Theses Doctoral

Before the Fetish: Artifice and Trade in Early Modern Guinea

Cook, Alexandra

This dissertation builds and theorizes a corpus of the many feitiços, fetissos, fetiches, and fetishes that, with the advent of Iberian traders along the Atlantic coastlines, materialized and circulated in early modern West Africa before the institution of what we now refer to, in the singular, as “the fetish.” It contends that the techniques and forms that elicited the accusation of fetishes were devised in response to new and varied pressures of the highly dynamic trading contexts of early modern coastal Guinea: to make meaning out of confusion, to anchor unstable notions of value and truth, to shape outcomes by bending fortune to human will, and to assert control and possession in the face of disorder and dispossession. These forms and techniques are the subject of this dissertation, which departs from the thesis that, coded into each use of the term “fetish,” there is an interpretation of the shifting social circumstances that precipitated its fabrication and use.

Part I, In the Marketplace, draws on Iberian and Caboverdean merchant treatises and descriptions to map the circulation, and creolization of the Iberian discourse of feitiçaria along the trading routes of West Africa, while collecting and interpreting the feitiços, fetiches, and fetishes that multiplied in its wake. Part II, Before the Holy Office, reverses course and tracks the Africanization of the problem of the feitiço (exemplified in the idiom of mandinga) in the trials of Cacheu-native Crispina Peres (in 1665–1669) and Cabo Verdean Patrício de Andrade (in 1690) for feitiçaria at the Lisbon Tribunal of the Inquisition.

Each chapter is articulated around a different technique of feitiçaria—writing, metallurgy, ligature, and gleaning—its social importance, and its perceived effects. Ultimately, this study is built on the conviction that “the problem of the fetish” is best approached as a historical accumulation of problem objects, troubling forms that elicited accusations of fetish and that were thus subject to discursive attempts, both systematic and ad-hoc, to classify and serialize them into a corpus and a theory.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Latin American and Iberian Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Russo, Alessandra
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 3, 2022