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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 797-798

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Book Review

Pride of Men: Ironworking in Nineteenth-Century West Central Africa

Pride of Men: Ironworking in Nineteenth-Century West Central Africa. By Colleen E. Kriger. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Pp. xix+261; illustrations, notes/references, bibliography, index. $59.95 (hardcover); $24.95 (paper).

Pride of Men is about ironworkers, and especially smiths, as active and potent social agents in west central Africa (the basins of the Zaire River above Malebo Pool and of major northward-flowing tributaries) during the nineteenth century and, so far as can be inferred from exiguous sources, in earlier times. It is not a book about technology; we have to turn to a footnote to read about the standard techniques used by smiths. It is also grossly underillustrated, compounding the difficulty caused by the lack of description of smithing technique. There are pages and pages of descriptions of types of iron currencies, tools, and weapons, ceremonial and otherwise, all relevant to Krieger's argument, but only four maps, one table, and fourteen photographs where dozens of line drawings are needed.

Colleen Kriger insists that this is a work of history and indeed it is, though in addition to the sources usually employed by Africanist historians--colonial, missionary, and other archives, ethnographies and travelers' reports, oral traditions, and lexical data (here from over 150 Bantu languages)--she makes innovative use of material culture, and particularly of artifacts collected from the area and now housed with their critical (and generally inadequate) documentation in eight major museums. She demonstrates how the "multiple uses and values of iron could shape aspects of political life" and how ironworkers' roles both supported the status quo and stimulated change. As social agents they often transcended ethnic and class boundaries in the brutal, turbulent, but prosperous (for some) period between the 1820s, when the inland basin began to be opened up to direct trading links with the west and east coasts and the Sudan, and consolidation of Belgian colonial rule in the 1920s.

After theoretical and historical sections that set the stage and outline the development of metallurgy in and around west central Africa, three chapters take a regional approach to smelting, metal currencies, and the hierarchy of work in the finishing forge. There follow two case studies: one of iron working in the Kuba kingdom, and another, most interesting because based upon Kriger's own field research (undertaken in part with Eugenia Herbert), in Lopanzo, a central Zairian town founded by ironworkers. These threads are pulled together in a chapter aptly summarized by its title: "The Blacksmith's Mystique Unveiled: Identity, Ideology, and the Social Prominence of Ironworkers." An epilogue briefly charts the decline of iron working under colonial rule.

Kriger demonstrates that the importance of iron working and ironworkers in the history of the area have been seriously underestimated, and shows how museum collections can be fruitfully exploited for historical [End Page 797] purposes. She presents a remarkable case study of how, in these oral societies, material culture, and particularly iron products, was mobilized to claim, demonstrate, and validate social status--and how some luxury swords and other items retained in treasuries continue to do so. Given the sparseness and intractability of her sources, however, it is inevitable that there are weak points in her argument. It is not clear why so much prestige and wealth accrued to smiths rather than the smelters who produced the "semiprecious" metal. One suspects that the most successful were both, more often than not, but the evidence is lacking. Kriger also takes an outdated materialist line on the rituals associated with, and the exclusion of women from, iron working, arguing that "secrecy served as a patenting system." An alternative explanation would focus on the role of metaphor in science and technology.

Pride of Men adds significantly to the literature on material culture as symbols in action, but it will be most easily followed by Africanist historians with a fair grasp of regional ethnography--who know, for example, the boundaries of the Kuba kingdom, who...


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