Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/November 1884/Domestic Arts in Damaraland

By Rev. C. G. BÜTTNER.

THE peoples with whom missionaries have occasion to become acquainted in Damaraland belong to different races; and the materials for a fair ethnological museum might easily be collected at any of the more important places. The agricultural Ovambos and the nomadic Hereros and Ovambandierus belong to the Bantu race, the Namaquas and Bushmen to the yellow Hottentot stock, while the tribe called the mountain Damaras are a black people of doubtful origin. But although these peoples differ variously in their manners and customs, yet the general circumstances of their life are such that they exhibit only a few differences in their technical accomplishments and trade usages. The desert character of the country, which furnishes only scanty means of subsistence, compels a certain meagerness in all that the people undertake. They are contented to have their simplest wants satisfied, and have never found or aspired after elegance. This part of Africa had, moreover, till a few decades ago, preserved its exclusiveness for hundreds and thousands of years. The rainless desert coast offered nothing attractive to the sailor, and even when one had landed on the shore it was almost impossible to penetrate through the wilderness to the interior. As the trade from the interior of the continent likewise hardly reached here, we have to do in this region with a people who until very recently had lived from a remote epoch cut off from the rest of the world. The natives of Damaraland are thus to a certain extent analogous with those primitive people who in prehistoric times lived, as hunters and fishers, in the northern woods, and fought out the struggle for existence in the rudest simplicity.

Little that is really artistic is to be found among them. Vessels are made by every tribe in its peculiar traditional form, by which their origin can be determined at once, and are decorated with a likewise stereotyped zigzag design, which is traced on iron articles with a chisel, and on wooden ones with a burning sharp stick. We may also add that the Bushmen, who are apparently in the lowest degree of civilization, have painted upon the rocks, in both ancient and recent times, hunting scenes representing all kinds of game and hunters in various situations, which betoken considerable talent in grasping and setting forth typical forms. These designs might, in fact, be regarded as works of more civilized Europeans, were it not that they were found in such various parts of the country, and that they were so much alike in their most peculiar features.

One of the striking characteristics of South African art is its deficiency in the perception of the straight and of the right angle. Everything that the people make comes from their hands bent and oblique. It costs a great deal of trouble to teach a servant even to put a chair straight against the wall. If his attention is called to the fact that things are not in order, he will at once proceed to make them more crooked and askew than they were before. It is almost impossible to teach them European trades like that of the carpenter, in which straight lines are essential; but they succeed well in giving symmetrical forms to any rounded or free handwork.

The making and use of fire may be regarded as one of the primitive arts of mankind. Like the ancients, the Damaras regard fire as something handed down from their ancestors, to be carefully preserved. Every Herero werst has its sacred fire, which must never be extinguished, and which is considered the central point of the tribe and the village. There is the chief's own place, the sacred objects are kept by the fire, councils are held and judgments are delivered at it, the venerable ceremonial acts are consummated with its ashes, and from it are taken the coals with which fires are kindled in other houses. Those who go out with the herds to the cattle-stands take with them a brand from the sacred fire; and when a chief dies without direct heirs, or when the sovereignty passes to another line, then the old fire is put out and new fire is brought from the werst of the new chief. All the members of a single family or tribe regard themselves as sitting around one fire.

The care of the fire is intrusted to the oldest unmarried daughter of the chief, or, if he has no such daughter, to the maiden nearest related to him. If, by any accident or misfortune, it is extinguished, it must not be relit from another fire, but must be made anew from the beginning. For this purpose two straight sticks of any readily burning wood are taken. A hollow is made in one of the sticks, in which the sharpened end of the other one may be twirled, and some punk or half-rotten wood is put in a groove cut to hold it, to serve as tinder. This stick is held to the ground by the knees, while the other one is turned rapidly back and forth between the open hands. When a spark appears, it is directed upon the tinder, which is then readily blown into a flame. Thus, it is not the rubbed stick, but the tinder, that gives the flame. The natives dislike this work very much, and when on a journey, if they have no other fire apparatus, they take an ignited stick with them, the fire of which they skillfully keep glowing for a long time. At the present time, the Africans, far into the interior, are acquainted with the use of steel and flint and of matches; Jonkoping's paraffine-lighters have probably penetrated farther into the heart of Africa than any European explorer. There is no evidence that the people knew anything of the steel and flint before they became acquainted with Europeans; and I have never seen a fire-steel that was made by a native smith. Besides cooking food and warming and lighting the huts, fire is employed for the felling of large trees and the splitting of stones. In the former case, the fire is built around the root of the tree, and kept burning till the tree falls. One man can attend a considerable number of such fires, so that the work, as a whole, may go on quite fast. Stones which it is desired to remove from the road are split by the aid of fire, and wells are bored through the rock sometimes to the depth of thirty feet or more.

