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Old 18th August 2009, 08:24 PM   #14
Jim McDougall
EAA Research Consultant
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Join Date: Dec 2004
Location: Route 66
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I have really enjoyed spending some time with this, thank you again for posting this Colin! As I was checking possibilities for Tibet/Asia I think I saw where you might have seen the splayed fishtail effect, perhaps in Rawson (?) on p.38, silhouettes of viragal (hero-stone) weapons of c.10th c. reflect this feature, possibly ancestors of the kora (?).

Excellent observations David, and great illustrations with well placed thoughts Freddy. It almost seems that some of the motif and the splayed tip do bear similarity to this piece, illustrating some commonality in symbolism.

I believe that this is actually a weapon rather than symbolic item, as I am under the impression the blade is iron rather than yellow metal, also the hafting and grips reflect intention of use. Also, excellent observations on the shark being one of the symbols of Behanzin, in power up to 1900, and it would seem that is likely the period of this sword.

It is clear that symbolism is obviously powerfully represented in even the servicable weapons of these warriors, as well as the more elaborate court and ceremonial forms. The use of animist type symbols as a form of symbolic insignia is well described in "This West African Prussia: The Dahomean Army 1840's to 90's" by Andrew Callan (Military Illustrated, Nov. 1990, #30).
The use of the crocodile, shark and others appear on headwear, such as 'bayoneteer women'..the officers wore red caps with silver sharks (ref: Burton, 1864) and the 'blunderbuss women' wore red caps with white fishes (ref: Skertchly, 1874).

Sir Richard Burton, "A Mission to Gelele: King of Dahomey", London, 1864

J.A.Skertchley , "Dahomey as it is", London, 1874

Concerning the razors, there is no mention of these in the Callan article, but Burton describes them in his 1864 work. He had been sent to Dahomey as amabassador to protest the 'customs', which was the wholesale slaughter of individuals in rituals as well as the ongoing practice of slavery. He went there on the HMS Antelope landing at Whydah (interestingly the name of a well known pirate ship well over a century before) Nov 29, 1863.

Burton describes Gezo, the reigning king, and his love of unusual weaponry, noting some with dual blades, like scissors and most notably, his company of Amazons called razor women, from the 'nyek ple nentoh' blade. These women were equipped with "...a steel of 30" rising from a handle of black wood, and kept open by a spring". (Burton, "Book of the Sword" 1884, pp.167-69).
Burton compares these to a 'European razor', which implies something like a huge navaja.
From this king's love of novelty type weapons, I am under the impression he was trying to impress Burton, and perhaps these were produced specifically for this visit, which must have been preplanned, just my opinion, and perhaps why none of these are known to the best of my knowledge.

Returning to our sword, I cannot say for sure, but this looks like rayskin, and very similar to that used on British and many European officers swords. I would suggest that in this later period, around the turn of the century, the use of the rayskin grip covering may well have been used off one of these military swords. If the motif of the shark was intended, this grip cover, which we know was certainly available, would have served well for such a sword for an officer of the kings forces.

Just my thoughts,
All best regards,
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