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3 w Early African-White Encounters Healers, Witchcraft, and Colonial Rule, 1830–91 In the summer of 1876, fourteen years after the criminalizing of African healers, Lady Barker wrote to her sister about a tea party she had held at her home in Pietermaritzburg. On her invitations she dubbed the party “Tea and Witches.”1 To this event she invited friends as well as the local African isangomas who were to act as entertainment for her guests. On the day of the event the isangomas, according to custom, came accompanied by a large number of local Africans. Not anticipating this presence, Barker seemed somewhat unnerved but reports that this “immense mob of shouting, singing Kaffirs” were as “docile and obedient as possible.” At five o’clock Barker and her guests sipped tea and ate cake and biscuits on the veranda while five female isangomas “appeared in full official dress, walking along in a measured stately step, keeping time and tune to the chanting of a bodyguard of girls and women, who sung continuously, in a sort of undertone, a monotonous kind of march.” After the women healers performed a mock witch-finding session, one of Barker’s guests challenged the isangomas to discover what item he had recently lost. Using a bula-circle like the ones previously used to “smell-out” witches and criminals, one of the isangomas correctly announced that he had lost his pipe stem; Barker’s guests seemed impressed. After the isangomas left, however, the guests concluded the evening with tales confirming for themselves the “savage” nature of Africans and the “wholesale massacre” of alleged witches before the English arrived and outlawed the practice of witch-finding.2 African healers, or “witchdoctors,” as they were often called because of their reputation for pointing out witches, came to serve as the archetype of African superstition within European discourse. Drawn with wild eyes and 93 You are reading copyrighted material published by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. Unauthorized posting, copying, or distributing of this work except as permitted under U.S. copyright law is illegal and injures the author and publisher. often accompanied by snakes and a human skull full of frothing medicines, healers represented for the European and American imagination all that was “tribal,” “superstitious,” and “primitive” in Africa. At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the quintessential celebration of modernity and technology, one exhibit featured the African doctor prominently in its “maze of superstition .”3 These images, which occasionally resurface in today’s popular culture and helped Europe to rhetorically justify the colonizing of “savage” peoples, emerged in the Western world largely as the result of the memoirs of early travelers and settlers, as well as missionaries’ and doctors’ descriptions of African healers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.4 Such conceptions were reiterated in local newspaper coverage of the times and later confirmed for many by early twentieth century anthropologists. Frustrated by Africans’ initially low conversion rates to Christianity, missionaries blamed African healers for perpetuating African superstition. When appealing for money from their home congregations they invoked the image of the “witchdoctor ” as an example of the many obstacles Christian missions had to surmount . These images had a profound effect not only on the ways in which Europeans and white South Africans viewed Africans, but on the ways in which they viewed themselves and their own colonial mission. Yet healers and ideas of African superstition served as more than a foil; they belie a complicated relationship between these two cultural groups. More than a mere trope, superstition—particularly the belief in witchcraft —was perceived as a genuine liability and threat to colonial rule and missionary endeavors. Witchcraft proved a bane to both Africans and whites alike. African communities who suffered at the hands of witches (who brought illness, death, and misfortune) sought to discover and expose those who practiced it, while whites aimed to protect the accused and persecute accusers . Each saw their intervention as necessary, just, and preventing imminent death. This chapter examines some of the ways in which Africans and Europeans attempted to deal with these perceived threats. As the British endeavored to establish rule and law within the colony of Natal, Africans and Europeans sought to convince each other of the value of their tactics for combating this particular problem. This involved a great deal of negotiation on the part of both Africans and Europeans and ranged over time from amenable compromise, to open and hostile conflict, to the...


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