Rachel Engmann



‘Selling the Exotic to the Exotic’: Religious Objects and Cross-Cultural Consumption in Nineteenth Century Asante, Ghana

“But the most surprising superstition of the Ashantees, is their confidence in the fetishes or saphies they purchase so extravagantly from the Moors, believing firmly that they make them invulnerable and invincible in war, paralyse the hand of the enemy, shiver their weapons, divert the course of balls, render both sexes prolific, and avert all evils but sickness, (which they can only assuage,) and natural death. The King gave to the King of Dagwumba, for the fetish or war coat of Apokoo, the value of thirty slaves; for Oduamata’s, twenty; for Aidoo Quamina’s, thirteen; for Akimpon’s twelve; for Akimponteä’s, nine; ‘their bodies are so encumbered with these defenses, that they are often unable to mount on horseback without assistance’….”

(Thomas Edward Bowdich 1819: 271-272).


Pre-colonial Africa is customarily considered circumscribed, isolated and unchanged from an historically stagnant ‘traditional’ African past, possessing little cross-cultural contact beyond it’s geographical boundaries (Mudimbe 1988), despite significant complex, overlapping shared histories, interactions and interdependencies (Austen 1971; Daaku 1972; Lovejoy 1980; Mitchell 2005; Posnansky 1973; Rodney 1972). African commercial activities are habitually situated exclusively within ‘primitive’ spheres of exchange, designating political economies ‘silent trade’, gifting, barter, reciprocity and distribution, and as such, defying most neo-classical economic theory (Dalton 1968; Dalton and Bohannan 1962; Firth 1967; Polanyi 1963).  Likewise, African consumption is portrayed peripheral to world systems theory (Wallerstein 1974; Wolf 1982), disregarding the magnitude and longevity of local, inter- and intra- regional and continental consumption patterns and practices (Curtin 1984; Eltis and Jennings 1998; Hill 1966; Hopkins 1973).  On the contrary, pre-colonial African consumption’s monetary and nonmonetary forms existed in a variety of historical, social, political and economic contexts.  What is more, the chronological progression implicit in ‘non-capitalist’, ‘pre-capitalist’ and ‘capitalist’ or ‘primitive’, ‘archaic’ and ‘modern’ economies, grounded in nineteenth century theories regarding society, economics and politics remain overly simplistic (Shipton 1989).  Without a doubt, Africa’s Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, South East Asian and Atlantic commercial entanglements occupies a longue durée, incommensurate with global dynamics’ characterizations comprised of a ‘core’ and ‘periphery’, but rather, highlights interlacing circles of peripheries and semi-peripheries (Doyle forthcoming).  It goes without saying, Africa’s position in the global political economy, made possible through seafaring, trade ports, overland routes and marketplaces, traversing continental, regional and local borders, connected merchants, traders, scholars, clerics, missionaries, pilgrims, artisans, travelers, rulers and ordinary people engaged in crossing political, economic, cultural, religious and language boundaries. Many acted in search of profit-making through cross-cultural consumption of foreign, exotic, luxury and mundane commodities.  In the nineteenth century, one such commodity, Islamic talismans, voyaged the efficient, extensive and established trans-Saharan African caravan trade routes as part of a global scale of networks, circulating widely in Asante.  Highly mobile material repositories of privileged, specialized knowledge, Islamic talismans reflect a tradition illustrating the flow of people, objects, texts, technologies, ideas and imaginations.  Deemed exceedingly efficacious, nineteenth century Islamic talismans were conscripted for, and against, empire.  More specifically, furthering the Asante imperial project by fighting local neighboring hinterland and coastal insurgencies, as well as British colonial invasions.

Captivatingly situated at the intersections of empire, religion and consumption, nineteenth century Islamic talismans in Asante provide a potent micro-historical material lens for understanding cross-cultural consumption.  I define cross-cultural consumption as the consumption of Islamic commodities by non-Muslims, emphasizing the significant role Islamic talismans played in the history of the Asante Empire.  Consequently, I pay close attention to consumptions’ political, economical, historical, socio-cultural and material contingencies.  Ultimately, I hope to contribute to historiographical scholarship on emporia’s material dimensions (Alcock et al 2001), by adopting Islam’s material residues as objects of enquiry.  In this paper, I discuss cross-cultural consumption’s centrality to imperialism, through an engagement with commercial diasporas, foreign or migrant ‘cross-cultural brokers’ as producers, local consumers and commodities.  In the pages that follow, I begin by reviewing archaeological, anthropological and material studies literature exploring relations between consumption, religion and material culture.  Principally, my interests lie in Islamic theological-juridical rulings concerning commerce vis-à-vis Muslims and non-Muslims, as a way to comprehend cross-cultural consumption of Islamic talismans.  Now, it may appear somewhat indulgent delving into Islamic theological-jurisdictions’ complexities, but there is a point.  Insofar as intimate interactions between Muslims, Jews and Christians in the past, merited meticulous Islamic theological-jurisdictions, it is worth deciphering the nuances pertaining to travel, residence, emissary and commercial activities between theologically divergent communities for the reason it elucidates migrant Muslim merchant-clerics’ legal, political, economic and theological alliances, restrictions, as well as ethical obligations.  Then, turning to nineteenth century Asante imperial circuits of culture, I employ Islamic talismans so as to unravel the extent to which Islamic theological-judiciary sensibilities can be effectively applied to differing geo-temporalities, and more precisely, cross-cultural consumption of religious commodities within spheres of secular exchange.  As manipulators of words and things, migrant Muslim merchant-clerics exploited their knowledge of Islam, tafsir (Qur’ãnic exegesis) and al-‘ulūm al-khafiyyah (Islamic esoteric sciences) producing Islamic talismans that sought to ensure military success in warfare.

