Die Kpelle: Ein Negerstamm in Liberia

Show Summary

A king has many wives who are his property. When a king gets a wife he must pay for her; he gets none of them for nothing. . . . When anyone has a love affair with any of the wives of the king he must pay the king money. When anyone has a love affair with one of the king’s wives the king forces him to pay part of the price that he paid for her.

When a king has many wives (there are many kings who have more than two hundred) he picks a number of them, he gives them to his men and says, "You are my laborers." He picks other wives and gives them to his men and says, "You are my porters." He picks other wives and gives them to his warriors, his principal men, those who are good in carrying on wars, and says to them, "Any war that comes about in my city, you are to fight it."

He picks other wives. The one he first got is the mistress of the house. He picks another out; she is his wife for the sacrifices. He picks a wife out and makes her his wife for his journeys. He picks another as his wife for cooking, that is, she does the cooking, and the mistress of the house she gives it [the food] to the king. He says of these wives he has picked out to everyone in the city, "No one shall have any love affair with my wives, and if anyone disregards this and begins a love affair with my wives and does not pay the money for it, then I will certainly seize the man and sell him." All these wives that the king keeps with him are in his name; when he wants one he calls her.

The king distributes these wives among his plantations; they never live together in the same city. When a month has passed the king calls all his wives in and says to his principal wife, "Ask these young wives whether they have had a love affair with a man, and then come and tell me about it." It often happens that some of them confess such a relation, but frequently the most of the wives answer and say, "We have had no man." The principal wife informs the king and says, "Most of the young wives won’t mention any man’s name." Then the king says to his wife, "All right, sit down, look at me, you asked them, they denied it, I will call the ordealist and he will take them through an ordeal." The king sends for his messenger and orders him to call the ordealist. The king names all the wives who would not name a man to the ordealist and says to him, "My wives have had love affairs but they are ’hard of hearing’ and will not name the man in question, so I have called you to take them through an ordeal." Then the ordealist says to the king, "I am agreed. The country is your property, and the city and all the people. Since you have called me I will make no conditions. As you see, there are many people and I cannot finish the ordeal in a day; I cannot finish it in a month. I will be your guest while I am conducting it. On the other hand, when I have finished it and you are satisfied, whatever you give me I will take. That is what I have to say." The king answers and says, "I thank you. Carry out my instructions. When you have finished I will do what I can for you."

So the ordealist says to the king, "Bring your medicine and I will eat it [swallow it] so that all the people I am giving the ordeal to will see that if I eat it and swear on it and then do not act impartially the medicine will kill me." [The king’s medicine is stronger than the ordealist’s medicine and controls it.] So the king comes with his medicine and the ordealist eats it. When he has done that he begins giving the ordeal. He gives it to a woman and when it begins to work on her the king sees and his chief wife sees that the ordeal has seized her, and the woman names the name of the man. When she names the name the king sends for his messenger, some young man. The woman goes to those who have reason to fear the king [the man and his family] and says, "I have named your name." This man tells his family right away and says, "The king’s wife has named my name and I am in fear. You, my mother, and you, my father, come with me and give me to the king. Say to him I will be his son. Let him give me this woman I had a love affair with, and I will work for him. I will work for him always. If I should violate my word and run away then you would have to clear the matter up by giving him another wife." That is the way the king gets all his working people. It is the Kpelle custom.

The people who thus give their children to the king, and the king agrees to it, have nothing more to do with whatever their children do for the king. If he kills an elephant it belongs to the king; if he kills a leopard it belongs to the king. The king informs his family, and says to them, "That was a good thing that your son did." They say to the king, "You have informed us, but he is your son; we gave him to you; whatever good he does belongs to you." . . .

[In case the lover is the son of a rich and important man his father and the woman visit the king.] They take a goat, they take a basket full of white rice, they take a large cloth, they take a chicken, they carry it and come to the king. The lover’s father speaks to the king and says to him, "It is about this woman and my son and their love affair that I have come to ask your pardon." The king says, "It is good that you come. Let me see your hand." The man gives him the chicken first and says, "My son did you a bad turn, but pardon it. I am not speaking idly. Here is a fowl which is the reconciliation kola." [Any gift made when asking for pardon is called "kola."] He does the same with the goat, and says to him: "This basket of rice and this cloth, I bow to your feet, we are all together in the land, you are the king. You take care of us all. O, my Lord, I cannot endure to give my son to work out the bride price of a wife. I prostrate myself at your feet. Don’t take me through a palaver [legal process]." The king says to him: "You have spoken. You introduced the palaver very well. But you say you cannot give me your child to work out the bride price. That is all right. But if you want to quiet my feelings you must give a girl."

Then the man says to him: "I have no daughter myself, but my sister has many daughters. Wait. I will go and beg one of her and give her to you, for all the children which my sister bears belong to me, but I must speak to her first, before I give one of them to anybody." The king says to him: "Go, ask for one and bring her here and the matter is settled."

And the man goes and tells his sister and she gives him a daughter, and he brings her to the king, and the king accepts her. That is the way a Kpelle king collects his many wives. When the ordealist is giving the ordeal he continues every day until the case of every woman is settled.

When the ordeal takes hold of another woman the king sends a man with her and they go and inform the man, and she says: "I named your name." If the relatives of this man whose name she has named don’t want to give him to the king, and if there is no girl child, they take a large sum of money, and give it to the king and pacify his feelings. That is the way a king does with all his wives when a man has an intrigue with them. That is the reason the king has much money and many men. That is our standpoint, and we say: "The wives of a Kpelle king are a great source of revenue."1

1Westermann, D.n/an/an/an/an/a, , 115–120 (Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht. By permission).

Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Die Kpelle: Ein Negerstamm in Liberia

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Die Kpelle: Ein Negerstamm in Liberia

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Die Kpelle: Ein Negerstamm in Liberia in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HAJF14Y2AFVLP69.

MLA: . Die Kpelle: Ein Negerstamm in Liberia, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HAJF14Y2AFVLP69.

Harvard: , Die Kpelle: Ein Negerstamm in Liberia. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HAJF14Y2AFVLP69.