. It spread like a torrent over every part of the world, and wrested from the Romans what was yet left them in Africa. The Moors embraced with enthusiasm the language and religion of the Arabs, whose manners and habits coincided with their own. Catching the love of conquest from the victors, they passed over into Spain, where they founded several kingdoms and cultivated the arts and sciences with unprecedented success. 

And describes their manner this way: 

The Moors, in general, are distinguished by large features, curly hair, a forehead prematurely wrinkled, piercing eyes, an aquiline nose, hollow cheeks, a swarthy complexion, a tall well-shaped figure, strongly marked muscles, and slender legs. A dignified countenance, grave look, and confidential demeanor cause you to forget for a moment their cunning and perfidy: their dress aides the illusion, and you are ready to fancy yourself among the Reguluses and the Scipios of antiquity. 


In Volume 3, Shoberl writes about the people residing between the Senegal and Gambia Rivers: 

The Wolofs are tall and well shaped, and the handsomest of the Negro race in Africa. They have curled woolly hair, with much more prominent noses than the other blacks; some of them indeed are rather aquiline. Their lips are thick, but not excessively so: they hold their heads high, and have a bold look, yet their features indicate a mild disposition and win confidence. They are in general honest, hospitable, generous, and faithful. The women are remarkable for their fine shape and are not destitute of gracefulness and elegance. The sweetness of their voices imparts a powerful charm to the Wolof language which is sonorous and easy to be learned.  




 Wanderings and Adventures in the Interior of Southern Africa (1835) 

By Andrew Steedman 


Ten-year resident of the Cape, naturalist, and collector Andrew Steedman recorded his various excursions around Southern Africa “principally for amusement” but was encouraged to publish his journal to satisfy the “numerous and repeated inquiries…made relative to the inhabitants of the country whence” came the specimens he had collected. Steedman had “traversed a considerable portion of the interior of Southern Africa, and succeeded in obtaining an extensive collection of its productions in Natural History, among which were several new and undescribed animals” and recorded the manners and customs of various peoples of Southern Africa. 


In his account of superstitions and medical practices of one such group, Steedman wrote: 

One of the most extraordinary of these is their belief in witchcraft, to the operation of which they generally ascribe disease and death; the very infirmities of age being attributed to the same influence. The Igiaka, or doctor, being sent for upon emergencies of this nature, gives some root or drug to his patient, accompanying the administration of it with a farcical expression of countenance, and a mysterious assumption of manner, pretending to charm from the sufferer some noxious reptile, by which he alleges that the malady is occasioned, and contriving at the same time secretly to produce one, which is supposed to have been withdrawn from the person afflicted. 

He continues: 

If the patient should happen to recover, the Igiaka is greatly commended for his skill, and obtains an adequate remuneration; if, on the contrary, the sickness should increase, another doctor called Igiaka-isi-musikaza, or “discoverer of bewitching matter,” is then summoned, who profess to discover the party supposed to have bewitched him. The guilt having been affixed, after many absurd ceremonies, upon some unfortunate wretch, a report is made to the Chief, who directs torture to be inflicted on him, for the purpose of eliciting confession. 





The Heart of Africa (1873) 

By Dr. Georg August Schweinfurth 

Georg August Schweinfurth (1836-1925) was a botanist, paleontologist, and ethnologist. In 1868 he embarked on a scientific mission to the interior of East Africa on which he discovered the river Uele, his greatest geographical achievement. Schweinfurth also traveled through Central Africa describing its inhabitants, flora, and fauna. He wrote about the Akka, settling the question of the existence of dwarf races in tropical Africa, and the cannibalistic practices of the Monbutto.  



Schweinfurth’s description of an unwanted travelling companion well represents the author’s style and tone. 

Less welcome to me was the company of a disagreeable old fanatic, who, followed by two wives, was on his return journey from the Holy City of the East to his home in the far west. He was a priest from Kano in Haussa, and when he told of the wonders of the world which he had seen on his long journeys, I could always set him right, having really seen infinitely more than he had. I completely non-plussed him by my geographical knowledge of the Western Soudan, and after the details which I gave of that country, he was, however reluctantly, at last obliged to believe that I had actually been there. But any friendship between us was rendered impossible by the constant noise and contention caused by his wives. All amicable relations came utterly to an end when I found myself driven as I did to come forward as the champion of the oppressed. 

Readers hoping for more information on cannibals will have to read The Heart of Africa themselves.  

For more information about African History and Culture, 1540-1921, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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