The Commodity Fetish

To begin with, I would like to proffer some remarks on sources, methods and interpretations.  Adopting a multiple lines of evidence approach, by way of archaeological ethnography, notably, written spiritual traces with residual, material afterlife in the present (Hamilakis 2011; Hamilakis and Anagnostopoulos 2009; Meskell 2005, 2007), my work attempts to realize the potentials for dialogue between objects, texts, oral narratives and ethnography.  There are several points worth highlighting here.  Certainly, European travelogues, missionary reports and colonial accounts pen lengthy descriptions detailing Islam and Islamic talismans in Asante (Bowdich 1819, 1824; Dupuis 1824; Hutchinson 1858; Hutton 1821; Huydecoper 1817; Ramseyer and Kuhne 1875).  Nonetheless, as public, official transcripts demonstrating European agendas, knowledge and power in textual form, many sources based on casual observation and oral accounts conveyed to Europeans by their African contemporaries, often contained information fabricated, exaggerated, understated or dismissed.  To be sure, Arabic written sources prove valuable (Levtzion 1965, 1968; Levtzion and Hopkins 1981; Silverman and Owusu-Ansah 1989).  It is for these reasons, Owusu-Ansah’s (1991) seminal study on the ‘Arabic Manuscripts from the Guinea Coast’, a collection of approximately one thousand folios detailing prescriptions for the preparation of Islamic talismans, held at the Danish Royal Library in Copenhagen stands out in this regard.  Still, the thing to note is, European and Arabic archives only take us so far.

So, in the same way I employed European and Arabic historical sources, I also relied upon Ajami (Arabicized script documenting African languages) manuscripts and talismanic amuletic texts.  Additionally, I sought out oral narratives.  Undoubtedly, pre-colonial Asante was an oral culture.  However, my use of oral evidence focused on stories told at local, family, lineage and community levels in an attempt to capture the micro-histories typically de-privileged by dominant colonial, regional or national historical accounts.  In terms of archaeological sources, I examined nineteenth century Islamic talismans situated in community, royal and museum collections in Ghana and the United Kingdom, as well as those still circulating as part of a contemporary Asante living social tradition.  Like the majority of scientific and religious prose, the Arabic and Ajami texts are intricate and difficult to comprehend even for Arabic scholars.  A few community members, mostly elders, can read Ajami texts.  Yet, with elders’ passing, the texts will remain untranslatable and the knowledge rendered unknown.  Acknowledging my project’s ethical implications, I only opened objects with owners or custodians’ permission.  Unwrapping ‘breaks’ an Islamic talisman’s potency, therefore a private ritual performed in my absence, reinserting an object’s power. Fieldwork also comprised interviews and participant observation at therapeutic consultations, private homes, public events and museums working with curators, residents, Muslim ‘ulama (scholars), Asante Chiefs and Queen Mothers, producers and consumers of Islamic talismans.  In addition, I undertook private classes on Islamic talisman preparation.


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Austen, Ralph. 1971. ‘Economic History’, African Studies Review 14(3): 435-438

Bowdich Esq, Thomas. 1819. Mission from Cape Coast to Ashantee with a Statistical Account of that Kingdom and Geographical Notices of Other Parts of the Interior of Africa. London: Murray

Curtin, Philip. 1975. Economic change in pre-colonial Africa: supplementary evidence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press

Curtin, Philip. 1984. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Daaku, K.Y. 1972. ‘Aspects of Precolonial Akan Economy’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 5(2): 235-247

Dalton, George (ed). 1968. Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi. Boston: Beacon Press

Dalton, George and Paul Bohannan. 1962. Markets in Africa. Evanston: Northwestern University Press

Doyle, Laura. Forthcoming. ‘Inter-Imperiality: Dialectics in Postcolonial World History’, Interventions

Dupuis, Joseph. 1824. Journal of a Residence in Ashantee. London

Eltis, David and Lawrence C. Jennings. 1998. ‘Trade Between Western Africa and the Atlantic World in the Pre-Colonial Era’, The American Historical Review 93(4):936-959

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Hamilakis, Yannis. 2011. ‘Archaeological Ethnography: A Multitemporal Meeting Ground for Archaeology and Anthropology’, Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 399-414

Hamilakis, Yannis and Aris Anagnostopoulos. 2009. ‘What is Archaeological Ethnography?’, Public Archaeology 8(2-3): 65-87

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Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:

I am interested in how social and political power, agency and subjectivities are articulated through exchange/commerce, consumption and commodities in C18th & C19th West Africa.  What were the market opportunities?  Who was implicated (i.e. who are the producers, consumers, cultural brokers etc)?  Who were the actors involved?  What were the biopolitics?  How did they play out on the ground?
Provisional sketch of essay:
In my first project on C19th Islam in Asante, I am interested in further developing my work on Islamic capitalism, consumption and religion through the lens of C19th Islamic talismans.

I am interested in:

  1. How we can understand exchange, consumption, commodification and commodities etc in C19th West Africa;
  2. How we can understand culture and the economy within an African and/or Islamic framework;
  3.  If there an African capitalism or Islamic capitalism.  And, if so, what it looks like.
  4. Therefore, I would like to engage with the disciplines of economics, law and religious studies – in particular, Marxist theory and shar’ia law, and learn more about Latin America, South East Asia, Middle East, Early Islam and the pre-1500 Indian Ocean.

In my second project, I continue my interest in the themes of exchange, consumption, commodification and commodities etc, but turn my attention to the C18th Afro-European entanglement on the Gold Coast, exploring this through archival records, oral histories and artifacts excavated at Christiansborg castle.