The Cutting Edge
West Central African 19th century throwing knives in the National Museum of Ethnology Leiden
A. M. Schmidt & P. Westerdijk
National Museum of Ethnology & C. Zwartenkot Art Books, 2006
Multi-bladed throwing knives are a uniquely central African contribution to man's panoply of edged weapons. Known outside of African only since the second half of the nineteenth century, their aesthetic appeal and novelty have led to the creation of a rich literature, The Cutting Edge being the most recent embodiment thereof. This book has been issued in conjunction with an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, The Netherlands) of its recently conserved collection of these artifacts and is especially valuable to students of ethnographic arms as it documents a collection of blades with known provenance and does so with very high production values, including large color photographs. The book is comprised of three main sections:
The first section, "The History of a Collection," by A. M. Schmidt (pages 9 -26) presents an intriguing and enjoyable review of how most of the throwing knives in this collection made their way from central Africa to the museum's collection. We learn that Dutch trade interests in the Lower Congo began early in the second half of the nineteenth century under the auspices of the Afrikaansche Handelsvereeniging (African Trade Association) and were continued after the collapse of that company in scandal by the Nieuwe Afrikaansche Handelsvereeniging (New African Trade Association) until Belgian and French interests forced the Dutch out by the close of the century. Dutch museums were eager to acquire items from central Africa as it was being 'opened up' by explorers and traders and the trading company encouraged its agents in the field to secure items for the museums. The essay is enriched by period photographs of the traders and their environment and includes short biographies of several key figures.
The second section, "The African Throwing Knife: An Introduction." by Peter Westerdijk (pages 27 - 41) provides a brief overview of these multi-bladed implements, expounding upon his basic definition of a multi-bladed weapon with additional blades branching in the same plane from a common stem, having no more handle covering than a thin flexible application of plant fiber, cord, skin or metal. His essay includes considerations which would have entered into the design of these weapons and how they were traditionally made from locally smelted iron, as well as considering the impact of imported European sheet steel in the twilight of this form. Methods of throwing, their manner of use in combat and their effective range as a weapon are also considered, with the essay closing on the symbolic roles of these weapons.
A general bibliography and map follow on pages 42 - 46, after which a full color Catalogue, credited to A. M. Schmidt and W. M. M. Holthausen continues through to page 111. The catalogue is subdivided by cultural group and also includes a few related items such as rattan shields (with fixtures for carrying of these knives) and hand weapons of related form. The photographs were taken under excellent lighting and feature the entire beveled 'display face' of each knife reproduced in large size and with excellent reproduction of details. Brief museum label type captions are included for each item and include a brief description, details of acquisition, overall dimensions, component materials and literature references, when applicable.
It is easy to recommend this new work to fellow ethnographic weapons enthusiasts as it clearly has achieved its goals and provides an excellent view of the exhibition at a distance and a lasting reference of very well presented examples of known provenance, delivering good value at EUR 30.00. The only caveat that I wish to offer is not a flaw, but a reminder that this book documents a specific collection comprised of examples almost entirely (though not exclusively) from the areas of activity of Dutch traders in the nineteenth century, and as such, several varieties of throwing knives from the wider distribution of the form are not included.
Lee A. Jones
North America South America Africa Europe Asia Oceania Return to Bibliography Index or Home Page