Primitive Justice

John R. Baker

Most of the explorers were not long enough in any one place to make a careful study of law and its administration. Du Chaillu writes of ‘the total absence of any law but that of the strongest – the almost total ignoring of the right of property’ among the tribes of Gabon; but even if this were true of the country through which he travelled, it certainly was not representative of the whole of the secluded area. In certain matters, especially in relation to hunting, quite complicated rules existed and were enforced. Some of these are related in detail by Livingstone.

For instance, at a place between Zumbo and Tete (probably Banyai tribe (Ka)), when an elephant was wounded on one chief’s land, but died on another’s, the lower half of the carcass (presumably that which lay next the soil) belonged to the landowner; and until the latter’s representative arrived, the hunter could not legally start to cut up his prey. If he started too soon, he lost all right to tusk and flesh. On most branches of civil law, however, the explorers provide little information; for instance, we are given no details about land tenure or bequests. Among the Bechuana, minor complaints of one man against another were tried justly before a chief, the defendant being given full opportunity to present his case. Peremptory measures were usually adopted, however, when serious crimes had been committed and suspicion had fallen on particular persons.

The ideas entertained by Negrids in pre-colonial days on such subjects as the sanctity of human life and the imposition of the death penalty have been represented in recent years by certain authors and lecturers in terms for which one cannot find support in the writings of those who actually visited the interior of Africa while the native inhabitants were still in command of their own affairs. For instance, it has been stated that ‘in most of Bantu Africa, long before the arrival of so-called western civilization, only a person who was a persistent murderer was put to death.’ ‘Bantu Africa’ can only mean those parts of the continent where the inhabitants spoke Bantu languages; that is to say, the territory of the Kafrids and Pan 1. Reference to Fig. 58 (p. 328) will show the area concerned. It will be noticed that it represents about one-half of the total area occupied by the entire Negrid population of Africa. It was visited by all the explorers except Schweinfurth, and four of them – Fynn, Livingstone, Galton, and Du Chaillu – never went outside it in the course of the journeys considered in this and the preceding chapters. [Reference note omitted.]

Examples of summary executions in the course of warfare (of prisoners, women accompanying hostile armies, and persons suspected of spying, cowardice, or failure to follow up a success) are excluded from the account given below, which is entirely concerned with civil life.

It is convenient to start with Du Chaillu’s observations on the Pan 1; that is to say, with the ‘Western Bantu’ of Seligman.

Slaves were treated by members of this group of Negrids in Gabon as though their lives were unworthy of consideration, for by native customs the right was accorded to all slave-owners to kill them at will. In Oroungou territory Du Chaillu saw some of the skeletons of slaves, to the number of one hundred, who were killed to accompany a chief to the next world. A large number of slaves were also tortured and killed at the funeral of a Mpongwe chief, in accordance with instructions left by him. It must be recorded, however, that another chief of this tribe expressly forbade the killing of slaves at his funeral.

Wives, like slaves, were in some cases subject to execution without public trial. Du Chaillu describes a terrible torture inflicted by a chief of the Shekiani on one of his wives, with the intention that it should end with her death. The explorer was in this case able to save her life.

In most of the Gabon tribes it was usual, although not invariable, for one member of a pair of twins to be killed at birth. This happened at an Apingi village in which Du Chaillu was staying at the time.

It was believed that death was never a natural event, and fatal illness was always ascribed to sorcery. Du Chaillu describes a method of execution commonly adopted by the Bakalai for those suspected of witchcraft. The suspect was led into the forest and tied to a tree. The whole surface of the body was lacerated and red pepper rubbed into the wounds, and the victim left to die. The recently dead corpse of a young woman who had been treated in this way was seen by Du Chaillu. The latter also tells of a boy, aged ten years, who had been accused of sorcery and made some sort of confession. ‘Hereupon the whole town seemed to be seized of the devil. They took spears and knives, and actually cut the poor little fellow to pieces. I had been walking out, and returned just as the dreadful scene was over.’ The participants (Bakalai) ‘were still frantic with rage, and were not quiet for some hours after.’

