Fetichism in West Africa by Robert Hamill Nassau


Only men inherit. The children of sisters do not inherit unless all the children of the brothers are dead.

Slaves do not inherit.

"Chieftains" (those chosen to rule) and "kings" (those chosen to the office) inherit more than their brothers, even though the ruling one be the younger.

A woman does not inherit at any time or under any circumstances, nor hold property in her own right, even if she has produced it by her own labor.

There is no supremacy in regard to age in the division of property. The things to be inherited are women (the widows), goods, house, and slaves.
An equal division, as far as it is possible, is made of all these.

The dead man's debts are to be paid by the heirs out of their inheritance, each one paying his part. There is no written will, but it is common for a man to announce his intention as to the division while still living.


The coast tribes and some of the interior have so-called "kings," who are chosen by their tribe to that office.

There are family cliques for the accomplishment of a desired end, but these are overruled by the tribal king.

There are headmen in each village with local authority; but they too are subject to the king, they having authority only in their own village.

Quarrels and discussions, called "palavers," are very common. (A palaver need not necessarily be a quarrel; the word is derived from a Portuguese verb = "to speak." It comes from the old days of slavery; it was the "council" held between native chiefs and white slave traders, in the purchase of a cargo of slaves.)

The headmen settle disputes about marriage, property rights, murders, war, thefts, and so forth. Their decisions may be appealed from to a chief, or carried further to the king, whose decision is final. Any one, young and old, male and female, may be present during a discussion. Usually only chosen persons do the speaking.

Instead of a question being referred to a chief or king, a committee of wise men is sometimes chosen for the occasion. Public assemblages are gathered by messengers sent out to summon the people. The meeting is presided over by the king.


The domestic servants are slaves. Prisoners of war are also made to do service; but on the making of peace male prisoners are returned to their tribe; the female prisoners are retained and married. Slaves were bought from interior tribes. If a male child was born to slave parents, he was considered free and could marry into the tribe. If the slave mother died, the widower could marry into the tribe. If the slave father died, the widow was married by some man of the family who owned him. There are no slaves bought or sold now, but there is a system of "pawns,"--children or women given as a pledge for a debt and never redeemed. Their position is inferior, and they are servants, but not slaves.

Also, if a prominent person (_e. g._, a headman) is killed in war, the people who killed him are to give a daughter to his family, who may marry her to any one they please.

A pawn may be sent away by the holder to some other place, but he cannot be sold or killed; but the holder may beat him if he be obstreperous.

During slavery days anything earned by a slave was taken to his master, who would allow him a share; also, at other times, the master would give the slave gifts. The slave could do paid labor for foreigners or other strangers, and was not necessarily punished if he did not share his wages with the master, but he would at least be rebuked for the omission. Women ruled their female slaves. For a slave's minor offences, such as stealing, the master was held responsible; for grave offences, such as murder, the slave himself was killed.

Certain liberty was allowed a slave; he could attend the village or tribal palavers and take part in the discussion. If a slave was unjustly treated by some other person, his owner could call a council and have the matter talked over, and the slave could be allowed to plead his case.

A slave man could hold property of his own; and if he were a worthy, sensible person, he could inherit.

In a slave's marriage of a woman the custom of gifts, feasts, and so forth was the same as for a free man.

If ill treated, he could run away to another tribe (not to any one of his own tribe), and would there be harbored, but still as a slave, and would not be given up to his former owner. A slave could become free only by his master setting him free; he could not redeem himself.


Kingship has connected with it the great honor that a son may inherit it if he is the right kind of man; but it is possible for him to be set aside and another chosen. A son may lose his place by foolishness and incompetency.

Attempts to rule independently of the king are sometimes made by cliques composed of three or four young persons of the same age, who make laws or customs peculiar to themselves. There is no national recognition of them, nor are they given any special privilege.

Kings have very little power over the fines or property of others. These are held, each man for himself; nor have they the right of taxation; but they have power to declare war, acting in concert with their people in declaring it and waging it. They administer justice as magistrates, decide palavers according to the unwritten law of custom, summon offenders, and inflict the punishment due.

Their dwellings differ but little from those of other persons of like wealth and personal ability.

When a palaver is called, the king sits as ruler of the meeting and does most of the talking. He provides food for those who come from a distance.

A king may be blamed if a war he has declared ends disastrously. While a king's son expects to inherit the title and power, there is no invariable rule of succession; he cannot take the position by force. He must be chosen; but the choice is limited to the members of one family, in which it is hereditary.

If the chosen person be a minor, another is selected (but of the same family) to act as regent. The "incompetency" which could bar a man from kingship, even though in regular succession, would be lack of stamina in his character. The king-elect must make a feast, to which he is to call all the people to eat, drink, and play for twenty days.

