A Baluba Chieftain’s Staff

By: H. U. Hall

Originally Published in 1923

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IN the last number of the MUSEUM JOURNAL there appeared among several other objects from the Southern Congo two fine examples of wood sculpture from the Urua region. The staff pictured here in Figs. 39 and 40 was obtained from Mr. Emil Torday, the Belgian explorer, in 1913, and described by him as a Baluba chieftain’s staff. From its resemblances of detail to these figures it appears to be an example of eastern Baluba craftsmanship. Baluba tribes are spread across the whole southern Congo region as far west as the Kwango River; and it is thought that the Urua region, where the Barua are in contact with the eastern Baluba, whom they regard as kinsfolk, was the first Congo home of this vigorous Bantu stock.

Staff carved into triangular shapes down the body with a woman seated at the top
Fig. 39. — Baluba Chieftain’s Staff.
Museum Object Number: AF1959
Image Number: 844

It is in the coiffure and the cicatrization marks of the small female figure which forms the upper part of the head of the staff that the features which these three objects have in common are most evident.

First as to the coiffure. As in the larger figures, this consists of two main portions, a band running across the middle of the head from ear to ear, and a chignon covering the back of the head. The former is evidently something of the nature of the semicircle of finely plaited hair referred to by Stanley1 in describing the hairdressing of the Waguha. It forms the frontal border of the whole structure, and occupies the same position in all three figures, though the manner of presenting the plaiting of the hair—if the representation of hair is intended—is in no two cases quite the same. In the figure before us (Fig. 40b), the band is composed of a series of closely set short ridges diminishing in length towards the crown of the head, while in the other two examples the texture of the band is indicated by lightly incised lines crossing each other at right angles and by a herringbone device respectively.2 In the latter instance a low ridge runs along the whole length of the band on each edge, indicating possibly that the band is formed not of hair but of some extraneous material. Judging from the prominence of the band in Fig. 40b and the importance given to the individual ridges, it is possible that something of the kind is intended here also. Cameron3, in his description of the Waguha coiffure quoted in part in the number of the MUSEUM JOURNAL already referred to, notes that “the edges are ornamented with cowries, beads, and other things.”

The chignon differs in no important respect from that of the figures already published. The concavity of the posterior surface of the pad which forms the foundation for the distinctive cross of hair is less marked and the pointed lobes into which the circumference of the pad is divided in the case of the Urua figurines, giving it something of the appearance of the calyx of a flower, are here absent. This is probably due to the difficulties of the woodcarver in dealing with surfaces of much smaller dimensions, though it may be a matter of slight differences in the fashion. There is no undercutting of the cruciform ornament here, while in one of the Urua figures this undercutting is strongly marked and in the other is carried so far that the extremities only of the cross rest upon the circumference of the pad, which is quite cuplike in form. The ingenious manner in which the negro, especially in the Congo and the west in general, takes advantage of and enhances by the application of clay and grease, the sculptural possibilities of his woollike hair is nowhere better exemplified than in these remarkable Barua-Baluba headdresses.

The raised design on the body of the staff figure is intended to represent the cicatrization or decoration of the skin with raised scars which is so common in Africa. It is much simpler in this case than in that of the Urua stool, but the same chief elements are present. On the back, at about the waist line are two deeply notched projections. These are usually found upon similar carved figures from this region. Towards the front of the body a chevron with a notched surface like that of the head band is placed at each side of the prominent navel with the opening forward so that the two form a frame for this natural feature which is the centre of the whole decorative scheme. Three closely set rhombs each composed of three ridges cut nearly at right angles to those of its neighbour follow the outline of each of the chevrons, thus forming themselves a similar figure with the angular point in a line with the middle of the knob at each side of the back. The end of the breastbone is marked by another large raised scar, while the gap between the upper ends of the two main chevrons is closed by an arc in the same technique as the latter and the head band. The similar gap below is closed by a double horizontal ridge on the lower abdomen, thus completing the frame which encloses the central conical prominence of the middle of the body.

An examination of the Urua stool shows a somewhat different arrangement of the same elements, except for the bounding arc above, though the function as a frame of the—in this case, four—lateral chevrons is obscured by the introduction of other elements. The less prominent umbilicus is placed lower and its importance is further diminished by the addition of a vertical row of buttons immediately above it bisecting the area enclosed by the chevrons and taking its place as the centre of interest enclosed by the frame. Though it serves itself to close the frame below, the two horizontal ridges lower down are retained. Their function is still further obscured by the addition of two other horizontal pairs, one on each side, above. The spaces unoccupied by the main lines of the design, in fact the greater part of the trunk to the region of the two projections on the back, which exactly correspond to those of the staff figure, are filled in with a basket weave device of precisely the same nature, though not disposed with the same uniform regularity, as that which covers the flat spaces of the shaft and head of the staff (Figs. 39 and 40a).

This decoration may be regarded, as to the impression it makes upon the eye, either as composed of rhombs or crosses of four or five elements respectively, each element constituted by a group of short ridges at right angles to those of the adjacent group, and each of these groups itself forming a small rhomb or diamond. Three of these small elements—three fifths of the cross or three fourths of the large rhomb—have been picked out of the basketwork decoration of the lower portion of the staff head and applied to the chevrons of the scar decoration of the small figure surmounting it; i. e., the same basketwork motive has been employed as decorative filling in the case of both the staff and the stool. A section of one of the large rhombs (the right half of a square inscribed in it) has been used to fill the space between the legs of the figure on the staff head.

