In My Time of Dying
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In My Time of Dying

A History of Death and the Dead in West Africa

John Parker

  1. 376 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

In My Time of Dying

A History of Death and the Dead in West Africa

John Parker

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An in-depth look at how mortuary cultures and issues of death and the dead in Africa have developed over four centuries In My Time of Dying is the first detailed history of death and the dead in Africa south of the Sahara. Focusing on a region that is now present-day Ghana, John Parker explores mortuary cultures and the relationship between the living and the dead over a four-hundred-year period spanning the seventeenth to twentieth centuries. Parker considers many questions from the African historical perspective, including why people die and where they go after death, how the dead are buried and mourned to ensure they continue to work for the benefit of the living, and how perceptions and experiences of death and the ends of life have changed over time.From exuberant funeral celebrations encountered by seventeenth-century observers to the brilliantly conceived designer coffins of the late twentieth century, Parker shows that the peoples of Ghana have developed one of the world's most vibrant cultures of death. He explores the unfolding background of that culture through a diverse range of issues, such as the symbolic power of mortal remains and the dominion of hallowed ancestors, as well as the problem of bad deaths, vile bodies, and vengeful ghosts. Parker reconstructs a vast timeline of death and the dead, from the era of the slave trade to the coming of Christianity and colonial rule to the rise of the modern postcolonial nation.With an array of written and oral sources, In My Time of Dying richly adds to an understanding of how the dead continue to weigh on the shoulders of the living.

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Informations

Année
2021
ISBN
9780691214900
Sujet
History
Sous-sujet
African History

1

Cultural Encounter

WILLEM BOSMAN WAS 16 years old when he arrived on the Gold Coast as an employee of the Dutch West India Company in 1688. After serving there for fourteen years and rising to the position of chief factor at the company’s headquarters at Elmina, Bosman returned to Holland, where in 1704 he published an account of his experiences in West Africa. Translations into other European languages followed and the book soon became recognized as a valuable source of knowledge on the Guinea coast. Of concern to us are Bosman’s observations about death and dying and, more broadly, about the worldview and imaginaries of the Akan-speaking peoples among whom he lived. These matters certainly attracted his attention; he devoted one chapter of his book to ‘the religion and idolatry of the Negroes’ and another to disease, medicine and ‘their notions and superstitious customs relating to death and funerals’.1 It is the existence of such European accounts that allows us to reconstruct something of the quotidian experiences of life and death on the coast of West Africa in the opening centuries of Atlantic commerce. Yet the titles of Bosman’s chapters, with their language of idolatry and superstition, indicate the interpretive challenges which these textual sources present. As recent scholarship on frontiers of cultural encounter in the early modern era has made clear, written sources, far from being disinterested repositories of knowledge, are themselves the product of the unstable, contested transactions which they seek to record. Both the encounter itself and its documentation, that is, can be seen to have been shaped by ‘implicit ethnographies’ held by all participants—of the self as well as of the other.2 Their leitmotif, in West Africa as elsewhere, ‘is a tangled knot of realities and representations’.3
This opening chapter begins to set out the landscape of that encounter as it unfolded on the Gold Coast from the late fifteenth century. It does not seek to provide a comprehensive social, political or cultural background for what will follow; these factors will emerge when and where they are relevant to the history of death and the dead. Rather, its focus is a set of fundamental metaphysical questions that, in the broadest sense, framed understandings of life and death among the Akan and their neighbours: where did mankind come from? how did death come into the world? where do people go when they die? By beginning our story with Willem Bosman the intention is not to recapitulate older ideas of the coast of Guinea as a ‘white man’s grave’. Rather, it is to suggest that the reality and representation of the African encounter with mortality became entangled with the encounter with European others.