There are no higher state forms among the coast tribes, as in civilized lands; no union among tribes; no feudal power nor vassals; no monarchy, nothing absolute; no taxation, no monopoly. Some of the interior tribes formerly had tributes and kingly monopoly of certain products.


They still exist, but it can scarcely be said that they are a class. They have no organization; they have honor only in their own districts, unless they be called specially to minister in another place. They have power to condemn to death on charge of causing sickness. In their ceremonies they send the people to sing, dance, play, and beat drums, and they spot their bodies with their "medicines." Any one may choose the profession for himself; fetich doctors demand large pay for their services.



A stranger is entertained hospitably. He is provided with a house and food for two weeks, or as much longer as he may wish to stay. On departing he is given a present. His host and the village headman are bound to protect him from any prosecution while he is their guest, even if he be really guilty.


Such a _system_ does not exist. Whatever rules there are are handed down as tradition, by word of mouth. There are persons who are familiar with these old sayings, proverbs, examples, and customs, and these are asked to be present in the trial of disputed matters.

1. _Courts._ In the righting of any wrong the head of the family is to take the first step. If the offenders fail to satisfy him, he appeals to the king, who then calls all the people, rehearses the matter to them, and the majority of their votes is accepted by the king as the decision. The offenders will not dare to resist.

There is no regular court-house. In almost all villages there is a public shed, or "palaver-house," which is the town-hall, or public reception room. But a council may be held anywhere,--in the king's house, in the house of one of the litigants, on the beach, or under a large shady tree.

The council is held at any time of day,--not at night. There are no regular advocates; any litigant may state his own case, or have any one else do it for him. There are no fees, except to the king for his summoning of the case. There is sometimes betting on the result; though no stakes are deposited, the bets are paid. There is not much form of court
procedure. All the people of a village or district, even women and children, according to the importance of the case, assemble. While women are generally not allowed to argue in the case, yet their shouts of approval or protest have influence in the decision, and encourage the parties by outspoken sympathy.

If an accused person does not come voluntarily to court, the king's servants are sent to bring him. In the court the accused does not need to have some one plead for him, he speaks for himself. Accusers speak first, then the accused; the accusers reply, the accused answers; and the king and his aged counsellors decide. Witnesses are called from other places.
As there is no writing among untaught tribes, the depositions are by word of mouth.

Formerly the accused was subjected to the poison ordeal; indeed, the accuser also had to take the poison draught as a proof of his sincerity, and that his charge was not a libel. But this custom is no longer practised on the coast.

There is no substitution of any kind, except in rare cases. A guilty person must bear his own punishment in some way.

Oaths are common, and are used freely and voluntarily in the course of the discussion. A man who utters false testimony or bears false witness is expected to be thrust out of the assembly, but it is not always done.

When an oath is required, there is no escape from it; he who refuses to swear is considered guilty. Sometimes, under bravado, he will demand to be given "mbwaye" (the poison test), hoping that his demand will not be
complied with. When the test is produced, he may seek to escape it by refusing that particular kind and demanding another not readily obtainable. But his attempt at evasion is generally regarded as a sign of guilt.

In court, parties are not obstinate in their opinion; they ask for and take advice from others.

2. _Punishment._ If it be capital, the accusers are the executioners. Death is by various modes,--formerly very cruel, _e. g._, burning, roasting, torturing, amputation by piecemeal; now it is generally by gun, dagger, club, or drowning. For a debt that a creditor is seeking to recover, securities may be accepted. But if the accused then runs away, the person giving the security is tried and punished.

A creditor does not usually attach the property of the debtor, though often, in the interior tribes, a woman is seized as hostage. If a long time elapses in deciding the matter, the debtor may be held as prisoner until the debt is paid. Formerly it was very common for the debtor's family's property, or even their persons, to be seized as security; and it
still is common for a person of the debtor's tribe to be caught by the creditor's tribe, and detained until he is redeemed by his own people.

The king of the prisoner's tribe is called to help release him. If the king himself become a captive, his people combine to collect goods for the payment, and meanwhile give other persons in his place to secure his immediate release. Sometimes differences are settled in a fight, by a hand-to-hand encounter.

3. _Blood Atonement and Fines._ Revenge, especially for bloodshed, is everywhere practised. It is a duty belonging first to the "ijawe" (blood-relative), next to the "ikaka" (family), next to the "etomba" (tribe).

The murdered man's own family take the lead,--in case of a wife, her husband and his family, and the wife's family; sometimes the whole "ikaka"; finally, the "etomba."

