The Art of the Fang Short Sword
The Fang peoples of the West Central African countries of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon seemed to exert a fascination in the minds Europeans from early 19th century accounts onwards (Bowdich 1819, Wilson 1843, Du Chaillu 1861, Burton 1876, De Brazza 1878, 1888, Kingsley 1897, Bennett 1899). This related to their reputation for intelligence and energy, their vigorous and distinctive culture, their migration towards the coast, and their impressive physical appearance. Mary Kingsley (1897) described them as "full of fire, temper, intelligence and go."
Early visitors avidly collected Fang artefacts as attested by the large numbers of items in museums such as the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, British Museum in London, Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, Musée d'Ethnographie Genève in Switzerland and The Metropolitan Museum in New York. Collections were made by missionaries such as J. Leighton Wilson (Wilson 1843); by traders such as Robert Bruce Napoleon Walker of the company Hatton and Cookson (McMillan 1996); and by expeditions such as those of Savorgnan de Brazza, accompanied between 1883-1886 by his brother Giacomo. Giacomo de Brazza’s contract with the Musée Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris permitted him to profit from the commercial sale of duplicate specimens collected (Perrois 2012).
By the beginning of the 20th century, Fang sculpture and masks were influential in the development of modernism in European art (e.g. Cohen 2017 and references therein) and subsequently became iconic within the entire corpus of African Art (Perrois 2006). The artistry of Fang ironwork has largely been neglected, with limited attention focussed on the distinctive bird-headed knives which were also found among Kele and Mbede group peoples along the higher reaches of the Ogooué River in Gabon (Westerdijk, 1988, Spring 1993) and the striking brass neck collars of the Fang. The present contribution discusses the distinctive double-edged Fang short swords which are well represented in museums and private collections, offering a new typology and discussing the characteristics of the three distinctive groups identified.
Following the first known contact between Fang people and non-African outsiders, Dr. J. Leighton Wilson (Wilson 1843, pg 238) recorded that “They had knives, spears, travelling bags, and other articles of curious and ingenious workmanship, specimens of which we procured for a very small quantity of beads. All of their implements are made of iron of their own, which is considered vastly superior to any brought to the country by trading vessels.” They were thus already known for the quality and originality of their workmanship from this very first brief account.
Paul Belloni Du Chaillu (1861), reporting on his journeys into the interior during the following decade (1856-59), illustrated a double edged knife in the form of a short sword with its sheath covered in reptile skin (Figure 1) and remarked on how Fang iron weapons “were beautifully ornamented with scroll-work, and wrought in graceful lines and curves which spoke well for their artisans.” This figure was later adapted by Ratzel (1887) for his “Völkerkunde.”
Figure 1. The earliest illustration of Fang weapons (Du Chaillu 1861)
The distinctive leaf-shaped form illustrated by Du Chaillu, with broad central rib bounded by two fullers, is rarely seen in most collections. Similar examples exist in the British Museum (inventory No. Af,+.6216, donated by Henry Christy 1860-1869), Pitt-Rivers Museum (inventory nos. 1884.24.37 .1 and 1884.24.35, acquired prior to 1874) and Musée du Quai Branly (inventory No. 71.2012.0.4645). Du Chaillu’s 1861 illustration of “Ndianyai, king of the Fans” (Figure 2) shows such a short sword as worn by the warrior.
Figure 2. “Ndianyai, king of the Fans” (Du Chaillu 1861)
Numerous other examples acquired by European museums before 1900 share the presence of barbs at the top of the blade, but are distinct from the style shown in Du Chaillu’s image in having a narrow central raised spine and no fullers (see the section on typology below). From an artistic point of view, a seemingly endless variety of abstract designs in the field at the top of the blade makes these short swords fascinating and a worthy subject of collection and study. In early publications and museum collections, various terms such as knife, dagger, sword, long couteau-poignard, glaive, épée, and schwert are used (Du Chaillu 1861, de Compiègne 1878, Kingsley 1897, Tessmann 1913), but here I refer to them as short swords.