Hardly any stone implements are used by the Africans, and no trace of a stone hammer or a stone knife has been found in the country. The nearest approach to anything of the kind is when the Bushmen and mountain Damaras occasionally bore through a stone, and load their digging-sticks with it. The stick, having been pushed through the hole till the weight is about at its middle, is grasped with one hand below the stone, and with the other hand above it; and is used more advantageously, just as better work can be done with a heavy crow-bar or mattock than with a light one. These stones are of a similar shape with those that are used for net-weights, but are considerably heavier. Fire-wood is broken up by throwing heavy stones upon it. Long stones seem better adapted to this purpose than others, and, when one peculiarly fitted for the work is found, it is generally kept. Flat stones are employed as lower millstones, and a convenient round stone is looked for with which to do the grinding. So far as I know, no art is applied in shaping the millstones, but the upper one naturally becomes more rounded and the lower one more hollow by use, and both are thus better adapted to their purpose. Old grinding-stones are, therefore, more highly prized than new, unused, and rough ones. These grinders resemble to a hair those that were formerly used by the northern peoples. Small, longish stones are used as hammers, but without any handle, being held directly in the hand. The native smiths now prefer the large bolts with which wagon-tongues are fastened; but stones were formerly used exclusively when native metallurgic art was not competent to produce iron tools adapted to hammering.

The use of clay in pottery is well known in Africa, and the potters are familiar enough with the places where the best material can be found. The pots that I have seen have the form of an egg, and will not stand without a support. Before the natives learned from the Europeans to put feet under their vessels, they laid stones around the bottom. The pots were made with the free hand, without a wheel, by adding to a ball of nearly dry clay a roll of similar clay, and then welding the two together, and smoothing them with the moistened hand; then another roll, and another, till the sides of the vessel were extended far enough; and the marks of the joints between the added rolls could usually be distinguished in the finished vessel. The Hereros characterize the method of this process quite strikingly in their expression "to build up a pot," for "to make one." The vessels are never glazed, but, as the people are not particular about cleanliness, they soon become water-tight. They are burned only as much as can be done in an open fire. Pots of this kind are, however, not much used in Damaraland, iron pots of European manufacture being preferred. Other vessels than cooking-vessels being made of wood, the potter's industry of the country is in a course of rapid extinction.

Iron and copper were the only metals known to the natives before the arrival of the Europeans, and they were both called in the Herero language by the same name. The civilized Hereros now use foreign words for copper, silver, and gold, while lead has received its name from the bullets into which it is cast. The pastoral tribes of the Hereros and Ovambandierus have but few smiths of their own, but are served by itinerant smiths from other tribes, who wander around, working in small companies, among the chiefs, till they have earned enough cattle to justify them in returning to their homes. Sometimes they are political refugees who have excited the anger or jealousy of their chiefs in Ovamboland, and are compelled to turn their backs upon their homes till a change of dynasty takes place. These Ovambo smiths brought iron from their native country, where the art of extracting that metal and copper from the ores is understood, and rich ores are found. Iron could formerly be got in Ovamboland only at the cost of great labor, and the smith then had to carry his store on his back some fifteen or twenty days' journey. The metal, therefore, commanded a very high price. As late as about 1840, a simple bracelet of iron wire was an adequate guest's present, and a large fat wether could easily be bought with a span of the old hoop-iron with which trunks were bound. The natives were greatly astonished at seeing the costly metal wasted by the Europeans in boot-nails. Iron had thus the value of a precious metal, and, rusting and changing but little in the dry climate, was worn in ornaments by the Hereros, while other tribes preferred copper and brass. The native smiths now use European iron, and seek out good steel, such as is found in files and bayonets. But iron forged in the old-fashioned way into ornaments and weapons has still considerable value.