A master seeks revenge for his slave or other servants. Formerly it was indifferent who was killed in revenge, so that it be some member of the murderer's tribe. Naturally that tribe sought to retaliate, and the feud was carried back and forth, and would be finally settled only when an equal number had been killed on each side,--a person for a person: a woman for a man, or _vice versa_; a child for a man or woman, or _vice versa_. A woman (wife of the man killed) does not take the lead in the revenge; his family must take the lead, her family must join in. They would be despised and cursed if they did not do so. The woman herself does not take part in this killing for revenge.

The avenger of blood may not demit his duty until some member of the other tribe has been killed. If a thief has been killed for his theft, blood may be taken for his death. But when that one other life is taken, the matter is considered settled; it is not carried on as a feud.

For a life taken by accident, a life is not required; but some penalty must be paid, _e. g._, a woman may be given as a wife. But, practically, in former times it was not admitted that "accidents" occurred; any misfortune was adjudged a fault.

Formerly even the plea of self-defence was not accepted. Even idiotic or otherwise irresponsible persons were held responsible, though sometimes they were ransomed by payment of a woman and goods.

At present blood is not always required, but formerly no money would have been accepted as a sufficient penalty. A man would have been despised for accepting it. There was no way of settlement except by bloodshed,--a life for a life,- except that, for the life of a woman, a woman and goods of a certain amount and kind might be accepted. When a woman was thus given for a murdered one, the living woman must not be old, but one capable of bearing children. Among the acceptable goods were sheep, goats, and pottery.

A wound or a broken limb is paid for in goods. These must come not solely from him who caused the injury; his family, as fellow offenders, must assist in paying.

The man who obtains the woman who is given for a woman killed, retains with her also part of the goods given with her, and part he shares with the family of the murdered one. If, in giving a woman for a murdered one, the offending family is unable to furnish also the required goods, they must sell another of their women in order to obtain those goods. The point is that they must give a woman _and_ goods; _two_ women will not suffice.

The ceremonies in settlement of a blood-feud are as follows: The woman is paid in presence of both parties; then the goods are given, counted, and received. Then both parties retire. In the course of a week the parties receiving the woman and the goods call the other party, and produce a goat and kill it in their presence. It is divided equally, and given half to each party; and the feud is settled, as by a covenant of peace, over the divided goat (Gen. xv. 10). The woman thus given in settlement will be married to some one.

The customs in her marriage are the same as for any other woman.
Subsequently those who paid her as a fine may come and ask a portion of goods for her as a wife. Not that they have any claim on her as their daughter; but the man who has married her will give the goods they ask for, under the common belief that, unless he does so, the children born by her will die early, or at least will not come to years of maturity.

All misdeeds and offences, even capital ones, may be condoned by a fine in goods, excepting only the murder of a man. This murderer must forfeit his life. These fines are paid with foreign goods, each offence having its own regulation price as a punishment.

In general, the punishment for an injury is the same, whether the injured one be rich or poor. A man's "majawe" are held responsible if he refuses to make restitution. If they also refuse, the offended party await a suitable opportunity, and then seize some one and hold him as a hostage until he is redeemed, for the price of the original offence, every mite of it being then exacted.

There is no right of asylum to any offender within the limit of his own tribe. In case of a man visiting, for any reason whatever, in the limits of another tribe one of whose members is a fugitive from justice into the limits of the visitor's tribe, this visitor may be seized, and his countrymen asked to extradite the criminal staying in their midst.

Corporal punishment is administered publicly, the townspeople being called to witness it, so as to operate on their fears and cause them to dread the doing of deeds which may bring on them such a penalty.

4. _Punishable Acts._ A person is punishable only for an injury committed intentionally, not by accident.

For damages by cattle, the animal may be killed if the damage be considerable. The injured party may keep and eat the carcass, and the owner cannot recover for it. In this respect animals are treated as human beings, their lives being forfeit; and the owner's majawe are held responsible along with him.

Punishments are rated according to the degree of the crime, in the order theft, adultery, rape, murder. Insults are not punishable by law; the insulted insults in return. If a fight results, and wounds are made during the fight, no fine is required.

Kidnapping, incest, and abortion are not known.

Under the slight duty owed to kings, treason can scarcely be said to exist. Its equivalent, the betrayal of tribal interests, is publicly rebuked, and a curse laid on the offender. If he be a servant, he is beaten and sent away.

The disturber of the peace of a wedding is expected to express regret, but no calamity will follow because of the disturbance. The offence is not common.


The tribes have fixed settlements wherever foreign governments have not taken possession. Each man may choose for a garden a place that has not been already occupied. The land is common property for the tribe. But each ijawe may choose a separate place for itself.

No man of a tribe has any claim on the soil other than is common to any other man of that tribe. He has, however, a claim greater than any stranger.

