“Fetishism” in the Gold Coast: Wadé Harris and the Anti-Witchcraft Movements
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“Fetishism” in the Gold Coast
Wadé Harris and the Anti-Witchcraft Movements

The aim of this paper is to discuss the notion of fetishism and to evaluate how deeply this notion has influenced the perception of religious change and practices in the Gold Coast. To this purpose I analyze the case of the prophet Wadé Harris’s passage through the Gold Coast in 1914 and the spread of anti-witchcraft movements throughout the country in the first thirty years of the last century. To different extents, the two religious events influenced the history of Christianity and the destiny of traditional religion in the country. Both movements provided a stimulus towards religious and social change but, notwithstanding their many points of similarity, they aroused deeply different reactions

My point is to discuss the reasons for such a different response to similar phenomenon. One of the crucial gaps between the two movements was the attitude toward fetishism. Wadé Harris urged his followers to destroy all sort of fetishes and ritual objects while the leaders of the anti-witchcraft movements spread throughout the Colony what appeared to witnesses to be new fetishes.

Harris’s movement was generally ignored by colonial officials and accepted by African elite because it could be fitted into the “fetishism has to be abandoned from the bottom up” logic of an African modernization. Christian missionaries, and to some extent traditional chiefs, welcomed Wadé Harris. Anti-witchcraft movements, by contrast, did not receive general elite support because, while they presented themselves as “anti-fetish,” [End Page 90] they did not fit into the progressive narrative of colonial modernity, which involved a movement away from African indigenous religions towards Christianity and which still imagined indigenous religions as unchanging.2

Chiefs accused the new fetishes of being a form of witchcraft; Christian churches were suspicious that new religious movements might simply be hidden forms of “fetish revival” and colonial administrators wondered what position they should take on this problematic issue. As movements that were adapting to dynamic conditions and which did not lead into Christianity or Islam, anti-witchcraft campaigns were deeply threatening to the colonial order and, by the first years of the twentieth century, anti-witchcraft movements became a matter regulated by the Colony.

Despite the fact that the motives of those who followed Harris and anti-witchcraft movements were very similar, the reactions at the higher levels of the society were quite different. For an understanding of the contrasting reactions that the two movements aroused, and of religious change in the Gold Coast, I suggest to deal with the ambiguous notion of fetishism and of religious materiality.

Theoretical Works on African Indigenous Religions

For a long time, social scientists understood religious change in terms of increasing rationalization, a logical passage from indigenous religions to world religions. Since primitive religions were regarded as an amalgam of superstition, magical fears and fetishist incoherence, the decision of a community or of an individual to convert to world religions was assumed to be the direct consequence of the intellectual and technical evolution of the society, eventually free from superstition.3 The crucial point was the comparison between world religions and the other great family of religions, referred as primitive or indigenous religions. David Chidester (1996) argued with respect to the first (seventeenth- to eighteenth-century) European observers in South Africa that the act of comparison was constitutive of the very [End Page 91] first identification and classification of indigenous religions. Marc Augé, in his “Génie du paganisme” (1982), shared the same perspective. He claimed that missionaries denied the so-called “pagan” cults the status of reputable religions whenever comparison or translation failed in its “struggle of the meanings.” As a consequence, African religions were explained in terms of magical practices or transformed into a sort of primitive philosophy.

In contrast to the world religions, each with its own history, African religions were supposed to be timeless and incapable of historical transformation. This line of thought found its prototype in the introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of History, where he stated: “What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere...