I. A Nail Fetish from the Maritime Congo

A REMARKABLE example of this class of fetishes, which is so characteristic of the maritime region of the Congo, especially of Loango, Mayombe, and Cabinda, was published in the MUSEUM JOURNAL for March, 1924. This more recently acquired specimen, though it shares the principal sculptural qualities of the former, of another which was figured in the JOURNAL of March, 1920, and, indeed, of such images in general, is distinguished from them by certain features.

The most obvious of these characteristics is its archaic appearance, if one may apply this epithet to a wooden object from Africa of which contemporary types exist. The very hard yellow wood from which the figure is carved has received a kind of polish which is due to long years of handling such as the softer wood from which most of these figures are made would hardly have survived in so relatively mutilated a condition. The only important mutilations it has suffered in fact are from boring insects, which have driven channels here and there, notably one large one in the right side of the head, and from the weather, which has eroded the softer portions of the wood, between rings, in the under surface, mainly, of the pedestal, and to a less extent in the other surfaces of the figure among the holes made in regular course by the driving in of nails and other pointed bits of iron. Most of these have been extracted and the others broken off near the surface. As the surfaces of the fractures are as much oxidized as the remaining visible parts of the nails and as the apertures left where the nails have been withdrawn or where the metal does not fill the hole show the same weathering as the rest of the wooden surface, it seems clear that the extractions, successful or attempted, were a part of the regular ceremonial practices of which the figure was the centre and are not due to any process of tidying-up at the hands of an alien collector or owner. The withdrawal of a nail by the fetish master at the instance of the person menaced by the activities of the fetish, on confession and the payment of a fee by this culprit, might save the latter from the consequences of his offence.

Simple fetish of standing male figure, covered in nail holes, front view
A very old Nail Fetish from the Maritime Congo.
Image Number: 784

The second distinguishing characteristic referred to as reinforcing the impression of great age received from the appearance of the figure is the extreme simplicity of style with which it is executed, even though the fundamental stylistic features of the class are all present—the rather strained backward tilt of the flattened spheroid of the head, the strong columnar neck, the slighting of the knee joint, the planting of the column-like leg in the flat base formed by the foot so that this base forms as distinct, if not quite as large, a shelf in the position of the heel as in that of the instep and toes—which latter in this figure number six to each foot.

The usual lack of detailed modelling in the representation by negroes of the trunk and limbs of the human figure is more nearly complete in the case of such figures as these, which are destined finally to have their outlines obscured by the large number of nails which they are to receive. But it is the summary treatment of the features of the face of this particular example which emphasizes the impression of age given by the condition of the wood. Although the fetish must have been in continuous use for a long time, that is to say cannot be regarded as an unfinished effort, these features have been hardly more than blocked out. And this is in marked contrast to what is typically the case with nail fetishes. A glance at the characteristic figures illustrated in the numbers of the JOURNAL referred to above will show this. The face is the portion of the figure on which the woodcarver concentrates his interest and efforts. Here, even the mutilation of the mouth has not much simplified the construction of that feature. Generally, expression and lifelikeness is sought for by inlaying a piece of porcelain or shell for the eyeball. In this case no hollow was prepared for such a contrivance beneath the simple brow-shaped prominences which mark the upper outline of the orbits. That no such addition even as might be applied with gum or resin to the flat surface ever existed, is made almost certain by the position of the nail holes on the right side of the face. The marked concavity of the long upper lip, which may be noted in the figure in Vol. XI, Fig. 24, and to a smaller degree in the other figure already referred to, as well as the basically similar character of the modelling of the whole face, however rude in this case, brings out the fundamental relationship of this to the later and more carefully executed examples and almost establishes for it, if not a prototypical character, at least an earlier position in a line of development, or, more properly, a process of refinement.

The wooden images of this region are usually distinguished into those which have a fetish or magical character and those which are merely the product of the artistic fancy of the maker. The former are said invariably to have attached to them some extraneous substance, a “medicine” in which the magical potency of the fetish resides. In the case of the nail fetishes this usually consists of a conglomeration of rubbish embedded in an oval or rectangular matrix of gum stuck on to the abdomen of the figure and faced with a bit of mirror glass. This is supplemented, in most if not all cases, by a similar concretion moulded into the form of a cap on the head of the figure.