Bosman opens his discussion of African belief with the first of these questions. He observes that almost all ‘the Coast Negroes believe in one True God, to whom they attribute the Creation of the World and all things in it’, yet insists that this perception is derived not from ‘the Tradition of their Ancestors 
 but to their daily Conversation with the Europeans, who from time to time have continually endeavoured to emplant [sic] this Notion in them’. Bosman offers two pieces of evidence for this. ‘First, that they never make any Offerings to God, nor call upon him in time of need; but in all their Difficulties, they apply themselves to their Fetiche.’
The Second is, the different Opinions which some of them have kept concerning the Creation; for up to this day quite a few among them believe that Man was made by Anansie, that is, a great Spider: the rest attribute the Creation of Man to God, which they assert to have happened in the following manner: They tell us, that in the beginning God created Black as well as White Men to people the world together; thereby not only hinting but endeavouring to prove that their race was as soon in the World as ours; and to bestow a yet greater Honour on themselves, they tell us that God having created these two sorts of Men, offered two sorts of Gifts, viz. Gold, and the Knowledge or arts of Reading and Writing, giving the Blacks the first Election, who chose Gold, and left the Knowledge of Letters to the White. God granted their Request, but being incensed at their Avarice, resolved that the Whites should for ever be their Masters, and they obliged to wait on them as their Slaves.4
Bosman was not the first European on the Gold Coast to reflect on African beliefs or to speculate about the assimilation of Christian motifs into local traditions.5 He was, however, the first to set down this particular creation myth, which would continue to be recorded, with subtle variations, over the coming centuries. We begin with Bosman, too, because of the weight of theoretical interpretation that has been placed upon his work. Owing to its wide dissemination, degree of insight and originality (many accounts of the era plagiarized earlier works), his Description of the Coast of Guinea has long been recognized as an essential source for the history of seventeenth-century West Africa. In a recent sequence of essays, moreover, William Pietz identified Bosman as the key mediator of what he called ‘the Enlightenment theory of fetishism’. Derived from the medieval Portuguese feitiço (magical charm; feitiçaria: sorcery), the word ‘fetish’ (Bosman’s ‘Fetiche’) came to be used by both Africans and Europeans, from Senegal in the north via the lower Guinea coast to Kongo and Angola in the south, to refer to ritual objects, deities and spiritual forces and to religious practice itself. Fetish, Pietz argues, ‘as an idea and a problem, and as a novel object not proper to any prior discrete society, originated in the cross-cultural spaces on the coast of West Africa during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’.6 From there it was carried into the broader Atlantic world and, ultimately, into the notion of ‘fetishism’ as the index of a Western theory of value.
Pietz’s idea that certain forms and representations of religious belief and practice emerged from the crucible of cultural encounter provides a useful tool for thinking about the Gold Coast in the era of Atlantic commerce. That the creation myth is the product of a cross-cultural space is readily apparent: not only does it seek to explain the coexistence of Africans and Europeans; it reflects upon the transactional nature of their relationship on the Gold Coast. It is certainly possible to regard the myth as a reflection of Bosman’s own sense of cultural superiority, ‘a corroboration of his idea that Africans were ignorant people led simply by greed and interest’.7 I would argue, however, that it is more interesting than that. In an essay developing Pietz’s thesis, Roger Sansi-Roca too readily dismisses this view of a people alienated from their creator and beholden to ‘fetishes’ as a representation shaped by a hard-headed Protestant sensibility. Neither is it enough, as Christiane Owusu-Sarpong does in a recent analysis of Akan funerary texts, simply to wave away a subsequent account of the myth as ‘ethnocentric’.8 Far from being a jaundiced or aberrant misreading, the myth accords with a range of other sources which share its rather pessimistic and troubled worldview. These include traditions of how death followed mankind into the world. We will return to Bosman and this other evidence below. First, it is important to establish the context in which these sources emerged: the opening phase of the encounter between Africans and Europeans on the Gold Coast.

