Mourning the Deceased or Watching over the Dead (Liberia? 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. 14).

Ink, colored crayon and watercolor. Labeled “Mourning,” this detailed, albeit difficult to interpret and geographically locate, scene inside a large rectangular/square bamboo house shows the corpse (perhaps a person of high status) laid out on a mat with a woman (his widow?) beside him. A fire burns in the hearth which presumably is meant to be shown in the center of the house. Sixteen mourners, adults and children, surround the couple. Suspended from the roof rafter and hanging above the hearth is what appears to be a rectangular mat (or platform), which seems to be framed with poles. Fish and other food rest on top of the mat. This mat, in fact, may be a “drying-tray” or rack, common in the dwellings of indigenous Liberian peoples. These racks were used for food items that needed to be kept dry or smoked. On the other hand, a rectangular or square bamboo house was not a traditional Liberian house style; such houses were common along the coastal rain forest areas of Western Equatorial Africa, including Corisco Island. Other items of material culture shown in the picture include a large cutlass/saber and rifle/musket hanging from a wall, and, on the floor, a wooden bench or bed platform, an earthenware jar or water pot and a calabash (?) container. (For mourning customs and house interiors among indigenous Liberians, see George Schwab, Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland [Peabody Museum, Harvard University, 1947], pp. 46-49, 245-246; for mortuary practices in Corisco Island in the 19th century, see Robert Nassau, Fetichism in West Africa [London, 1904], pp. 216-220). This 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.