In many parts of Pan 1 territory it was customary for anyone charged with sorcery to be forced to drink an infusion of the root of a plant called mboundou (thought to be a species of Strychnos). It was supposed that only a guilty person would die. Du Chaillu makes repeated mention of trial by mboundou. A single example must suffice. An aged friend of his, of the Camma tribe (Pan 1), was sick beyond the possibility of recovery. The explorer gives a terrible account of the execution of three women by mboundou, when a witch-doctor announced that they had killed the old man by sorcery.

The Pan 1 territory through which Livingstone passed was far to the south-east of Gabon, but his experiences were in many respects similar to those of Du Chaillu. He describes ordeal by poison derived from a plant called goho, inflicted on women suspected of sorcery. Those who vomited were regarded as innocent, but those who defaecated were put to death by burning. The women eagerly desired the test, because they believed implicitly in its reliability and were certain that it would reveal their innocence. In Angola a poisonous infusion of a certain tree was used. The accuser would repeat his charge if the woman vomited, and she would be forced to repeat the dose until she died. Every year hundreds of women came to a particular place near Cassange to undergo this ordeal, and perished as a result. The people believed that death was in all cases due to one of two causes: either witchcraft, or failure to appease disembodied spirits by use of the appropriate charms.

Livingstone states clearly that throughout all the country traversed by him from 20°S. northwards (that is to say, Pan 1 territory), people were slaughtered to accompany the departed souls of chiefs.

Like Du Chaillu, Livingstone mentions the custom among certain tribes of putting to death one member of a pair of twins, and he also says that in one tribe a child that showed even a minor deformity (for instance, an unusual sequence in cutting of the teeth) was not allowed to live.

We now turn from the Pan 1 to the Kafrids.

Baker reports that Kamurasi, King of Unyoro, and his brother as deputy, were complete despots in the matter of life and death. If they wished anyone to be executed, they had only to touch the person with the point of a lance or with a stick. By a curiously inverted custom, touching with a lance indicated that the man was to be clubbed to death; with the stick, to be killed by spearing. The sentence was executed instantly. When slaves were captured by Kamurasi, the old women among them were all killed by being beaten on the back of the neck with clubs, because they could not keep up with the rest of the party on the march.

Mutesa, king of Buganda, was even more regardless of the sanctity of human life than Kamurasi. Speke had ample opportunity to make observations on this subject during his long sojourn at the court. The slightest infringement of the rules of conduct resulted in death. The Wakungu or officers of the court were required to be present during a certain number of months every year, however far distant their homes might be; if they failed in this obligation, or even if they saluted informally, they were executed. Those persons at the palace who tied their bark clothing incorrectly, or exposed a small surface of naked leg when squatting, might be executed. To touch the king’s throne or clothes, even by accident, or even to look at his women, meant certain death. If a page walked instead of running to deliver a message, it might cost him his life. Everyone in Buganda, apart from the royal family, found in possession of any article of foreign manufacture, other than beads or brass wire, was subject to execution. Nearly every day, while Speke was residing within the precincts of the court, from one to three of the palace women were led out to execution.

Some specific instances of summary executions under Mutesa’s rule may be noted. A young woman had run away from her husband and taken shelter for a few days with a decrepit old man. The woman and old man, brought before Mutesa for trial, were not allowed to speak. The were ordered to be fed to preserve life as long as possible, and meanwhile gradually dismembered, and the parts cut off fed to vultures, until they died. Speke was present at the trial. One day Mutesa was apportioning women to his officers, according to their merit. One man, to whom only one woman had been given, asked for more. He was sentenced to immediate execution, which was carried out on the spot by a blow behind the head with a heavy club. This was witnessed by Speke’s headman, Bombay, a trustworthy person who had served him on a previous expedition. Speke presented Mutesa with some carbines. The king loaded one of them and gave it to a page in Speke’s presence, with instructions to shoot a man with it, to prove its effectiveness; this was immediately done. Going for a walk with his officers in front and his women following behind, Mutesa noticed a woman tied by the hands to be punished for some offence. The king had with him a rifle presented to him by Speke, with which he shot her dead on the spot.

It was the rule in Buganda that all the brothers of a new king, except two, were executed by burning at each accession to the throne; the two were allowed to survive in case accident should befall the ruler.

