Execution and Burial of a Witch (Liberia? or Corisco Island, Equatorial Guinea?), mid-19th cent.

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This record was last updated on 09 Sep 2015

Image Reference

Drawings of Western Africa (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections, MSS 14357, no 16).

Ink and watercolor with crayon. Labeled “Condemned as a Witch,” this is a very unusual visual depiction of the execution and burial of an accused witch. The artist does not identify the location or ethnic group. The scene itself appears to be an artistic construction and not an actual single observed event. It is a difficult scene to interpret. The victim is being buried alive in an excavated grave which itself is within a large excavated pit; he is being held in the grave, or pinned to the bottom, by a man with a long pole while four other men place a heavy object (a wooden, American-European style, coffin; or a section of a canoe boxed up at the two ends?) over the grave. Three men are firing rifles/muskets or holding spears and cutlasses, and two are blowing trumpets or horns, made from what appear to be the horns of a large animal, e.g., eland, antelope or, perhaps, elephant. (The noise made by the guns and horns may have been intended to frighten away the spirit of the witch should it return to haunt the living, a custom reported among some Equatorial West African peoples, including those of Corisco Island, in the 19th century; e.g., Robert H. Nassau, Fetichism in West Africa [London, 1904], p. 224.) Shown in the foreground are a spear, axe, cutlass, and two containers; one of the latter appears to be a European glass bottle, the other a gourd or calabash container. The scene is witnessed by a bearded male, perhaps a European, clothed in robes (?). On the other hand, the bearded figure may be a masked African, similar to that reported by an American missionary in the late 1830s; he described the “native devil” among the Bassa of Liberia as a “man who at times assumes an extravagant dress, by which his body is concealed, puts on a wooden face, . . . making a noise resembling the gurgling of water in the throat” (R. B. Medbery, Memoir of William G. Crocker [Boston, 1848], p. 197). In either case, his presence is not explained or identified by the artist. Perhaps helpful in identifying the area depicted, the axe resembles those characteristic of Liberian native peoples; similarly, the horn or trumpet of possible eland, and a wooden mask with what appears to be a beard (e.g., George Schwab, Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland [Peabody Museum, Harvard University, 1947], p. 56, figs. 65, 81c, 86b,c, 90c; see also image reference UVA02). An early photograph of a Western Liberian man blowing an ivory trumpet is in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, image ID 1169385. The drawing shown here is one of 22 works displayed on this website of West African coastal scenes -- out of a total of 32 -- held by University of Virginia Library. None of the works is dated or signed, and they seem to have been done by at least two different persons (perhaps associated with missionary activities in West Africa and/or the American Colonization Society). See also other image references “UVA” on this website.