Ngulu (ceremonial sword)


Lurid European reports from Africa in the late 1800s offered accounts of the "savagery" of Africans—this weapon in particular was described as an executioner's sword in a complex form of capital punishment in which the victim's head, tied to a flexed branch, would be severed, and automatically catapulted into the distance. Such imaginings were purely the creations of their authors, but were eagerly read by Europeans to confirm their right to colonize the "dark continent."

In reality, this sword was a status symbol, carried as a man's emblem of rank, a purpose confirmed by the ornate decoration of both the blade and hilt.


Iron single edge blade with knotted cane reinforcement at shoulders. Sharpened edge gently curves outward, then in towards opposite edge before sharply becoming almost scythe-shaped at end. Opposite edge is formed as 2 distinct concave curves becoming almost square opposite the inner curve of cutting edge, after which it forms inner side of scythe-shaped section at end. Incised with elaborate pattern of longitudinal lines & panel of "^"-shapes on both faces. Carved wooden hilt. Oval section grip with medial rib on both faces & wrapped in copper strips. It tapes upward to 2 disks separated by short cylindrical section. Rounded fat "diamond"-shaped pommel. Pommel & upper disk studded with brass tacks.

Curator's Comments

Sharp on the outward-curving side of the blade. Sometimes called a ngala or mbulu. The supposed execution ceremony is described in Camille Coquilhat "Sur le Haut-Congo", Paris 1888. On the type, see Hurst 1997: 26-27.


Fischer and Zirngibl. "'Afrikanische Waffen'" p. 108 ff.; Ballarini 1992: 57 ff.
Cf. Northern 1981: #29-31.
Cf. Blackmun and Hautelet 1990: pl. 7a. See this text, pl. 8, for a photograph of a man carrying one of these as a symbol of rank.
Cf. Herbert 1984: #59.


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