Bill Long 8/23/08
A Word that Opens the World to Us
When I make the comment that each item needs to be understood only in its unique historical context, I don't mean to suggest that some practices aren't shared by people across tribal or national boundaries. For example, the notion of a "bride price" or "lebola" seems to be something that transcends cultural groups in Africa. But to call everything where amulets are involved fetishism tends to smush all cultures together in a most unhelpful way.
To Jean Barbot and the Grigri
Well, I decided to dig a bit deeper on grigri because the term implicates a huge chapter in our Western history in the late 17th century, in which explorations of the coast of Africa were popular. In particular, I did a little work on Jean Barbot (1655-1712) because it tells us not only a bit about grigri as well as the generation of scholars/explorers who first mentioned them, but also because the two-volume edition of Barbot's works published by the Hakluyt Society in 1992 tells us something about our current scholarship on the earliest Europeans who wrote about life on the "Guinea Coast." Thus, grigri becomes a kind of amulet or charm not only for the inhabitants of those regions, but also for us to "rub" and learn about Europe in the 17th/18th centuries, scholarship on Africa in those days, and current ways of seeing Africa as well as the early European Africanists. It truly is a "charming" item.
Well, Jean Barbot was a French Huguenot (that gets us into the 16th/17th century, doesn't it?) who was forced by religious persecution to leave France by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. As a younger man he had served as a commercial agent (commis) for some New Rochelle, France traders in two slave trading voyages to West Africa in 1678-79 and 1681-82. In 1683 he began to draft an account of his travels. After the severe disruption of his life in 1685, he went into exile in England, where he finished the draft of his travels in 1688. But he wrote in French, and England was not in a "pro-French" mood in those days, and so his work remained unpublished. Undeterred, Barbot decided to learn English thoroughly and rewrite the text in English, which he finished shortly before his death in 1712. Actual publication of his work in England didn't take place until 1732.
When he first drafted his work in 1688, there were very few written accounts of African society on the Guinea and Gold Coasts. But, as he revised his work in English a number of works, in French or German, began to appear. Thus, as one reviewer of the 1992 edition of Barbot's work says, "Barbot's English edition of 1732 is in part a large snowball which had finally come to rest" (i.e., it had "accumulated" knowledge from many other works). The purpose of the 1000+-page, two-volume edition put out by the Hakluyt Society in 1992 (entitled Barbot on Guinea) is not simply to present the text of Barbot but to show how Barbot was indebted to predecessors and contemporaries in fashioning his work. Thus, the 1992 edition is a critical reading not only of Barbot but of how he used his sources. It is, as the reviewer said, an "unnerving essay in historiography."
Finally--To Barbot and the Grigri
So, we know that grigri are some kind of amulets worn by people in the late 17th century in West African societies. One article I read talked about how Barbot observed the myriad properties of the "grigri, or spells and charms" he found to be ubiquitous among Gold Coast blacks (Yvonee Chireau, "Culture and Christianity in the Nineteenth Century: Religious Elements in African American Magic," Religion and American Culture 7 (1997), 228). She says:
"Barbot commented that it was commonly believed by those possessing them that 'one grigri will save them from drowning at sea, and another from being killed in war; another again will give a woman a safe childbirth, another will prevent fires, another heals fevers," (quoting Barbot on Guinea, 86, 228).
Chireau then goes on to quote a work of Nicholas Owen, an Irish sailor in eighteenth-century Shebro (Sierra Leone), who:
"Described the powers of 'gregory bags,' which were believed to preserve individuals from 'shot, knives, poyson or other axcedents of life.' 'In thier opinions,' he wrote, 'it is impossible to hurt a man that has one of these bags about him, which occations them to appear more resolute in the face of their enemys,'" Chireau, page 228.
By the time Barbot's book came out in 1732, the word fetish had been coined and taken over into England. Thus, the 1746 edition of his work (originally called A Description of the Coasts of North and South Guinea, 1732) has this sentence: "The gold is ..cast into sundry shapes and sizes, which some there call Fetissos, signifying in Portuguese charms." A later work (1803) equated the fetish and the gree-gree.
Thus, even though we don't know a huge amount about these grigris, we know enough to say that they were usually little bags, hung around a person's neck, sometimes with verses of the Koran inside, sometimes just with other small objects, made sacred (through a prayer or ritual?) and believed to protect one from all dangers if one wore it. This takes us far beyond the dictionary, doesn't it?
Let's now return to our "list."