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  • Morris Dancers from Hell December 18, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    Imagine that you have a problem in your west African village. A witch is believed to be among you, or worse still someone has been indulging in cannibalism. How do you deal with such miscreants: there is no police force with the resources, and the local chief is at the end of his tether. Well, in colonial times, the traditional answer was to invite the Tongo Players, the most terrifying of all forms of law enforcement, part morris dancers, part executioners, part nineteenth-century bobbies. The Tongo ‘dance’ proceeded thus.

    Local chief sends messages to the Tongo Players.

    The Tongo Players arrive and all men, women and children are summoned together in a cleared space where they were lined up.

    Very big fires were prepared.

    The Tongo Players asked questions that the villagers had to answer.

    In the case of suspicion a name would be brought to a medicine man hidden in the bush and he would determined guilt or innocence through an ordeal.

    At this point the dance began.

    The head Tongo Players would bash the guilty on the head with a club and they would be dragged towards the fires.

    If this is not vivid enough here is an example from a case of cannibalism from Mende in Sierra Leone.

    In 1891 the report from the Mende country that a number of cannibals had been burnt to death came as a shock to the Executive. The existence of the practice of cannibalism was known, but there was no idea that there was cannibalism on such a large scale. It seems that the inhabitants of the Imperri chiefdom had suffered so heavily at the hands of the cannibals that they complained to their chief. The complaints becoming too numerous and too insistent to be disregarded, the chief called a meeting, and the big men of Gangama, Gbangbama, Yandehun, and other towns and villages met at Bogo. Here the question of cannibalism was discussed, and those present were informed that a number of Tongo players had been summoned for the purpose of discovering the cannibals, the guilty parties no doubt depending upon their Borfima [idol] and bribes to escape detection. On the appointed day the Tongo players arrived. A huge fire was lighted, and the Tongo players were directed to throw into the fire all persons whom they found to be cannibals. One of the first to be cast into the flames was the principal chief who had been instrumental in calling in the Tongo players, and it is asserted that as many as eighty persons were burnt to death, a number of them anticipating their fate and of their own accord, throwing themselves into the flames. A mercantile agent who visited Bogo shortly after this terrible retribution reported that the spot where the burning took place was a sickening sight, with its heaps of white ashes and remains of human bodies, whilst Mr. Alldridge, who held an inquiry into the matter, says that the pyramid of calcined bones which he saw at the junction of two roads just outside Bogo was about four feet high.

    Anything else on the Tongo Players: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

    22 Dec: Bruce T. ‘The more I dig the more it seems that Tongo Players roots are in the Mali/Niger region. With the coming of Islam and later slavery and colonialism there was a movement by threatened peoples towards areas that practiced traditional West African religions and were difficult for slavers to access. Tongo players and dancers are still found among the Dogon and related peoples in Mali. As Sierra Leone was set up for free slaves, and most originally came from either the interior or the Bight of Benin, could the conflict between Tongo Players and Leopard Society be more of battle between two older orders vying for power? The Leopard Society, to the east of Sierra Leone from roughly Togo to Cameroon was a both binding and enforcing society consisting of paramount Chiefs and their high ranking nobles. A large segment of the slaves taken to the New World were drawn from this region. For example, to this day the Abakua Society exists in both the Cross River Region of Nigeria and Cuba, with a reported subset in Haiti. The leading men of this society are called “Leopard Men”. It’s quite possible that when the freed people in the Caribbean and from captured slave ships were taken to Sierra Leone, they reestablished these older systems for both protection from local ethnic groups they had no affiliation to, and as a way to control the polity they had been granted by the UK. For the British, the emergence of the Leopard Society as a power in Sierra Leone, combined with the difficulty they were having gaining territory further east along the Bight of Benin due to related societies, may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Perhaps it was time to bring out the cannibal canard and call in the old enemies, the Tongo Players? With the recent introduction of quinine and Mr. Maxim’s gun around the time of the Tongo – Leopard conflict, taking out the winners would have been a simple matter of logistics.’

    Thanks Bruce!