Le marquis de Compiègne (1878) commented that the Pahouin (Fang), formerly had “for defence a large square shield of elephant skin [as shown in Du Chaillu’s illustration, Figure 2] and for the offensive, a crossbow which they loaded with very small arrows dipped in a mortal poison, the spear, the assegai and knives of all shapes and all sizes. But today they have abandoned all that to use only flintlocks, generally of English origin, and a kind of long dagger-knife forged by themselves.”
Mary Kingsley visited Gabon in 1895 and wrote (Kingsley 1897 pg 323) that the “iron-work of the Fans deserves especial notice for its excellence.” She mentioned (pg 325) a smith’s tool of “a pointed piece of iron, with which he works out the patterns he puts at the handle-end of his swords.” Kingsley also presented photographs of a group of Fang with their prized guns (Figure 3). She collected a fine short sword which was later presented by her brother to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1900 (1900.39.54).
Figure 3. Fang with their guns, Kingsley (1897, facing pg 257).
Bennett (1899), a medical doctor among the Fang during the 1890s, wrote, “Very large fighting knife blades are made and beautifully fashioned and ornamented with various punch marks.” Like previous authors, he noted the excellence of Fang ironwork, but commented that imported brass wire was in great demand. It was commonly used in binding the grip and barbs of the short swords.
Tessmann (1913), reporting on the period 1904-1909, noted that traditional Fang weapons had taken on an increasingly prestige and ceremonial function following the ready supply of guns and machetes in the 1860s and 1870s (see also Dounias 2016). He illustrated two examples of the short sword, one with and one without barbs (v2, pg 247, Abb. 80), together with an ornamented metal covered sheath. Tessmann also presented a sample of 12 decorations found on the upper portions of the blades. He noted that the Fang called these weapons “fa.”
In his extensive folios of illustrations (published in facsimile by Musée d'Ethnographie Genève), Fernand Grébert, based at Talagouga mission station on the Ogooué River, depicted only two examples, both from the period 1912 to 1917, suggesting that they were rarely seen by this time. None is illustrated in drawings dating from his later residence in Gabon between 1924 and 1931.
As highly characteristic Fang artefacts, examples of short swords have been illustrated in Laburthe-Tolra (1992, pg 71) and Elsen (2003, pg 91).
Here I present a new classification for the double-edged short swords based on presence or absence of barbs and presence or absence of a narrow central spine. Three types readily emerge from this approach (Figure 4), as follows:
Type 1 (Figure 5). Barbed, leaf-shaped (Leaf Index, LI, being max width/width at base of ornament field of about 1.3) blades with no narrow central spine, but rather one or two fullers (longitudinal slots with steep inner margin) adjacent to the centreline. This is the type observed by Du Chaillu in the 1850s. Examples of the rare case of only a single fuller being present adjacent to the centre line (Type 1b) reside in the Pitt Rivers collection (inventory numbers 1884.61.26 and 1822.214.171.124). Fullers reduce the weight of a blade without compromising strength, making it faster and easier to wield. A neck is present between the barbed top of the blade and the guard. Grips and guards are usually not wire-wrapped (but see 73.1963.0.631 in Musée du Quai Branly). Lengths range from 52 to 77.5 with a mean of 59 cm. The pre 1874 dates of pieces in the Pitt Rivers collection, pre-1869 in the British Museum collection and appearance in du Chaillu’s (1861) illustrations suggests that this form dates to the period of the 1860s, 1850s and earlier.
Type 2 (Figure 6). Barbed, slightly leaf-shaped to parallel-sided blades with a narrow central spine and no fuller. Grips and guards are commonly wire-wrapped, sometimes with ornamental designs (e.g. Laburthe-Tolra 1992, pg 73). Guards are almost always perpendicular to the handle axis, but in rare cases angle forward towards the blade. Lengths range from 41 to 62 with a mean of 51 cm, typically shorter than the Type 1 short swords. This is by far the most abundant type and an example collected by Mary Henrietta Kingsley during her 1895 journey and presented to the Pitt Rivers collection in 1900 (by her brother Charles G. Kingsley) is typical (inventory number 1900.39.54). An early example in the Musée du Quai Branly collection (71.18126.96.36.199-2) was acquired before 1887.