Neither of these contrivances is to be found on this statuette and there is no trace of their ever having been there. As for the abdominal “medicine” container, the presence of several nail holes in the precise position which it occupies in other examples of this class of fetishes or fetish vehicles is proof that the figure was used in the traditional magical procedure without any such appendage. Where caps of a similar nature occur, the wood on the top of the head of the figure is carved roughly into a shape which will facilitate the adherence of the concretion. There is no such shaping here; the top of the head, roughly finished off, is flattened in a way that would hinder rather than help such adherence. Some fetishes in human form have a “medicine” carrier on the back in a position corresponding to that in front. Nail holes occur in that position in this figure, indicating that there was no such appendage there while the figure was employed as a nail fetish.

Does the absence of these “medicine chests” from this figure, whose every other attribute points to a quite respectable antiquity, imply the existence of a period in the development of magic or religion in the Maritime Congo, when “power” resided in the figure itself and not in any extraneous objects attached to it? Our two chief authorities for this region, Dennett and Pechuel-Loesche1, conflict on the matters relevant to this point. According to the former, a spirit is conjured into the nail fetish and acts from within it, presumably using nails and “medicine” as instruments of its own power; according to the latter, no spirit is concerned, but some power inherent in the nature of the ingredients compounded into “medicine” by the fetish master or sorcerer, and for this “medicine” the figure, human or animal, is merely a convenient holder, while it is the fetish master who, in virtue of his special knowledge of magical procedure, wields and makes effective the intrinsic power of the medicine. So that, if we accept Dennett’s testimony, not merely was there formerly a spiritualistic belief connected with nail fetishes but it is just that which now actuates and guides the practices concerned. Dennett was a painstaking but sentimental observer who was much given to finding vestigial memories, strangely numerous and highly organized among themselves for such survivals, of ancient Christian-like politico-religious “systems” at the back of West Coast black men’s minds. On the other hand Pechuel-Loesche was to all appearance a careful observer without any positive prepossessions of the nature of Dennett’s. Yet Dennett’s account of the introduction of a spirit into the fetish is circumstantial enough and inherently probable in view of the prevailing animistic beliefs of the region, which are not denied by Pechuel-Loesche to exist in a sphere outside of that which includes the manipulation of fetishes.

In view of this prevailing belief in spirits and in the importance of their activities in influencing those of men, and in view of the absence of extraneous “medicine” from this nail fetish, as well as of the fact that Pechuel-Loesche laid great emphasis on the necessity of this magical substance for the efficacy of the fetish, is it quite certain that a negative bias on the part of this author against the all-inclusiveness of animistic explanations of such phenomena may not have helped him to deceive himself ? At any rate, the discovery of a nail fetish without a “medicine-case” is a challenge to such presumption of verisimilitude as was formerly accorded to Pechuel-Loesche’s doctrine of nail fetishes. What is there here to release or project, for hurt or healing, but something which resides in the figure itself—something which, since its essential properties are not bound up in any foreign matter, owes those properties, not to any magical quality of the wood itself, for then any bit of this material would do, but to the only distinctive thing about this bit of wood, its being in the form of a human, and capable then of projecting, if anything, its human essence, its “spirit”?

Simple fetish of standing male figure, covered in nail holes, back view
Back view of the Nail Fetish.
Image Number: 783

Moreover, Pechuel-Loesche’s explanation of the use of human figures as carriers or holders of “medicine” which does not derive its efficacy from human powers, this efficacy being inherent in the inorganic materials of which the “medicine” is made, does not seem to be satisfactorily consistent with another detail of his system of fetishism. Many or most, if not all, of the figures so used, he says, are in origin “fetishes of honour” (Ehrenfetische), representations or monuments, so to speak, of great sorcerers and physicians, made during their lifetime to awaken terror, to serve as remembrancers (Mahnbilder), and to bring health. In this last respect, at any rate, it would seem that the figures which elsewhere he represents as having a function quite neutral with regard to the real activities of the medicine, are in fact sharing in, or even usurping, that function (since fetishes of healing are an important class of nail fetishes) and acting in fact just as benevolent spirits are elsewhere believed to do. The spirit, or the energy of the spirit, might be released through the apertures made by the nails in the manner suggested for the loosing of the forces of the medicine in the article on the large community fetish in the JOURNAL for March, 1924, the spirit inhabiting the fetish being assumed to be in control of, or identified with, the forces enshrined in the “medicine,” and the former being controlled by the fetish master.