A smith's bellows common to all the Bantu peoples consists of two wooden vessels, out of which the air is pumped into the fire through the long, straight horns of the African gemsbok. The Hottentot bellows, which is more generally used in Damaraland, is a long bag, usually made from the whole hide of a goat, at the middle and the end of which is an air-valve. The fore half of the skin is held to the ground and weighted with a stone to press upon the air, which is pumped in by means of the alternate compression and expansion of the rear half. From the point of the bellows, or neck-end of the hide-bag, the air is conducted through a clay pipe or a gemsbok-horn, or, in later times, a gun-barrel, to the fire. It is obvious that only light work can be done with such a bellows; at most, bringing a small piece of iron to a red heat. For tongs, the smiths generally use a bullet-mold, while they formerly took two straight pieces of iron, or, if they had nothing better, two sticks. A stone is made to serve as an anvil. Iron beads and bracelets are made, and the last are adorned with some neatly engraved pattern. Some of the rings of which I have obtained specimens, which have been simply turned upon a stick and welded, would do credit to a European smith. I have seen copper bracelets that had been bent into a spiral shape resembling a coiled snake. The Hottentots like bracelets and rings made by winding brass and copper wire around a coil of leather, in which patterns are produced by mingling wires of different sizes. The Ovambos wear heavy copper rings on their ankles, which are bent upon the legs. One of these rings, which I presented to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, is very like some of the rings that are found in northern graves. Other works of the South African smith's art are iron lances having the handles ornamented with an ox-tail flier, barbed arrow-heads, double-edged knives and daggers, the latter without guards; and axe and hatchet blades, which are now used in making wooden articles. Almost everything that is made of wood has to be formed from a single piece, for the art of permanently joining two pieces of wood together seems to be wanting among these people. They do not know how either to dovetail, nail, or glue. Hence, in making every article of wooden-ware, whether a spoon or a boat, the artificer has to be governed by the shape and size of his block. The knife-cases and dagger-sheaths are thus made from one piece; and, as the natives have no boring-tools, one of the cheeks of the sheath has to be cut entirely away, excepting thin strips at the corners to hold the blade in its place. The tools used for hollowing out the wooden vessels are a double-adze, or tribill, and an axe worked like a chisel. The adze is a triangular iron, shaped so as to present a knife-edge at one end and a point at the other, and is driven through a hole previously burned in the handle, perpendicularly to it, and in such a manner that every blow made with the tool in hewing shall drive it tighter up. The outside of the vessel is shaped with the adze; all is done by eye, without any such aids as the square or compass, and nothing but the hands to hold the block while it is hewed. But the work is performed with a skill and finish that would do credit even to a shop provided with the implements of civilized artisans. This kind of work appears to belong to the chief, and to be regarded as a kind of state function; for, although it may not be done by the chief himself, it is generally performed under his eye, at the village fire, and is submitted to his inspection from time to time while it is going on. If a wooden vessel becomes cracked, it is not thrown away, but is mended, if possible, by sewing up, or patching with fibers of tough grass, or of the fan-palm common in the country, and then smeared with cow-dung, a substance which the Africans do not regard as unclean, to make it milk-tight. Round-headed canes, long and short throw-sticks, and arrows of hard wood are carved with knives. The eastern Bechuanas and Caffres are fond of carving canes entwined with snakes. While the cane and snake are made from the same piece, the latter is attached only at a few points, so that the mass of its body is left free. The wooden arrows, which have barbed heads, are used for shooting small game. Sometimes wooden arrowheads are set loose in shafts of reed, so that, when the latter are drawn out, the points shall remain in the wound.

Rush mats are made by the Hottentots, by stringing rushes on a needle and drawing a thread through them. Threads and cords are made from bark-fibers and fibers of aloe without the aid of any tools, simply by twisting them with the flat hand upon the leg. Baskets are made from roots and from palm-leaves, where that material can be had. The foundation of the basket is laid with a spiral of thick braid, as our straw hats are begun, to which rings are added and connected as compactly as possible by cords, and the vessel is made tight enough to hold milk or any other fluid. Skins are dressed by saturating them with fat, and rubbing and kneading them with the hands and feet till they are perfectly pliable: or, if they are very thick, by beating them with a club. Straps are prepared by cutting them out spirally from the. skin, so as to get as great a length as the leather will afford. The strap is then slung over a stout limb, so that its ends will come as near to the ground as they will reach: the ends are weighted with a stone, and the doubled strap is twisted up, with the aid of a lever, as tightly as possible, till the stone is raised nearly up to the limb. The lever is then drawn out, and the strap is allowed to untwist and retwist itself again and again. This process is repeated, with oiling, for several days, till the strap becomes quite pliable. Skins which are to be made into bottles are taken off from the carcass with as little cutting as possible, the knife being generally used only at the tail and the feet, after which the hide is pulled off literally over the ears. The bottles are then tanned in the common manner, but are only used for keeping dry articles. The Hottentots employ bark in tanning skins, but it is possible they learned the art from the Europeans.

Skins are also used for clothing, without any making up, but worn just as they are left after dressing, with at most only a little shell embroidery, but are not sewed to one another, except when they are to be used for bed-coverings or curtains. Thorns, which grow on the acacias and mimosas, of every shape and size that can be desired, are employed as needles, and for thread the long sinews from the backbones of slaughtered animals, which are stiff enough to be pushed through the hole made by the thorn without any further aid than their own rigidity. In the ante-European times pins, buckles, and hooks were unknown, and the only means of holding the garment upon the person was by a belt, or the hands: or, if a whole sheep-skin was worn as a cloak, the head was left to hang down behind, and the hind-legs were brought over the shoulders and tied.

Shoes were made from the thicker hides. The Hereros wore sandals with long points in front and behind, projecting beyond the foot. The Namaquas wore something more nearly approaching shoes, in which they attached the upper leather to the sole with a narrow strap. The work being done by the eye, without measuring or fitting, it often happened that the shoes of a pair were of different sizes and shapes. I have never seen anything made of bone in South Africa except little mat-needles among the Namaquas, mouth-pieces of pipes, and snuff-boxes. The Namaquas also make pipes from serpentine. Small bones are worn as ornaments and amulets; and little children sometimes have a few bones hanging from their belts for playthings.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Das Ausland.