EAA Research Consultant
Join Date: Dec 2004
Location: Route 66
This a great background on Dahomey (now Benin) Ibrahiim, and thank you for taking the time to add these most helpful details on the regions and people of West Africa. It is pretty complex trying to understand the various religious and incurred colonial influences that compound the character and symbolic motifs and elements so your observations also are much appreciated.
In reviewing much of the material researched and presented which concern the notable Portuguese influences which prevailed in these regions, it is of course interesting to consider the occurrence of this cross motif in many of these West African sword blades.
With the Portuguese swords known variously as 'crab claw'; 'navigator' and 'black swords' colloquially, it has been established that many of these medieval form swords have equilateral crosses pierced in their discoid quillon terminals. It has further appeared that these openwork crosses seem to occur notably on examples of these swords which appear to be of colonial workmanship, thus probably produced in these West African regions.
In Burton, "Book of the Sword" (1884, p.165) he describes one of these swords illustrated same page line drawing (but with simple apertures in the quillons, not crosses) , "...upon the glorious Congo river, I was shown a sword belonging to the Mijolos or Mijeres, a tribe inhabiting the upper valley. All declared it to be of native make, and used during the sword-dance in the presence of the prince. But it is an evident copy of some weapon of the 15th century; and the knightly model , like that of the mpangwe (fan) cross bow, had drifted into the African interior. The handle and pommel were of ivory, the guard was a thin bar of iron springing from the junction of the blade and grip, forming an open oval shape pas d'ane below and prolonged upwards and downwards in two quillons or branches, parallel with the hilt and protecting the hand. The blade, which had a tang for heftng, was straight, flexible and double edged".
This is footnoted as well citing "The Cataracts of the Congo", p.234.
Clearly the sword described is one of these Portuguese swords, and its diffusion eastward into the Congo is of course understandable. The absence of the crosses in the terminals is notable, and would certainly have been elaborated on if present, in the Victorian convention of drawing the connection to the crusades and occurrence of such weapons in native context at every opportunity.
Returning to the west, and the dilemma of whether the cross in the quillons of Portuguese colonial swords of this form influenced the native swords of these 'cutlasses' or vice versa, it is surely a quandary.
It is understandable that European observers would characterize the equilateral cross, if seen in native context, as a 'Greek' cross, well known in European heraldry and Christian symbolism. These were of course, the very cross of the crusades in many cases, so the previously mentioned conventions of course would likely be in place.
While we have determined that these and similar equilateral crosses are probably not of the ilk of the Vodun or Obo types which seem of course in use later and with cross diffusion to Caribbean, it does seem quite possible they were known in the earlier native religious contexts of these regions.
These simple crosses are well established into prehistoric times and quite universally, so much so that most scholars are inclined to consider them convergent and unlikely to be connected empirically.
Still, one can imagine that the appearance of such a cross symbol would have been construed dramatically by arriving Portuguese, and vice versa, the natives seeing such device with them equally construed. The orders, such as the Order of Calatrava, certainly potentially present, might have provided such basis.
I suppose the question is, just how often and in what character, were equilateral crosses used on Portuguese (or other) sword hilts, especially in pierced openwork in this fashion. It is intriguing to consider that the use of openwork designs, devices and profiling is profoundly the character of these native ceremonial 'cutlasses', and perhaps this application was carried into the colonial made swords of Portuguese form.
Which came first?