Though the rationale of the manner in which the nail fetishes operate must remain hypothetical, it seems to me that there can be little doubt that their working is connected with the spiritistic conceptions prevailing in the region. Dennett’s testimony to this effect is supported by that of others, with respect to the conceptions guiding the use of fetish figures in general. Thus Diedrich: ” The fetish is in a manner an incarnation,’ if I may so express myself, of the memory of the absent spirit, which has the purpose of bringing about a favourable disposition of the spirit in such or such a special case. Thus a woman will have followed the calling of a midwife and distinguished herself in it. She dies, but her memory lives in the recollection of those who knew her. Here is an expectant mother in labour. She goes to invoke the fetish for a successful delivery. The spirit of the celebrated deceased midwife will be summoned; it is also incarnated’ in the statuette representing the fetish.”2 This is evidently one of Pechuel-Loesche’s “Ehrenfetische,” except that it is not a “monument” to the living, and is explained in a more consistent manner.

II. A Statuette from Brazzaville

In the southern part of the French Congo, a mile or two from the southwestern shore of Stanley Pool, lies the town of Brazzaville. It is a European creation within the same general region of native culture as that which includes Loango with Mayombe, now a portion of the Maritime Province of the Belgian Congo. Brazzaville is named after Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, an Italian by birth, who entered the French navy in 1870 and became a citizen of France. He was the first European to visit Stanley Pool, a lakelike widening of the Congo about 200 miles, as the crow flies, from the mouth of the river, after its discovery by Stanley in 1876. The native inhabitants of the region about Brazzaville are generally known as Bateke, which is a nickname bestowed upon them by their western neighbours. Teke is a Bakongo word meaning “a human image, a dwarf representation of humanity.”3 According to Johnston, this word “may even come from an old Bantu root meaning ‘pygmy,’ ” and he thinks that the name was originally given to forest pygmies whom the present bearers of it conquered and displaced.4 This opinion appears to be merely matter of inference from the name, or rather of a kind of secondary inference from a suspected meaning of the name. In view of the former remarkable artistic activity of the tribes near Stanley Pool, which they share with the natives of the Maritime Congo, it would perhaps be safer to conclude that the name meant, to those who bestowed it, what it seems to mean on the face of it, ” makers of images ” or, more literally, ” image people.”

Quite early in the history of Portuguese and other European contacts with the Maritime Congo, repeated attempts were made, chiefly by Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries, to establish Christianity in the hinterland of Portuguese territory. The results may be judged from the words of two missionaries, one Catholic and the other Protestant, the former writing in 1776, the latter a little more than a century later. First, the Abbe Proyart: ” The stay of the Portuguese must have altered in a great degree the innocence and simplicity of the manners of its inhabitants. . . . If it be worthy the zeal of a Christian prince to favour the propagation of the faith among infidel nations, it is also worthy of his prudence and his duty not to destroy with one hand what he builds up with the other, by sending on the track of the missionaries a set of men who have nothing of the Christian but the name, which they dishonour, and whose worse than heathenish conduct makes the idolaters doubt whether the gods whom they worship be not preferable to that of the Christian religion.”5

Wood statuette of a nun reading the bible
Wooden Statuette representing a Nun reading her office. Brazzaville, French Congo.
Museum Object Number: AF5380
Image Number: 684

The other passage referred to was written by the author of a work in which the Abbé’s words are quoted, W. H. Bentley, a Baptist missionary. He says: “When we reached San Salvador, in 1879, it was to all intents and purposes a heathen land. King and people were wholly given to fetishism and all the superstitions and cruelties of the Dark Continent. Some of the ruined walls of the cathedral remained, the chancel arch and part of a Lady chapel. . . . In a house in the king’s compound were kept a large crucifix and some images of saints, but they were only the king’s fetishes. If the rains were insufficient, they were sometimes brought out and carried round the town. . . . At the funeral of a munkwikizi [scil. “believer ” in what remained of their memory of the white man’s religion] there were always some special ceremonies, marks of crosses on the shroud, sprinkling of water, etc., which only a munkwikizi could perform; they were, in fact, a caste of masters of ceremony at great funerals. . .”6

Lest it should still be thought that these latter observations are coloured by a Protestant bias, let another Catholic missionary bear witness from a paper read before the Lisbon Geographical Society in 1889. ” This résumé of missionary labours in Congo and especially at San Salvador, labours sustained with heroic courage, shows us that these labours did not obtain a worthy recompense. Christianity did not penetrate deeply, it passed like heavy rains, which scarcely wet the first layer of earth, leaving the subsoil dry and sterile. . . . Christianity did not adapt itself to the native, and left scarcely any traditions of its passage among the populations of the Congo. . . . “7

