A magical clockwork elephant? Emil Torday’s Encounter with the people of the Kasai in 1909

A magical clockwork elephant? Emil Torday’s Encounter with the people of the Kasai in 1909

Categories: Lectures and Seminars | Intended for

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

1:00 PM - 2:30 PM | Add to calendar

Location Details

Virtual Zoom Webinar

Contact Information

African Studies, x 2220, AfricanStudies@cunet.carleton.ca



About this Event

Host Organization: Institute of African Studies
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This paper is an exploration of an expedition to the former Belgian Congo conducted by Emil Torday on behalf of the British Museum. The collections Torday made here constitute the first, and most extensive, collection of Central African artefacts in the UK (numbering over 3000). We are privileged to have access to a vast amount of supporting documentation, including fieldnotes, letters containing ethnographic insights, historical photographs and unpublished and published accounts. These allow us to explore the expedition contexts in greater detail, gaining a more in-depth insight into how objects functioned in a local context, as well as the context of encounter and early proto-anthropological fieldwork. This presentation will illuminate Emil Torday’ s encounter with the Lele people of the Kasai region of modern-day DRC and the former Belgian Congo, examining Torday’s methods in field research. Torday’s practices engaged his linguistic skills as well as his profound understanding of Central African metaphysical contexts that widely involved artefacts. Evidencing Torday’s understanding was his use of a clockwork elephant from Hamley’s Toy Shop in London, used to coerce local peoples into engaging with the expedition, and subsequently, for the first time, welcoming Europeans into the region. I will provide a deeper context for Torday’s approaches, to examine whether, as Torday claimed, this artefact was received and accepted within a local ontological and material universe as an item capable of divinatory powers. Was the clockwork elephant rendered magical by Torday? Or was this merely trickery typical of manipulative European explorers?