Type 3 (Figure 7). Non-barbed slightly leaf-shaped to parallel-sided blades with a narrow central spine and no fuller. The ornament field has a flat top as opposed to the concave towards hilt form of the Type 2 short swords. Lengths range from 46 to 62 with a mean of 52 cm, similar to the Type 2 short swords. An example in the Musée du Quai Branly collection (71.18188.8.131.52-2) was acquired before 1886 and one in the British Museum collection (Af1886,1207.25.a) was donated by R.D. Derbishire in 1886. They therefore appear to be approximately coeval with the Type 2 short swords. Tessmann (1913) illustrated such a sword encountered during the period 1904-1909 (Tessmann 1913 V2 abb 80, pg 247).
Figure 4. Summary of three types of Fang short sword as defined here. Type 1 is typically larger than types 2 and 3 although there is some overlap. Type 1 is the first to be illustrated and is well represented in the earliest collections, such as that of the Pitt Rivers in Oxford.
Figure 5. Example of a Type 1 short sword with two clearly developed fullers either side of a broad central ridge 11 mm wide at widest (RS.AF83, length 64 cm). The fullers have a steep inner margin and ramp up to the top of the outer bevels of the blade. The ornament field is divided into three elongate rectangles by the two fullers.
Figure 6. Example of a Type 2 short sword with narrow central spine and no fullers (RS.AF18, length 49.6 cm).
Figure 7. Example of a Type 3 short sword with narrow central spine and no barbs (RS.AF16, length 48.3 cm).
Bennett (1899) observed that the “patterns mostly seen in Fang ornamentation consist of bands, incised lines, elliptical punch marks, herring bone, lozenge pattern and cross lines.”
Tessmann’s (1913, V1, pg 271) sample of 12 of the abstract decorative motifs incised into the portion of the blade lying directly in front of the hilt is reproduced below (Figure 8).
Figure 8. Drawings of incised designs on short sword and axes, Tessmann (1913, V1, pg 271).
A further set of examples is shown (Figure 9) below. The lack of repetition between blades is remarkable, even though the component motifs are clearly visible. Typically, but not always, the design on one side of a blade differs from that on the other.
Figure 9. Details of the field of ornament on a sample of Fang short swords, representing one Type 1, seven Type 2 and two Type 2. A) Type 1 (RS.AF83); B) Type 2 (RS.AF18); C) Type 2 (RS.AF15); D) Type 2 (RS.AF18); ; E) Type 3 (RS.AF84) ; F) Type 2 (RS.AF.19) ; G) Type 2 (RS.AF17); H Type 3 (RS.AF.16 ; I) Type 2 (RS.AF14); J) Type 2 (RS.AF15).
The basic motifs are 1) simple punch marks, arranged either vertically or angled to make herringbone-like patterns (Fig. 9F, G and J), and either occupying the entire ornamental field or enclosed in elongate rectangles (Fig. 9 G and J); 2) cross hatch designs, within triangles or in the form of alternating triangles within a rectangle (Fig. 9C and I); 3) arrays of arcs both large and small (Fig. 9A, D, E and H), in some cases with cross-hatched fills (Fig. 9H); and 4) lines of nested ovoids parallel to the length of the blade. (Fig. 9B).
In the case of Type 2 short swords there is usually an upward-concave boundary to the ornament field, whereas all boundaries are straight in the case of Type 3 short swords. In Type 1 short swords, the ornament field is broken in to three areas if two fullers are present, or two areas if only one fuller.
Rare Figurative Decoration
In addition to the abstract ornament, I am aware of a single case of figurative decoration on the blade of a Fang short sword (author's collection, RS.AF18). This Type 2 short sword is 50 cm long. Holding the blade up to the light reveals a human figure 4 cm tall engraved in dots and dashes, with rifle in right hand (Figure 10). The head of the figure is 17 cm from the tip of the blade. The orientation is right way up for someone holding the sword with blade pointing upwards.