The king of Kongo, whose capital was San Salvador, was in the early days the chief dependence of the Portuguese for securing their dominion in the old kingdom of Kongo. He claimed a sort of over-lordship, more of a religious nature than anything else, over the lands north and south of the River Congo between Stanley Pool and the mouth. But his overlordship was apparently less, if at all, effective among the Bateke of Stanley Pool, who were known to the early writers as Anzichi or Anzico. This name, according to Johnston, is “probably a corruption of Banseke,’ a term used by the Basundi and other Kongo people near Stanley Pool to describe the ‘ Bushmen,’ the people of the interior.” The Portuguese geographers apparently knew nothing of “this lake-like reservoir of the Lower Congo beyond the terraced mountains of the coast ” although some “of their traders, and possibly a missionary, may have reached ” its shores.8 Early in the seventeenth century five Portuguese traders did reach the kingdom of the Makoko—the title of the ruler of the Bateke near Stanley Pool, a title which was still used in the days of De Brazza—only to be plundered and made prisoners. Their release was refused to a messenger from San Salvador, and a friar who was sent to ransom them died on the way. A famine and plague which subsequently visited the country of the Makoko convinced him that it was dangerous to detain his prisoners longer and he returned them to San Salvador with compensation for their losses. The intractability of the subjects of the Makoko to their rather distant overlord was known to the Portuguese more than a hundred years before. We are told of an expedition sent out by the King of Kongo in 1491 to subdue “the province of Makoko.”9

It was not, then, until after the rediscovery of Stanley Pool that any direct Christian influences reached the people of that region. There is now a Vicariate Apostolic of Brazzaville, occupied by Monseigneur Guichard, from whom the Museum was fortunate enough to secure a small collection of artefacts three years ago. One of these is figured here, a statuette representing a nun reading her office, executed by one of Monseigneur Guichard’s flock. It is shown as a striking example of the persistence of negro traditional style in craftsmanship in the presence of alien models and subjects.

The form and the simple decoration of the base on which the figure stands are evidently copied from those of a European statuette. Everything else about the treatment of the figurine is characteristically negro in its largeness and simplicity, its elimination of everything which might confuse the effect of symmetry and balance which is sought for with a single-minded aim. The full, free, unerring sweep of the circle which bounds the upper part of the body confined in its veil, from which every wrinkle has been smoothed away, the simple oblong of the lower portion with the few vertical corrugations necessary to mark the rigid folds of the heavy skirt, the regularly billowed surface of the narrow scapulary with its furrows at right angles to those—everything makes it clear that, though the nature of the subject is such that it demands little simplification, that little has been strictly carried out in accord with the sculptor’s own tradition rooted in generations of isolation from the distractions of alien teaching and not to be torn up in a day by any such instruction, direct or imposed merely by the presence of alien models.

The expression of concentration given to the nun as she pores upon her breviary is got through none of those subtle modifications of individual features of the face by which a European artist might accomplish a similar effect. Nothing more simple and direct could have been displayed in an example the furthest removed from possible European contacts. The features are simply squeezed into the smallest possible compass in the middle of the broad round white face bent over the lifted book, and are poised directly over the central line of the opened pages, while to drive the point home, as it were, and to stress, unmistakably, the line of focus thus made almost visible between the two surfaces, a small but very distinct dot of a pupil appears at each interior corner of the narrowed eyes.

The veil and scapulary are in the black of charred wood, the robe is in what seems to be the reddish brown of camwood pigment.


1 See the numbers of the MUSEUM JOURNAL referred to above.

2 Les Mayombe, C. van Overbergh and E. de Jonghe, Brussels, 1907, p. 300.

3 H. H. Johnston, George Grenfell and the Congo, II, p. 637 and footnote2

4 Op. cit., pp. 803-804, footnote; p. 637, footnote.

5 Quoted, from an English version of the Abbé’s travels in Pinkerton’s Voyages, by W. H. Bentley in Pioneering on the Congo, I, p. 37.

6 Op. cit., p. 35.

7 Father Barroso, resident in San Salvador 1881-1887, later Bishop of Mozambique. Quoted by Bentley, p. 37.

8 Johnston, op. cit., pp. 76-77.

9 Bentley, pp. 32, 22.