Academic journal article History In Africa

Towards a Reassessment of the Dating and the Geographical Origins of the Luso-African Ivories, Fifteenth to Seventeenth Centuries*

Academic journal article History In Africa

Towards a Reassessment of the Dating and the Geographical Origins of the Luso-African Ivories, Fifteenth to Seventeenth Centuries*

Article excerpt


Fifty years ago, a group of 100 ivory carvings from West Africa was first identified by the English scholar William Fagg as constituting a coherent body of work. In making this important identification, Fagg proposed the descriptive label "Afro-Portuguese ivories." Then, as now, the provenance and dating of these carved spoons, chalices (now recognized as salt cellars), horns, and small boxes posed a challenge to art historians. Fagg proposed three possible geographical origins: Siena Leone, the Congo coast (Angola, ex-Zaïre), and the Yoruba-inhabited area of the old Slave Coast. Although Fagg was initially inclined on stylistic grounds to accept the Yoruba hypothesis, historical documents soon made it clear that the ivories-or at least many of them-were associated with Portuguese commerce in Siena Leone. This trade developed in the final decades of the fifteenth century.

Today approximately 150 works have been identified by scholars as belonging to the "corpus" of carved ivories from West Africa. Although the sobriquet "Afro-Portuguese" remains the most common appellation, these pieces should more appropriately be referred to as Luso-African ivories. The latter term more accurately reflects the objects' creation by West African sculptors who were working within Africa. The works, although hybrid in inspiration, are far more African than they are Portuguese. In addition, no documentary evidence exists to indicate that any of the ivories were carved by African artists living in Portugal.1 West African artists created the sculptures within the context of their own cultures.

Nevertheless, the artists clearly were responding to a hybrid Luso-African cultural presence that was first established on the West African coast from Senegal to present-day Siena Leone in the late fifteenth century. The carvings were a direct response to demand on the part of these commercial middlemen, and of visiting European Portuguese merchants, for ivory implements and luxury items. The ivories are definitely West African, and they are assuredly not a product of Portuguese culture. They do, however, reflect both the close commercial relations that existed between West Africans and Europeans, and the presence in coastal societies of the acculturated descendants of Portuguese who had settled there and had intermarried with local African women.


Portuguese commerce and settlement on the West African coast developed in the decades immediately following the first seaborne explorations of the Senegalese coast in the mid-1440s. By the early 1460s this commerce extended southeast to the region subsequently known to the Portuguese as "Serra Leoa," or simply "the Serra." From the early sixteenth century there existed two concepts of 'Serra Leoa.' The nanowly defined area comprised the present day Sierra Leone peninsula and its mountainous hinterland. The wider 'Serra Leoa,' however, in the sense used by Almada (1594), extended along the coast from the site of present-day Conakry (Guinea) or even Cape Verga, 200 km south to Sherbro Island.2 Throughout the sixteenth century, Portuguese trade along the entire coastal region, which was known as "Guiné do Cabo Verde," was administered from the Cape Verde Islands, located in the Atlantic about 200 miles off the coast. The Portuguese Crown, backed by the Papacy, claimed a monopoly over this trade. Portuguese commercial hegemony in this region was not effectively challenged until the French and Dutch entered the trade at the turn of the seventeenth century.

Shortly after 1600 a Portuguese Jesuit mission to Guinea was established, headquartered in the Cape Verde Islands. Plagued by frightfully high mortality, the Jesuits never managed to settle more than two missionaries at a time in "Serra Leoa." Their mainland mission was abandoned shortly after the death of Father Manuel Alvares, in 1616, and the remaining mission, in the Islands, was abandoned in 1642.3 This missionary presence is historically important, because several Jesuits who survived longer than a few months left written records. …

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