The African Roots of the Amistad Rebellion

Masks of the Sacred Bush

In celebration of the New Haven arrival of the Freedom Schooner–Amistad, the Peabody Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition The African Roots of the Amistad Rebellion: Masks of the Sacred Bush explored the cultural traditions behind the epochal events that burned the name Amistad into our history. Those events comprise not just a defining moment in the struggle against slavery, but a landmark in the larger struggle of the human spirit toward freedom and dignity.

Embodying the Amistad revolt is the charismatic leader Cinque. Who he was and what cultural forces prepared him to take command and, ultimately to find a way to lead the Amistad captives home, is a critical factor in the events that unfolded in 1839.

Thanks to a remarkable private collection of West African masks and other artifacts from Sierra Leone, the Yale Peabody Museum was able to illuminate this aspect of the Amistad story. The superb collection from which this exhibition was drawn offered a unique opportunity to give a deeper sense of context to the Amistad events by displaying masks that were crucial to the meaning of home, safety, knowledge and protection for the captives who revolted on the Amistad.

Masks represent the power and the meanings of the lives of the Mende people more deeply and more intimately than any other object. The masks and other artifacts were complemented by rare photographs and field recordings of Mende initiation rites, giving Peabody Museum visitors a unique view of Mende men and women’s culture.

Most of the Amistad captives were Mende from Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa. Today, the Mende, the most numerous cultural group in Sierra Leone, number over 1.5 million people, with 60 independent chiefdoms. Among the Mende—primarily rice farmers living in small rural villages—all women become social beings by means of initiation into the Sande (or Bondo) society; men belonged to the powerful Poro society. This initiation provides the moral base for an ordered adult life, transforming children into adults. Initiation into these and similar societies gives their members social identities and a shared understanding of the wider world occupied by the living, the dead, and the gods.

The Amistad captives held this identify and understanding, both in common and as individuals. Most of the Amistad captives were young men and girls, abducted precisely because as healthy young adults they were more lively to survive the cruel Middle Passage from Africa to the Caribbean and to fetch high prices at auction. Since virtually all of these young men and women had been recently initiated into one of these societies, the values, power, and sense of unity the societies imparted were fresh in their minds, animating their spirits and strengthening their resolve. Ironically, the qualities that made the captives suitable cargo and slaves also made them more likely to act in concert and revolt.

Included in the exhibition was a selection of masks worn by the Mende for use in Sande and Poro society rituals. The Sande society spirit beings are associated with rivers. The masks are worn by women in Liberia and southern Sierra Leone during initiation rites. These are a well-known part of the canon of African art and are among the only wooden masks owned and worn by women in Africa. After initiation in the sacred bush, when girls are circumcised and learn about women’s medicines, they are eligible to marry. Higher ranks of leadership are open to those who, with great expense, go through more initiations and rise in the hierarchy of women who exercise control over the female community.

Many types of men’s masks are made of leather, cloth, palm fiber, and yarn rather than wood. The masks are owned, controlled, and performed by masking societies or “households” (gbonji) and only loosely affiliated with similar masks in other towns. A gbonji may admit only men or both men and women. Male members are also de facto members of Poro—the principal men’s secret society that exerts political and economic influence and to which all Mende boys are traditionally initiated at puberty. The oldest and most powerful men’s mask among the Mende is the Bgini, of red, black, and white appliquéed cloth and leopard skin with a raffia ruff. The function and meaning of this mask varies regionally but may represent the great forest spirit that was used by the Poro to control and manage women and non-initiates. It was normally used in daytime when a new Poro law was proclaimed or in conjunction with the opening and closing of the Poro bush. It also represents the Poro when a paramount chief is installed or buried, at agricultural fairs and the like.

The gongoli wooden mask is the most satirical of all the masks and is widely distributed among the Mende and neighboring groups, the Gola, Vai, Temne and Sherbro. The Gongoli may ridicule chiefs and elders with impunity and revealingly comment on things normally unspoken in everyday life. Helmet-shaped wooden masks called Gbetu among the De and Gola (and Sowie among the Vai and Mende) are similar stylistically to Sande society masks. The helmet portion may be carved with a face, but most are carved with geometric patterns. It is spoken of as feminine.

On exhibit from July 2000 to February 2004

Curator for the Exhibition
Frank Hole, C.J. MacCurdy Professor of Anthropology, Yale University, and Head of the Division of Anthropology of the Peabody Museum of Natural History

Consultants and Advisors
Professor Michelle Gilbert, Curatorial Affiliate, Yale Peabody Museum, and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Fine Arts, Trinity College, Hartford
William Siegmann, Curator of African and Oceanic Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and formerly Curator of the Africana Museum, Cuttington College, Suakoko, Liberia