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The Fetish and Intercultural Commerce in Seventeenth-century West Africa

  • Matthew David Mitchell

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Fetish. Perhaps few words are more redolent of the negative outlook of “enlightened” Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries towards the “superstitions” embraced by the supposedly benighted inhabitants of the Dark Continent of Africa. This intellectual snobbery on the part of such European intellectual luminaries as Hume, Voltaire, Kant, and Marx led to fundamental misunderstandings of the nature of African religious beliefs and practices. In particular, it obscured the ways in which European visitors to the African coast made use of the concept of the fetish for their commercial purposes. In the process, they introduced European ideas about physical objects of supernatural power into the complex of beliefs that Enlightenment thinkers later came to deride as uniquely emblematic of African backwardness. The conception of the fetish as both a European and an African invention re-emerges in reading the documentary evidence left behind by European travellers and traders of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. These sources present the fetish—and in particular the practice of sealing agreements by swearing oaths on fetish objects—as an intermediary between European and African systems of economic and spiritual value, thus fostering the modicum of trust necessary for trade to proceed.

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* Matthew David Mitchell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania researching the history of early joint-stock companies and specifically of the Royal African Company of England. He gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Cheikh Babou, Margo Todd, Christine Dang, Jeremy Dell, Elizabeth Dyer, Nikki Kalbing, Marissa Mika, Khwezi Mkhize, Catherine Porter, the British Library, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, the Columbia Basin College Library, the editors and anonymous reviewers of Itinerario; and the love and support of David and Janet Mitchell, Megan Ingraham, Marjorie Leffler, Malkelm Leffler, Maxwell Leffler-Mitchell, Emmelia Leffler-Mitchell, and Elizabeth Leffler-Mitchell.

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The Fetish and Intercultural Commerce in Seventeenth-century West Africa

  • Matthew David Mitchell

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