1. _Tenure._ Land is held as common property; it is not bought or sold to a fellow-tribeman. It may be bought from the confines of another tribe, and it is sold to foreigners. A hunter is free to go anywhere, even into the territory of an adjacent tribe. If he kills game there, he does not have to divide. Bee trees and honey are free to any one. The sea is free for fishing only to the coast tribes.

Every woman has a separate garden; even the wives of polygamists do not have gardens in common.

Soil is free. A family, however, may settle in a limited district, and claim it as theirs as long as they live there; or, leaving it temporarily, if they return after a reasonable time, they may still claim it. They temporarily mark their places by trees or stones, as boundary lines. But there is nothing permanent. They prove their right to it by residing on it
or making a garden from time to time. But their claim may be lost if the entire family leave it and go elsewhere. Such a place being vacated, and some one else wishing to occupy it, permission may be granted on formal application to the king. But if an occupant has deserted a place, and no one else has applied for it, he can resume it as his even after the lapse of years.

Dwellers on any ground have right to all the trees of fruitage on it, _e. g._, palm-nuts, and other natural wild edible nuts. Wells are never dug.
People depend on springs and streams. Springs are free, even though they be on land claimed by others.

A man assists his wife in the clearing of the forest for a garden plot; but she and her servants attend to the planting, weeding, and other working of the garden itself.

2. _Rights in Movables._ The tenant dweller on any particular lot of ground owns everything on it, except the ground itself. If a foreigner buy a piece of ground, he may or may not buy the houses, and so forth, according to agreement. The movables on any ground are houses, trees, and any vegetables planted.


There is no coin or metal currency, except among the coast tribes, where foreign governments have introduced it. Foreign trade-goods are everywhere the medium of purchase and exchange. But there is a sort of currency, in the shape of iron spear-heads and other forms resembling miniature hatchets, a certain number of which are given by interior tribes in the purchase of a wife. They are used only for this purpose, and are exchanged by the parties themselves for the foreign goods required in the dowry.

They are manufactured by any village blacksmith from imported iron. They are not received or recognized by white traders.

Formerly cowry shells were used, even by foreign traders, as a currency; and they are still so used in the Sudan. But in all coast tribes purchase and sale are effected by foreign-made calico prints, pottery, cutlery, guns, powder, rum, and a great variety of other goods.

The natural products of the country--ivory, rubber, palm-oil, dyewoods--and many other native unmanufactured articles are exchanged for these goods. The natural products belong to the men. If a woman should find ivory, she cannot sell it; it belongs to her husband to barter it.

Contracts are confirmed in various ways in different tribes. A common mode is to eat and drink together, as a sign that the bargain is closed; and it will not be broken. A contract cannot be broken after the price is agreed upon, even if only a part of the price is paid; the remainder is to be paid in instalments.

If one overreaches another in a trade, he must take back the imperfect article or add to it. This is true, according to native law, among themselves. Any amount of overreaching and deception is practised toward foreigners in a trade, or to members of another tribe; and many foreigners are just as guilty in their dealings with the natives.

Loans of trade-goods are constantly made, but the taking of interest therefor is not known. If a borrowed article, such as a canoe, is broken or lost, a new canoe must be given in its place. If the canoe is only injured and had been in want of repair, the borrower, on returning it, must repair it and also pay some goods. One going as surety for goods is held responsible.

Pawning of goods is commonly practised everywhere.

People are generous in making gifts to friends, or donations to the needy; but if a man who has been helped in time of distress subsequently increases in wealth, the one who helped him may demand a return of the original gift.



Religion is intimately mixed with every one of these aforementioned sociological aspects of family, rights of property, authority, tribal organization, judicial trials, punishments, intertribal relations, and commerce.

Mr. R. E. Dennett, residing in Loango, has made a careful and philosophic investigation into the religious ideas of the Ba-Vili or Fyât nation and adjacent tribes bordering on the Kongo. The result of his research shows that the native tribal government and religious and social life are inseparably united. He claims to have discovered a complex system of "numbers" and "powers" showing the Loango people to be more highly organized politically than are the equatorial tribes, and revealing a very curious co-relation of those "numbers," governing the physical, rational, and moral natures, with conscience and with God.

Some traces of the "numbers with meanings" are found in Yoruba, where, as described by Mr. Dennett, the division of the months of the year, the names of lower animals typical of the senses, and the powers of earth that speak to us represent religious ideas and relations. They err, therefore, who, as superficial observers, would brush away all these native views as mere superstition. They are more than mere superstition; though indeed very superstitious, they point to God.

The particular exponent of religious worship, the fetich, governs the arrangements of all such relations. It will be discussed as to its origin and the details of its use in the subsequent chapters.

Feticism in West Africa

Main Library