Be Smart About South Africa

Colonial Interpretations of African Scarifications Oversimplified their Original Meanings

In the 1700s, the gold rush in southeast Brazil created a high demand for mining labour. The Minas Gerais region became one of the main destinations for African slaves. For the first half of the century, demand was met by a trade circuit connecting the ports of the Bight of Benin to Salvador in Bahia. People from those ports acquired a reputation among the Portuguese as the best hands for mining gold. With time, they created a commercial system of slave classification. Many Africans were grouped with the understanding that they are naturally suited for certain jobs. Slaves were sorted by anatomy and the purported ability to function better in certain climates, resistance to diseases, and life expectancy. Based on this classification, they were either assigned to the fields or less rigorous housework. This process of stereotyping was unwittingly aided by many Africans with body markings. The markings represented aspects of their lives. They were commonly scarification marks, tattoos and cuts. These indicated their identities, ethnicity, religious affiliation, life events, accomplishments and social status. In several regions, their meanings went far beyond ethnicity or origin. In West Africa, some skin patterns express religious affiliation with specific entities of the hierarchy of gods and deified ancestors called voduns in the Gbe-speaking area or called orishas in the Yoruba territories. In these cases, marking were acquired as part of the rites of initiation.


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