The reconfiguration of the relationship between West Africa and Europe in the course of the fifteenth century was a central dynamic in the forging of the early modern world. The maritime frontiersmen of this process were the Portuguese, who, fired by a combination of crusading zeal and a desire to break into the trans-Saharan trade in gold, edged their way south around the Atlantic coast of Africa in a sequence of exploratory voyages. By the 1440s, Portuguese mariners had reached the Senegal River, where they gleaned more information about the organization of Saharan commerce in the domains of the empire of Mali. By 1460 they had reached Sierra Leone and in 1471 pushed on to a stretch of coast where, at the settlement of Shama, near the mouth of the Pra River, they were able finally to purchase quantities of gold. The Portuguese were rarely permitted to enter the hinterland behind what they would dub the Costa da Mina (Coast of the Mine), but the Pra formed one arm of a river system draining a densely forested, auriferous basin populated by another set of hardy frontiersmen. These forest dwellers called themselves Akan, a term which in their language, Twi, carried connotations of original settlement and cultural propriety. After ten years of itinerant coastal trade, the Portuguese secured permission from a local Akan ruler twenty miles to the east of Shama to establish a permanent fortress, and in January 1482 began the construction of what would be the first European building in the tropics, the fortress of São Jorge da Mina (known later as Elmina). From there they forged lucrative commercial relationships with the Akan and their fellow Twi-speaking Bono (or Bron) neighbours, who populated the forest–savanna fringe to the north, along with members of the far-flung Mande-speaking trading diaspora originally from the domains of Mali. The Portuguese eventually diverted perhaps half of the trans-Saharan gold trade to Lisbon, boosting crown revenues and thereby funding further seaborne expansion into the Indian Ocean and to Brazil. The old Mediterranean-centred world had begun to be supplanted by a new Atlantic economy, in which the gold-producing Akan and their neighbours on the Costa da Mina were to play a pivotal role.
All of this is well known.9 While the initial exploration of Atlantic Africa in the fifteenth century is fairly well documented, however, the subsequent century and a half of Portuguese trade and settlement on the Mina coast is less so. In contrast to Upper Guinea, no synoptic Portuguese account of the region was written, leaving historians reliant on scraps of fugitive information to shed light on the nature of local societies.10 One episode that has been recorded in some detail is the establishment of São Jorge da Mina in 1482. This foundational moment in Afro-European relations is preserved in two chronicles: that by the royal chronicler Rui de Pina, writing circa 1500–1510s, and that by João de Barros, who had served at the fort in the 1520s and whose account was published in his Decadas da India in 1552. With the exception of fleeting onshore encounters noted by the Flemish sailor Eustache de la Fosse two years earlier, it includes the first recorded conversation between an African and a European on the Gold Coast. This dialogue, between the commander of the Portuguese expedition Diogo de Azambuja and the local Akan ruler, whose name is given as Caramansa, is of interest because it concerned, among other things, matters of death and the afterlife. Some explanation of these sources, drawing on the textual analysis by P.E.H. Hair, is in order here.11
Neither of our chroniclers witnessed the events they describe, but it is likely that the account by Rui de Pina—and quite possibly that by João de Barros—was based on a firsthand report, which has not survived, by Azambuja. That much of the incidental detail accords with subsequent ethnographic observation suggests the accuracy of the source material. The problem is that the tenor of the conversation between Azambuja and Caramansa in the two versions is quite different: while Pina explains Portuguese motives as purely commercial and secular, Barros lays emphasis on a desire for religious conversion—giving rise to a discussion of Christian eschatology. While there can be no doubt that Barros drew on the account by Pina, what remains unclear is whether Barros included material left out by Pina or simply embroidered his narrative in order to give it a more godly spin. Hair suggests that the latter is more likely, although he concedes that Azambuja’s approach may not have been ‘quite as devoid of specific reference to religious conversion as Pina’s account would seem to indicate’.12 Either way, this ur-encounter, as both event and representation, is saturated with the sort of ‘implicit understandings’ that would come to characterize the history of the cross-cultural coastal space in the centuries that followed.
Disembarking on 19 January 1482 at the settlement described two years earlier as a ‘village of two parts’, Azambuja and his crew said mass and sent a message requesting an audience with the local ruler, Caramansa. Caramansa’s precise identity remains a matter of speculation: de la Fosse had noted the existence of two rulers—the manse and the caramanse, le roi et vice-roi, respectively—which suggests that the latter may have been the coastal representative of an Akan kingdom based further inland, possibly Eguafo to the west or Fetu to the east.13 The meeting took place the following day, when Caramansa, surrounded by court dignitaries and warriors, received the Portuguese in full state. ‘These noblemen wore rings and golden jewels on their heads and beards’, Azambuja was recorded by Barros as having observed with interest. ‘Their king, Caramança, came in their midst, his legs and arms covered with golden bracelets and rings, a collar around his neck, from which hung some small bells, and in his plaited beard golden bars.’ In Barros’s account, Azambuja, thanking the king for his hospitality, explained that the king of Portugal wished to repay him with love, a love
which would be more advantageous than his, for it was love for the salvation of his soul, the most precious thing that man had, because it gave life, knowledge, and reason, which distinguished man from beasts. And he who wished to know it, must first know of the Lord who made it, that is God, the maker of sky, sun, moon, earth, and all u...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover Page
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Contents
  5. List of Illustrations
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Introduction
  8. 1. Cultural Encounter
  9. 2. Body, Soul and Person
  10. 3. Speaking of Death
  11. 4. Grief and Mourning
  12. 5. Gold, Wealth and Burial
  13. 6. Faces of the Dead
  14. 7. The Severed Head
  15. 8. Slaves
  16. 9. Human Sacrifice
  17. 10. Poison
  18. 11. Christian Encounters
  19. 12. From House Burial to Cemeteries
  20. 13. Ghosts and Vile Bodies
  21. 14. Writing and Reading about Death
  22. 15. The Colony of Medicine
  23. 16. Wills and Dying Wishes
  24. 17. Northern Frontiers
  25. 18. Reordering the Royal Dead
  26. 19. Making Modern Deathways
  27. Conclusion
  28. Glossary
  29. Notes
  30. Index