"The Cutting Edge" - African Throwing Knives

Catalogue by Annette M. Schmidt and Peter Westerdijk, Leiden/Netherlands, 2006    (bibliographic details)

 
 African throwing knives, made by the Banda tribe.
 
African throwing knife, length 40.5.cm, made by the Banda tribe. Catalogue p. 70. Image courtesy of the (external link / new window)Ethnographic museum Leiden.

The book presents the collection of African multi-bladed throwing knives in the (external link / new window)National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden (the Netherlands) - more specifically, throwing knives from the countries around the Congo, from today's Gabon in the west to Sudan in the east of Africa.

Schmidt's introduction sheds light on how the collection was obtained - through close ties with the company New African Trade Association, whose personnel bartered for the throwing knives with local tribes. Apart from the commercial and colonial background given, stories like the one of collector Maria Schuver, who was sentenced to death several times in different war zones, conjure a vivid picture of the times. Before finally being killed by Dinka spears in 1883, "Fortunately Schuver had already dispatched his collection" (p. 25).

The chapter by Westerdijk paints a broad picture of throwing knife usage in West Central Africa. Mainly, they were indeed weapons of war, with an effective range of 30m when thrown in the usual horizontal way. For the battlefield, the warriors carried a shield behind which the throwing knives were kept on strings, and which could be used to deflect the knives.
After the introduction of sheet metal by the European colonialists, the widespread use of throwing knives as weapons came to an end, they were now mainly used for trade and to confer the status of the carrier. The presence of a special handle made from hard material (such as wood) indicates a purely ceremonial usage, according to the author.

The largest portion of the book is made up of the throwing knife collection, sorted by tribes. The photographs are beautiful and show the details and differences of the throwing knives. The knives shown range from a total length of 33cm to 71cm, though most are about 45cm long. In the light of modern (single-bladed) throwing knives, with common commercial models measuring up to 35cm (like the Perfect Balance Thrower), this is a sensible range. The text accompanying each image seems just taken from the museums catalogue, and does not confer any interesting information (apart from mentioning the handle material used).

Still, this catalogue presents a structured approach on African throwing knives, and the anecdotes and pictures alone are reasons enough to obtain this book.


Christian Thiel

Patrick McNaughton also wrote a (external link / new window)review of this catalogue.

In the history chapter of his book „Le couteau de Lancer“, Gérard Lecoeur also pursues the origin of the African throwing knife. Annexe III shows a map tracing different throwing knife designs - the geographic focus of the map being close to the one of the Leiden collection.

Phil West assembled a (external link / new window)short informal fact collection on African throwing knives.

 


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German: Katalog Afrikanischer Wurfmesser