The herringbone ornament which is used for the part of the staff adjacent to the seated figure is another point of resemblance in these two objects. It has been noted already as found on the headband of the woman of the stool; it forms also a decorative band about the base of the pedestal and along the rim of the seat.

Commonly in Africa the staff is the symbol of authority
of the chief, the sceptre of the negro potentate, whether chief of a tribe or headman of a village. But, apart from the evidence already afforded by the comparison of this staff with the stool and the bowl bearer, its eastern origin is also testified to by its evidently very close kinship to a staff pictured in Sir Harry Johnston’s study of the Belgian Congo.4 The latter was the official staff of the chief of Bulu (? Buli) on the Lualaba-Congo, and was obtained by Captain S. L. Hinde who accompanied Baron Dhanis on the Belgian expedition which closed the Arab war in the east of the Congo State. The staff is then from Barua territory.

Close up of seated female figure at the top of triangular shape of staff
Fig. 40. — A, B. Back and side views of head of staff Fig. 39.
Museum Object Number: AF1959
Image Number: 842, 843

It consists of a slender rounded shaft passing across a flat, wide lower portion and terminating above in a flat triangular head, widening upwards. Both the flattened portions are decorated with precisely the same basketwork design as the Baluba staff. The lower flat part of the latter, shaped like two conjoined lozenges, is compressed in Captain Hinde’s staff into a single flat area with a pear-shaped outline, which is pierced in its wider upper portion in exactly the same manner as Fig. 39. The principal difference between the Buli example and that shown here is that there is no figure surmounting the triangular head of the former; instead, a human head, the details of which are unfortunately almost indistinguishable in the engraving, is carved in the round at the junction of the triangular upper section of the staff with its shaft.

This staff apparently terminates below in a spike let into the bottom of the shaft, where the wood, pierced vertically for the reception of the spike, is reenforced by a strip of iron wound spirally about its extremity. The not very clear evidence for such an arrangement in the picture of the staff is supported by an examination of the Baluba example (Fig. 39). Here the spike has disappeared, leaving empty a cone-shaped hollow in the lower end which was obviously made for the reception of one, since this extremity of the shaft is reenforced with an iron spiral, though this has not served to counteract the widening of the hole caused by the shrinking of the wood. As a consequence the spike has dropped out and been lost.

This reenforcing device is common enough in Africa in the case of spear shafts fitted with tanged heads or butt spikes and its employment has been extended for purely ornamental purposes to the solid portion of shafts including those whose metal parts are socketed. The conjunction of the metal spiral with the hollowed end of the shaft of the staff leaves no room for doubt as to the practical purpose of the combination in this instance.

The staff recalls in various respects an object figured only in part but described at some length by W. Hein in the article previously referred to.5 The resemblances include a seated female figure with the distinctive headdress, the decoration of the upper part of the staff, which in this case is not a plane surfaced triangle but an inverted cone, and the slender shaft terminating in a spike. This object was employed, according to the collector, who received his information from the Arabs at Tabora from whom he acquired the specimens figured and described by Hein, as a daua or fetish implanted by means of its spike in the ground outside of a hut. The authority for the statement is of no great weight, as the author admits. Cameron figures a similar object and calls it a walking-stick.6 Perhaps both were partly right. The chief’s staff, or walking-stick, as a symbol of authority in other parts of the southern Congo lent some of the chief’s authority and sacrosanctitude to the chief’s envoy to whom it was temporarily entrusted and may perhaps be thus in some degree fetish. Set up outside his dwelling—these staves were evidently contrived to stand alone—it might serve as a symbol of the chief’s power as formidable as a fetish to his subjects and often as effectively sinister in fact as a fetish was believed to be. In countries under Baluba influence the great chiefs had a sacred or semisacred character.

The posture of the figure which surmounts the Baluba staff, seated and with feet hanging clear of the ground, has some analogy with that of the female figure published by Hein. The latter is seated on a man’s shoulders with her feet hanging down over the front of his body. Persons of chiefly rank were thus carried when they went abroad, at any rate on ceremonious occasions, in Urua and other parts of the southern Congo. The position of the arms of the woman figured here is that of the female figure forming the chief ornament of a class of objects from this eastern region described by Cameron and Thomson7 as bow stands. One of these objects is figured by Sir Harry Johnston in the book previously quoted,8 and is there stated to be the staff of office of a Baluba chief in the northern Katanga country, and to be the property of Mr. Torday. This is a part of the region we have been considering, and the collector’s name is another clue to the location of the Baluba group from whom the staff pictured here was obtained by Mr. Torday. The three pronged “staff of office” has the familiar basket-weave decoration, and the general character, as well as the disposition of the cicatrized ornament on the body of the woman, so far as it can be made out, is quite similar to that shown in Figs. 39 and 40. The headdress is not shown, but there is no reason to suppose that it differs from that which is peculiar to a whole group of objects exemplifying a well defined and unmistakable style.

1 Quoted by Hein, Holzfiguren der Wahuga, p. 16, Supplement to Vol. IX of Internationales Archiv fur Ethnographie.

2 Museum Journal, Vol. XIV, No.2.

3 Journal of the Anthropological Institute, VI, p. 169.

4 George Grenfell and the Congo, II, p. 701. In the illustration the staff has been inverted.

5 P. 17 and pl. II.

6 Hein, p. 18.

7 Hein, p. 15 and pl. II.

8 Vol. II, p. 698.

Cite This Article

Hall, H. U.. "A Baluba Chieftain’s Staff." The Museum Journal XIV, no. 3 (September, 1923): 192-199. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/9812/

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