Forensic Fashion
(c) 2006-present R. Macaraeg


>Costume Studies
>>1895 Leopard Man
Subject:Leopard Society initiate
Culture: Bantu
Setting: Leopard societies, West/Central Africa late 19thc

Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)

* Axelrod 1997 p131
"Few West African secret societies have received much notoriety, but the Human Leopards was an exception.  Ranging throughout Sierra Leone, the Leopard's [sic] principal activity was cannibalism.  Reportedly, members purchased young boys, fattened them up, then killed, baked, and devoured them.  They were also notorious for attacking travelers.  They dressed in leopard skins, hid in the bush, then fell upon their victim, bringing him or her back to the other members of the order for a cannibal feast."

* Roberts 1995 p102
"Leopardmen have operated in a number of different parts of Africa, such as southern Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia.  One particularly bloody arena was in Sierra Leone, where among Mende peoples, men dressed in leopard (or crocodile) skins and armed with iron 'claws' or 'three-pronged knives' carried out a variety of heinous attacks under the aegis of magic called bofima.  Measures were taken by British colonial authorities to prohibit any such activity, yet hundreds were allegedly murdered and scores arrested, many of whom were imprisoned or hanged.  Bofima seems to have been a magical bundle that, among other things, offered the promise of protection from European harassment and insured the society's members' promotion within the colonial hierarchy of clerks and chiefs.  There was alleged to be a close association between leopardmen and the Poro Society, and one is left to speculate that the society was, at least in part, a reaction to colonialism itself.  This would be be consistent with other movements of theriomorphic terrorism in Africa.
    "In the Belgian Congo (now Zaire), for instance, the furtive Anioto Society of leopardmen terrorists was a foil to the rising consolidation of power by both established and would-be Mangbetu kings.  These were men profiting mightily from ivory-hunting, slaving, and other activities of the economics of predation that characterized the last decades before colonial conquest.  People of adjacent groups like Bali resented and feared the rise of the Mangbetu, and sent leopardmen to wreak havoc in their kingdoms; many of the spotted face masks now associated with secret societies from the region may have been used in contexts associated with such activities.
    "Once the full force of colonial conquest was felt by these same African societies, the focus of leopardman terrorism sometimes shifted.  Victims became those profiting most from missionary or administrative programs, or, if not the individuals themselves, then those somehow associated with them.  Such violence was in a way mimetic, for as Susan Stewart suggests, 'all colonization involves the taming of the beast by bestial methods and hence both the conversion and projection of the animal and human, difference and identity.'  In other words, in the eye of the most intolerant, Africans were 'beasts,' and treated as such.  Such a view, made painfully evidenct in the slurs and epithets openly addressed to Africans, was felt to be just cause for resistance and, in rare cases, leopardman terrorism."

* Axelrod 1997 p131
"The purpose of the Leopard's [sic] gory ritual was to create powerful medicine, not only to strengthen members of the order, but the tribe as a whole.  It is unclear when the Human Leopards ceased to exist, if, indeed, they are entirely extinct as an order.  Three members of the Human Leopards were hanged by British authorities in the Imperi country on August 5, 1895, for murdering and devouring a traveler.  One of those executed had been a Sunday School teacher."


* Hogg 1958 p97 (describing the Sierra Leone Leopard Society initiation)
"The next stage is the selection of a member of the society whose strength and animal agility have long been recognised: it is he who is to capture the intended victim.  He bears a title, Yongolado -- Man-with-teeth-and-claws.  He is equipped with a leopard-skin and a pair of leopard-knives.  The leopard-skin is kept by the chief man of the society, and is never handled by anyone except himself, and the Yongolado, except on this special occasion.  Secrecy surrounds every detail of the procedure.  The skin, rolled round and containing the knives, is handed, under cover of darkness, from the chief man of the society to a trusted lieutenant; from him is passes to another, and another, and another, so that no member can say either from whom he received it or to whom he handed it on; until at last it comes into the hand of the Yongolado.
    "The Yongolado puts on the leopard-skin, and looks about him.  He may find that other members of the society have joined him, also wearing some part of the insignia of the leopard.  Their faces, like his, will now be covered with the leopard's mask, and they will all be holding leopard-knives in their hands, protruding through the end of the skins like great claws."


* Axelrod 1997 p131
"Membership in a Leopard society conferred privileges and power.  The initiation ordeal was costly.  Each prospective member was required to produce a teenage girl of his own or his wife's blood for sacrifice.  On the night before the night of this sacrifice, a cannibal meal was consumed, and the candidate and four companions wandered through the forest, roaring like leopards.  On the sacrifice night, all Leopard society members in the region gathered, wearing leopard masks and armed with 'leopard knives' -- pronged, clawlike weapons with double-edged blades.  One member was nominated as 'executioner,' and, clad in a full leopard skin, he crouched by a trail along which, by prearrangement, the young victim was sent on her way by a parent or guardian.  The executioner leaped from his hiding place and attacked the girl, slicing her throat with the leopard knife.  The body was carried to a secret meeting place, where it was dissected and the internal organs studied with intense fascination.  The flesh was then cut up and distributed to all members -- as well as the child's parents (as a token of atonement in order to forestall a blood feud as a result of the 'sacrifice')."

* Hogg 1958 p95-96
"The 'leopard-knife' varied slightly in detail, but was in essence a very terrible weapon.  It might be a sort of pronged knife, with a double point, or a double knife with two prongs each.  The prongs, or blades, were double-edged, and in some cases were set at an angle to the part that was gripped by the user.  Whatever their form, they were murderous weapons.
    "Having received the 'leopard-knife', the candidate for membership held it firmly and tapped on the side of the box containing the borfimor.  As he did this, he repeated an oath: 'I come now to get this medicine from these people.  After this, if I reveal any secret, or betray any fellow-member, then as I walk along a track a snake shall bite me; as I go on the sea my canoe shall overturn and drown me; in the open places when I walk, the lightning shall strike me dead.'"