First Advisor

John H. Atherton

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in Anthropology






Ethnology -- Sierra Leone, Ethnology -- Liberia



Physical Description

1 online resource (145 p.)


The sasswood ordeal of poison presents a divinatory ritual which has been used in criminal cases by the traditional African of Sierra Leone and Liberia. For at least six hundred years, the peoples of these present countries have imposed this strictest of ordeals on their moral transgressors; and the practice has survived, despite the protestations of nineteenth-century missionaries and the encroachment of the western world.

The investigation of the historical evidence of the sasswood ordeal among the West Atlantic tribes of Africa has three basic purposes. First, because of the paucity of interpretive data on the sasswood ordeal, the primary purpose of the thesis has been to more clearly delineate the meaning, characteristics, and functions of this poison ordeal as well as the swearing of oaths among the peoples of Sierra Leone and Liberia by amalgamating historical and more contemporaneous evidence. To this end, the distribution of the ordeal was considered; and descriptions were made of the various characteristics of the trait--complex--the poison’s action, the ritual and ceremonial aspects, the sasswood specialist, the accusations made in connection with the ordeal as well as indigenous myths of origin of the ordeal. Intracultural correlations were then presented to demonstrate the interdigitation of the elements in a culture in relation to the ordeal. Finally, some functions, other than the obvious guilt-determining aspect, were presented to demonstrate the various ways in which it had been used historically.

A second purpose of this thesis was to demonstrate the intrinsically conservative: qualities of the ordeal as an aspect of religion and law. By assessing the impact of specific historical influences in the region of the West Atlantic tribes, such as Islam, colonialism, slavery, and urbanization, it was shown that no significant change had been witnessed through the six-hundred-year period of the historical record. In concluding this aspect, it was noted that certain "weaknesses" in the historical record—such as its being "piecemeal" and recorded only infrequently--caused problems in interpreting what appeared to be an intrinsically conservative nature of the sasswood ordeal.

A third purpose, related to the second, was the application and assessment of "ethnohistoriographic" techniques, that is, those specific methods of historical scholarship utilized by the ethnographer in investigating past cultures. The limits of the use of the ethnohistoriographic techniques included observational bias (which was readily accountable, dealing as it did with hyperbole), the preoccupation with "sensational" data (which provided disparities, over-emphases in the historical record), as well as political motivations such that national prejudice frequently determined the "interpretation" placed on the ordeal. In addition, it was noted that because the sasswood ordeal may be classified as "esoterica," the record for this practice was generally spotty; and this fact affected interpretations on the actual change manifested in the trait complex.

The main contribution made by this study has been to afford future readers with a composite and relatively complete source of information on one specific type of poison ordeal practiced among the West Atlantic tribes of Sierra Leone and Liberia.


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