Leo Frobenius (1873-1938)


“When he died in 1938 was called “The Father of Africanology,” It is inexcusable (though perhaps significant) that his works have not been translated into English. He led eleven expeditions of archeological, anthropological, ethnological and sociological research into Africa, five being each two years in duration and the others a year or several months: the first in 1904 and the last in 1934; (and also one into southern India to examine Dravidian ruins, antedating the Aryan invasion of India, in order to compare the Indian ruins with those he had excavated at Zimbabwe in Mashona Land in Africa).  He was the founder of, and for years (until his death) the director of the African Institute at Frankfurt and of its museum where his wonderful collections are gathered. He never makes claims without numerous and substantiated proofs to back his claims. Ezra Pond says of him that he alone is a sufficient reason for learning to read German, and also that he has “given the Negro race its true charter of nobility and dug out of Africa tradition overlaid with tradition to set against the traditions of Europe and Asia”. He has, besides, as Ezra Pond also says, “unusual perceptive aptitude” and I hope in these few paragraphs, done into English, from the French version of his introduction to his “Civilisation Africaine,” translations of a translation,-the fact that he writes delightfully will not be entirely hidden.

European navigators first reached he coasts of Negro Africa at the end of the Middle Ages. “When they arrived in the Gulf of Guinea and landed at Vaida (Dahomey) the captains were greatly astonished to find streets well laid out, bordered on either side for several leagues with two rows of trees; for days they travelled through a country of magnificent fields, inhabited by men clad in richly coloured garments of their own weaving! Further south in the Kingdom of the Congo a swarming crowd dressed in ‘silk’ and ‘velvet’, great States well-ordered, a down to the most minute details; powerful rulers; flourishing industries:-civilized to the marrow of their bones. And the condition of the countries on the eastern coast-Mozambique, for instance- was quite the same.”

“The revelations of the navigators of the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries give incontrovertible proofs that Negro Africa stretching south from the edge of the Saharan deserts was still in full flower- the full flower of harmonious and well-ordered civilizations. And this fine flowering the European conquistados annihilated as far as they penetrated into the country. The new country of America had need of slaves and they were to be in hundreds, thousands, whole cargoes of slaves. However the traffic in Negroes was never an affair of an entirely easy conscience. It demanded a justification, and so the Negro was made into a half-animal, and article of merchandize. And for this reason the notion of the fetish was invented, as the symbol of an African religion, (Portuguese-feticeiro). Mark of European manufacture! As for me I have not seen in any part whatsoever of Africa the natives worshiping fetishes.”

“The idea of the ‘barbarus Negro’ is a European invention, which has as a consequence, dominated Europe until the beginning of this century.”
“And what they told-those old captains, those chiefs of expeditions, the D’Elbees, the De Marchais, the Pigafettas, and all the others, what they told is true. It can be verified. In the old Kunstkammer of Dresden, in the Weydmann collection of Ulm, in many other European “curiosity cabinets” one still finds collections of objects from West Africa dating from that epoch: wonderful plush-velvets, of an extreme softness, made from the tender leaves of a certain banana tree; stuffs, soft and pliant, brilliant and delicate as silks, woven with well prepared raffia fibre, ceremonial javelins-their blades to the very points inlaid with the finest copper, bows so graceful, and ornamented so beautifully that they would do honour to any museum of arms whatsoever; calabashes decorated with the most perfect taste; sculptures ivory a wood, the workmanship of which reveals skill and style.”
“And all this came from the countries of the African periphery, delivered up from then on to slave merchants, and in which the visitor of today finds only shoddy European trash…”

“But when the pioneers of the last century pierced this zone of ‘European Civilization’ and the protecting wall,  which for a time was raised behind it, the wall protecting the Negroes still ‘intact,’ they found everywhere these same marvels which the captains had found in the sixteenth century on the coasts.”

“In 1906 when I penetrated into the territory of Kassai-Sankuru, I found still there villages in which the principal streets were bordered, on each side, and for leagues, with four rows of palm trees; in which the huts, each ornamented in a charming fashion were as much works of art (as those described by the sixteenth century captains); no man who did not carry sumptuous arms of iron or copper, with inlaid blades, with handles covered with serpent skin. Each cup, each pipe, each spoon was and object of art quite worthy of being compared with the creations of the European Roman style. But all that was only the down particularly tender and shining which adorns a wonderful and ripe fruit: the gestures, the manners, the moral canon of the entire people, from the little child to the old man-although they remained within absolutely natural limits, were imprinted with dignity and grace, in the families of the princes and the rich as in those of the vassals and slaves. I do not know any people in the North who can be compared with these primitives in the unity of their civilization.”

“Alas, these last ‘Isles of the Blest’, these also were submerged by the tidal wave of European civilization. And the peaceful beauty was swept away by the floods.”

“And many have had this experience. The explorers who left the savage and martial plateau of the East, of the South, and of the North, to descend into the valleys of the Congo, of Lake Victoria, of the Oubangui, men such as Speek, and Grant, Livingstone, Cameron, Stanley, Schweinfurth, Junker, de Brazza, all of them made the same discoveries: they left countries dominated by the rigid laws of the African Ares and then penetrated into countries where peace reigned, joy in adornment and in beauty, countries of old civilizations, civilizations of ancient styles, of harmonious styles.”

“And was it otherwise in the great Sudan? By no means. In the last century the legend still persisted which attributed to Islam the origin of all higher civilization. We have learnt much since then and we know that the beautiful “tob” and other garments of the Sudanese people were already in use in Africa before Mohammed was born, before a cultivated Arab could have penetrated into the centre of Africa; we know also that the particular organization of the State, in the states of the Sudan existed long before Islam, that the arts of field culture, and of good-breeding—which showed reflection—that the bourgeois orders and systems of corporation of Negro Africa, are thousands of years older than those of Europe…”

“The Sudan, then also possessed an autochthonous civilization ancient and glowing. It is a fact that exploration has found in Africa only old and yet vigorous and fresh civilizations, everywhere where the preponderance of the Arabs, Hamitic blood or European civilization has not rubbed off from the wing of the black butterflies the down of their wings formerly so beautiful. Everywhere.”


Source: Graves, Melissa A. AFRICA: The Wonder and the Glory. 1942. P. 3-6.
Translated from “Histoire de la Civilisation Africaine” de Leo Frobenius, traduit de l’allemand par Dr. H. Back et D. Ermont 1933

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