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Leo Frobenius on Africa

History of the Civilisation of the African


Leo Frobenius
The idea of the barbarous Negro is a European invention which has consequently prevailed in
Europe until the beginning of this century
The children of the Gods had gone under, because they failed to remember the law their awe
worthy ancestry had bequeathed themI AM AN AFRICAN and rejoice exceedingly in any
attendant success upon the production of evidence that my own tedious Continent has one thing
to offer, namely, real puzzles whose eventual solution is merely deferred and a question of time.
Leo Frobenius, German Explorer in The Voice of Africa (1913)
When they (the first European navigators of the end of the Middle Ages) arrived in the Gulf of
Guinea and landed at Vaida, the captains were astonished to find the streets well cared for, bordered
for several leagues in length by two rows of trees; for many days they passed through a country of
magnificent fields, a country inhabited by men clad in brilliant costumes, the stuff of which they
had woven themselves! More to the South in the Kingdom of Congo, a swarming crowd dressed in
silk and velvet; great states well-ordered, and even to the smallest details, powerful sovereigns, rich
industries; civilized to the marrow of their bones. And the condition of the countries on the eastern
coasts, Mozambique, for example was quite the same.
The Creation of The Negro
What was revealed by the navigators of the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries furnishes an
absolute proof that Negro Africa, which extended south of the desert zone of the Sahara, was in full
efflorescence which the European conquistadors annihilated as far as they progressed. For the new
country of America needed slaves, and Africa had them to offer, hundreds, thousands, whole
cargoes of slaves. However, the slave trade was never an affair which meant a perfectly easy
conscience, and it exacted a justification; hence one made of the Negro a half-animal, an article of
merchandise. And in the same way the notion of fetish (Portuguese feticeiro) was invented as a
symbol of African religion.
As for me, I have seen in no part of Africa the Negroes worshipping a fetish. The idea of the
barbarous Negro is a European invention which has consequently prevailed in Europe until the
beginning of this century. What these old captains recounted, these chiefs of expeditions, Delbes,
Marchais, Pigafetta, and all the others, what they recounted is true. It can be verified. In the old
Royal Kunstkammer of Dresden, in the Weydemann collection of Ulm, in many another cabinet of
curiosities of Europe, we still find West African collections dating from this epoch.
Marvellous plush velvets of an extreme softness, made of the tenderest leaves of a certain kind of
banana plant; stuffs soft and supple, brilliant and delicate, like silks, woven with the fibre of a raffia,
well prepared; powerful javelins with points encrusted with copper in the most elegant fashion;
bows so graceful in form and so beautifully ornamented that they would do honour to any museum
of arms whatsoever; calabashes decorated with the greatest taste; sculpture in ivory and wood of
which the work shows a very great deal of application and style.
And all that came from countries of the African periphery, delivered over after that to slave
merchants But when the pioneers of the last century pierced this zone of European civilization
and the wall of protection which had, for the time being raised behind it, the wall of protection of
the Negro still intact, they found everywhere the same marvels which the captains had found on the
coast.

The Real Truth


In 1906 when I penetrated into the territory of Kassai Sankuru, I found still, villages of which the
principle streets were bordered on each side, for leagues, with rows of palm trees, and of which the
houses, decorated each one in charming fashion, were works of art as well. No man who did not
carry sumptuous arms of iron or copper, with inlaid blades and handles covered with serpent skin.
Everywhere velvets and silken stuffs. Each cup, each pipe, each spoon was an object of art perfectly
worthy to be compared to the creations of the Roman European style. But all this was only the
particularly tender and iridescent bloom which adorns a ripe and marvellous fruit; the gestures, the
manners, the moral code 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 the vassals and slaves. I know of no northern people who can be
compared with these primitives for unity of civilization.
And the peaceful beauty was carried away by the floods.
But many men had this experience: the explorers who left the savage and warrior plateau of the East
and South and the North to descend into the plains of the Congo, of Lake Victoria, of the Ubangi:
men such as Speke and Grant, Livingstone, Cameron, Stanley, Schweinfurt, Junker, de Brazza, all
of them made the same statements: they came from countries dominated by the rigid laws of the
African Ares, and from then on they penetrated into the countries where peace reigned, and joy in
adornment and in beauty; countries of old civilizations, of ancient styles, of harmonious styles.
Before the Darkness
The revelations of fifteenth and seventeenth century navigators furnish us with certain proof that
Negro Africa, which extended south of the Sahara desert zone, was still in full bloom, in the full
brilliance of harmonious and well-formed civilizations. In the last century the superstition ruled that
all high culture of Africa came from Islam. Since then we have learned much, and we know today
that the beautiful turbans and clothes of the Sudanese folk were already used in Africa before Islam
was even born or before Ethiopian culture reached inner Africa. Since then we have learned that the
peculiar organization of the Sudanese states existed long before Islam and that all of the art of
building and education, of city organization and handwork in Negro Africa, were thousands of years
older than those of Middle Europe.
Thus in the Sudan, old real African warm-blooded culture existed and could be found in Equatorial
Africa, where neither Ethiopian thought, Hamitic blood, or European civilization had drawn the
pattern. Everywhere when we examine this ancient culture it bears the same impression. In the great
museums, Trocadero, British Museum, in Belgium, Italy, Holland, and Germany, everywhere we
see the same spirit, the same character, the same nature. All of these separate pieces unite
themselves to the same expression and build a picture equally impressive as that of a collection of
the art of Asia. The striking beauty of the cloth, the fantastic beauty of the drawing and the
sculpture, the glory of the ivory weapons, the collection of fairy tales equal to the Thousand and
One Nights, the Chinese novels, and the Indian philosophy.
The African Style
In comparison with such spiritual accomplishments the impression of the African spirit is easily
seen. It is stronger in its folds, simpler in its richness. Every weapon is simple and practical, not
only in form but fantasy. Every line of carving is simple and strong. There is nothing that makes a
clearer impression of strength and all that streams out of the fire and the hut, the sweat and the
grease treated hides and the animal dung. Everything is practical, strong, workmanly. This is the
character of the African style. When one approaches it with full understanding, one immediately
realizes that this impression rules all Africa.

It expresses itself in the activity of all Negro people even in their sculpture. It speaks out of their
dances and their masks; out of the understanding of their religious life, just as out of the reality of
their living, their state building, and their conception of fate. It lives in their fables, their fairy
stories, their wise sayings and their myths.
And once we are forced to this conclusion, then the Egyptian comes into the comparison. For this
discovered culture form of Negro Africa has the same peculiarity.
Leo Frobenius (1873-1938) was an ethnologist and archaeologist. His first expedition to Africa was
to the Congo in 1904. In 1918, he began his expedition to North, West and Central Africa. He
rediscovered the famous Ori Olokun in Ife in 1912. Back in Germany, he founded the Institute for
Cultural Morphology in Munich in 1920. In 1925, the city of Frankfurt acquired his over 4,700
historical African stone paintings and even more sculptures of African art currently in the
Frobenius Institute in Frankfurt. He died in Italy in 1938, aged 65. He corresponded and
collaborated with the great Professor of History, Sociology and Economics and author, the AfricanAmerican, W.E.B Du Bois.
The above article was published in W. E. B Du Boiss The World and Africa: An inquiry into the
part which Africa has played in world history.