In the Kafrid area traversed by Livingstone and Galton there was much clearer recognition of the sanctity of human life than in Unyoro, Buganda, and the huge Pan 1 territory. Power was indeed entrusted to a few persons, but it was exercised more leniently. It is evident from Livingstone’s account that among the Bakuena and Makololo, although the chief had power of life and death in his hands, where was no despotic cruelty comparable with that of Kamurasi and Mutesa; those who disagreed with a chief’s judgement acquiesced in his decision – but were free to grumble (no small freedom, and not without ultimate effect).

To the south-east of the region just considered, conditions were very different. Chaka – or Shaka, as Fynn calls him – had displaced Diniswayo before Fynn’s arrival. The latter’s observations were made over a period of nine consecutive years, mostly during Chaka’s reign, but extending into a part of Dingane’s.

Under Chaka’s rule, as witnessed by Fynn, a movement of a royal finger, just perceptible to his attendants, sufficed to indicate that a man was to be taken away and executed. On the first day of Fynn’s arrival at court, ten men were carried off to death, and he soon learnt that executions occurred daily. On one occasion Fynn witnessed the dispatch of sixty boys under the age of twelve years before Chaka had breakfasted. The ordinary method of execution in Zululand was a sudden twisting of the neck, but in one case a man accused of witchcraft was suspended from a tree by his feet and burnt to death by a fire lit below him. Sometimes people were killed by driving a stick into the body through the anus and leaving them to die. On one occasion between four and five hundred women were massacred because they were believed to have knowledge of witchcraft. In some cases very trivial offences resulted in death. One of Chaka’s concubines was executed for taking a pinch of snuff from his snuff-box. A group of cowherd boys was put to death for having sucked the nipples of cattle.

It was the rule in Zululand that no one might eat from any crop until the king had partaken of the first-fruits of the year at a special ceremony. If anyone transgressed, every member of his kraal was executed. At the ceremony the king was accustomed to have many people executed for no other reason than to show his power and cause him to be feared.

Many besides the king could order executions. Nandi, his mother, had no compunction about having men and women put to death in her presence, sometimes by torture. Every village chief was permitted to kill any of his people. Any person accused by one of the izinyanga was immediately executed; their decisions were final. Fynn witnessed this on several occasions. Adultery was punished by death for both parties, and even the suspicion of adultery would authorize a husband to kill his wife.

The most terrible event of Chaka’s reign that was actually witnessed by Fynn followed the illness and death of Nandi. Universal mourning was immediately ordered. The chiefs and people began to assemble in a crowd estimated at eight thousand. To eat or drink was forbidden; weeping was compulsory. Lamentations continued all night.

Those who could not force tears from their eyes – those who were found near the river panting for water – were beaten to death by others who were mad with excitement. Toward the afternoon I calculated that not fewer than 7,000 people had fallen in this frightful indiscriminate massacre.... Whilst masses were thus employing themselves, Shaka and his chiefs, the latter surrounding him, were tumbling and throwing themselves about, each trying to excel in their demonstrations of grief by alternate fits of howling.

Fynn felt ‘as if the whole universe were at that moment coming to an end.’ On his first appearance after the massacre Chaka ordered the execution of one of his aunts, who had been unfriendly to Nandi, and of all her attendants (some twelve or fourteen girls). Parties were sent out to execute those who had not come to express sorrow. During a period of one year after Nandi’s death, all women found to be pregnant were executed with their husbands.

A very similar massacre had occurred previously, when an attempt had been made on Chaka’s life.

Though milder at first, Dingane soon began to follow Chaka’s example. Fynn says that he ‘massacred numbers with the same unsparing hand as his predecessor.’ He secretly prejudged all cases that came before his council of chiefs. Whenever a chief (induna) was suspected of witchcraft, poisoning, stealing royal cattle, or disobeying the king’s orders, not only the man concerned but all related to or connected with him were executed, including children, except sometimes the young girls. When a certain induna was accused of having had an amour with one of Dingane’s wives, the man himself and every member of his village were inhumanely put to death. In conformity with a practice general among many Negrid tribes, Dingane killed those of his brothers who were not able to escape.

The foregoing account of executions has been restricted to some of those reported by the explorers in Bantu-speaking Africa, but it could easily have been extended to the rest of the secluded area if it had been considered justifiable to devote more space to this subject.

From John R. Baker: Race, Oxford University Press, 1974; Athens, Ga, Foundation for Human Understanding, 1981, pp. 385-390 (references omitted).

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