We can only guess at the intention behind adding this figure to the blade, but the representation of the potent rifle, newly encountered by the Fang around the middle of the 19th century is suggestive. A bark panel illustrated by Tessmann (1913, V1, pg 273, Fig. 14) shows similar stylised figures of men with rifles (Figure 11). An example of a rifle showing this form, in Fang hands before 1886, has inventory number 71.1886.77.76 in the Musée du Quai Branly, and see Mary Kingsley’s photograph (Figure 3).
Mary Kingsley provided the following description of a Fang gentleman and his gun (pg 264): “I must not forget to mention the other member of our party, a Fan gentleman with the manners of a duke and the habits of a dustbin. He came with us, quite uninvited by me, and never asked for any pay ; I think he only wanted to see the fun, and drop in for a fight if there was one going on, and to pick up the pieces generally. He was evidently a man of some importance, from the way the others treated him ; and moreover he had a splendid gun, with a gorilla skin sheath for its lock, and ornamented all over its stock with brass nails.”
Figure 10. Detail of the incised figurative art. The figure is 4 cm tall and is shown with a rifle. Note the narrow central spine typical of Type 2 blades.
Figure 11. Drawing of part of the bark panel illustrated by Tessmann (1913, pg 273, Fig. 14) showing men with rifles.
An interesting variety of scabbard types is known. They are constructed from two thin pieces of wood, each 2 to 4 mm thick, which are then covered in several types of material, in some cases lost over time, exposing the inner wood panels (Figure 12). Scabbard lengths typically range from 36-48 cm.
Figure 12. Scabbard belonging to a Type 1 short sword of two thin sheets of wood and fibre binding, lacking the outer covering. Length 48 cm.
Most celebrated are the scabbards covered in reptile skin, some exhibiting a narrow flare at the termination (Figure 13), as seen in Du Chaillu's 1861 illustration, others a broad flare (Figure 14). The distinctive pattern on these reptile skins reveals their origin as the skin of the water monitor (Varanus niloticus, Dowell et al. 2016). Brass tacks are sometimes used for additional decoration. Mammal skin coverings with finely braided elements and sinew bindings are also known (Figure 15). Most unusual are the scabbards covered in basketry work (Figure 16). Tessmann (1913 V1 abb 167, pg 216) illustrated a relatively simple example and another (illustrated below) shows an elaborate artistic decoration of nested lozenges. Metal scabbard coverings are also known (see Tessmann 1913 V2 abb 80, pg 247).
Figure 13. A scabbard to a Type 2 short sword wrapped in monitor lizard (Varanus niloticus) skin with narrowly flaring termination as seen in Du Chaillu's 1861 illustration (RS.AF14, total length 53.5 cm).
Figure 14. A scabbard to a Type 2 short sword wrapped in monitor lizard (Varanus niloticus) skin with broadly flaring termination (RS.AF84, total length 53 cm). Brass tacks have been added along the lower margin of the scabbard.
Figure 15. Scabbard covering in mammal skin with skilfully braided bands (RS.AF15, total length 55.5 cm).
Figure 16.Type 3 short sword with fine basketwork scabbard (RS.AF16, total length 50.5 cm). A chain of 6 sets of nested lozenges become chevrons towards the tip. A length of coiled brass wire protects the tip of the scabbard.
Short swords are among the most characteristic of Fang artefacts, together with the decorated brass neck collars, wooden sculptures and masks. An apparently endless variety of abstract geometric designs adorn the upper portion of the blades, reflecting the artistry, originality and creativity of the makers. These attributes of the Fang metalworkers were recognised from the earliest encounters with non-African visitors onwards.
A case of figurative decoration is of great interest given its incorporation of the image of a flintlock muzzle-loader rifle, the new weapon which supplanted the traditional Fang iron weapons during the 1860s and 1870s.
A new classification for the Fang short swords has been presented here, dividing them into Type 1 leaf-shaped barbed blades with marked fullers (either 2 or 1); Type 2 parallel-sided barbed blades with narrow central spine; and Type 3 blades with narrow central spine, but no barbs. Type 1 blades are the earliest recorded (from the 1850s and 1860s) and Type 2 blades are the most abundant form. Type 2 and 3 short swords are typically shorter (mean length of 51-52 cm) than the Type 1 short swords (mean length of 59 cm). They appear to date from at least the 1880s and were encountered as late as the first decade or two of the 20th century. Scabbards of all three types of short sword consist of a pair of thin pieces of wood covered with monitor lizard skin, mammal skin and occasionally basketwork or metal.
Whilst being entirely serviceable weapons, the Fang short sword increasingly became a prestige status object towards the end of the 19th century, together with prized muzzle-loader trade guns, largely of English origin. In the present, they can be enjoyed as finely made and richly ornamented artefacts, highly representative of the culture that produced them.
Bennett, Albert L. 1899. Ethnographical Notes on the Fang. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 29, No. 1/2, pp. 66-98
Bowdich, Thomas Edward. 1819. Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, with a statistical account of that kingdom, and geographical notices of other parts of the interior of Africa, London: J. Murray
Burton, Richard Francis, 1865. A Day among the Fans. Read February 17th 1863. Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, Vol. III, John Murray, 36-47.
Burton, Richard Francis, 1876. Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo. London: Sampson Low, et al.
Cohen, J.I. 2017. Fauve Masks: Rethinking Modern “Primitivist” Uses of African and Oceanic Art, 1905–8. The Art Bulletin, Volume 99, 136-165.
Dowell, S.A., Portik, D.M, de Buffrénil, V., Ineich, I., Greenbaume, E., Kolokotronis, S.O. & Hekkalaa, E.R. 2016. Molecular data from contemporary and historical collections reveal a complex story of cryptic diversification in the Varanus (Polydaedalus) niloticus Species Group. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, Volume 94, Part B, January 2016, Pages 591-604.
de Compiègne, Marquise (du Pont, L.A.H.V.) 1878. L'Afrique equatoriale: Gabonais, Pahouins, Gallois. Paris
De Brazza, S. 1878. Trois explorations effectuées dans l'Quest Africain (1876-1885).
De Brazza, S. 1888. Voyages dans l'Ouest Africain (1875-1887). Le Tour du Monde, Nouveau Journal des Voyages. Deuxième Semestre. Libraire Hachette, Paris.
Dounias, E. 2016. From Subsistence to Commercial Hunting: Technical Shift in Cynegetic Practices Among Southern Cameroon Forest Dwellers During the 20th Century. Ecology and Society 21(1):23. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-07946-210123
Du Chaillu, Paul B. 1861. Explorations and adventures in Equatorial Africa. John Murray, London.
Elson, J, 2003. De Fer et de Fierté, Armes blanches d Afrique noire du musée Barbier Mueller.
Grébert, F. 1932. Afrique Equatoriale Français, Ogooué, de 1913-1917. Reproduced in facsimile in "Le Gabon de Fernand Grébert 1913-1932" with introductions by Savary, C. & Perrois, L., Musée d'Ethnographie Genève, Editions D.
Kingsley, Mary H. 1897. Travels in West Africa. Macmillan and co. Ltd, London
Laburthe-Tolra, P. 1992. Fang. Editions Dapper, Paris.
McMillan, N. 1996. Robert Bruce Napoleon Walker, F.R.G.S., F.A.S., F.G.S., C.M.Z.S. (1832-1901), West African trader, explorer and collector of zoological specimens. Archives of Natural History 23 (1): 125-141.
Perrois, L. 2006. Fang. 5 Continents Editions, Milan, 154 pp.
Perrois, L. 2012. Kota. 5 Continents Editions, Milan, 162 pp.
Ratzel, F. 1887. Völkerkunde. Leipzig.
Spring, C. 1993. African Arms and Armour. British Museum Press, 144 pp.
Tessmann, G. 1913. Die Pangwe. Wasmuth, Berlin. 2 volumes.
Westerdijk, P. 1988. The African Throwing Knife: A Style Analysis. OMI, University of Utrecht.
Wilson, J.L. 1843. Mr. Wilson's description of the country near the mouth of the Gaboon. The Missionary Herald, XXXIX, 6 (1843), 229-240.