At the Crossroads - a sword of many influences

DSCF2923

Swords of southeast Asia are very much a reflection of the cultures that made them and by the 17th century what is now modern-day Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam were truly diverse in the personnel and influences to be found in their militaries. This included both heavy influence from Japanese Nihonmachi communities throughout southeast Asia as well as Europeans, in particular the Portuguese as well as Turks and many other ethnicities. This can be seen with historical figures I the 17th century such as Yamada Nagamasa, a Japanese mercenary who became an influential governor within the Ayutthaya kingdom of what is now modern day China, Filipe de Brito e Nicote, a Portuguese mercenary who served as a governor within the Arakan kingdom of modern day Burma and later rebelled and allied with Ayutthaya and an unnamed Turkish governor of a town called Suhan in Ayutthaya. These are merely three men of what were large and vibrant communities across the region. In addition to playing an active role in the local power structures the arms and armour of these immigrants also proved highly influential. Portuguese artillery and firearms became a core element within the armies of the kingdoms of Thailand and Burma while Japanese swords and polearms were widely copied, particularly within Thailand and Vietnam. Influence from what is now modern day China, particularly from the Tai people who would also occupy large areas of modern day Burma, Thailand and Laos, is also common, in particular within Burma as the semi independent Shan/Tai states formed an important buffer to Qing China.

This melting pot of influences and an openness within these societies to borrow and adopt and assimilate with outsiders has led to some intriguing weaponry. This sword is one example, a sturdy fighting sword with little ornamentation and a great deal of age. Almost certainly from the region that is now broadly speaking Northern Thailand and Southern Laos it is in essence of the dha/daab type but significantly different to the 19th century examples commonly seen.

 DSCF2924

The blade features and intriguing geometry with a blade that swells at the tip and exhibits incredible distal taper. The spine is V shaped and incredibly thick at the base.

DSCF2917

 V shaped spines are not unusual in Thai and Laotian swords, but the angle is often less pronounced than this example, particularly in 19th century swords. It is seen to some degree on transitional Qing sabers. It may also owe something to Japanese influence who formed communities across southeast Asia after political upheaval in the 17th century. Katanas were widely copied in a variety of locally adapted styles from Vietnam to Thailand. Dha/daab with less pronounced V spines can be observed across Shan and Lanna examples as well.

 007

 

 004

 

In these later pieces it is interesting to observe the feature has become subtle enough to suggest the form is out of tradition rather than whatever stylistic or functional purpose the deeply angled examples had.

The blade form itself is of a ‘wing’ like shape with a broad tip. In fact, when sold the sword was mislabelled as a katana. A somewhat understandable mistake in terms of the overall profile however quite different in terms of the geometry.

Turning to the fittings, this sword has a large, flared bronze guard and simple iron pommel cap with a bronze ferrule. The guard is four lobed, which is relatively uncommon with 8 lobbed guards seemingly more common. These guards likely own their origins to Chinese dao, while tsuba like guards are also found on both Vietnamese and Thai pieces. Other examples of four lobbed guards with a similar style can be seen on swords commonly identified as being Laotian and from the Vientiane region as well as the general Chao Phraya river basin area.

 003

This example is quite plain with little to know decorative elements besides a ‘braided’ decorative element and some incised lines on the bulbous base.

 DSCF2918

Unlike Japanese or Chinese inspired guards, this example is not slotted to fit the blade but is rather open, with the guard filled with resin from the gluta usitata tree known in Thailand as ki’tai resin.

DSCF2921

This is an important feature as it points away from Japanese influence. The raised edge on the guard is more like many Chinese dao guards. The number of lobs on the guard is also intriguing. Double trefoil guards and quatrefoil guards can be found on both Chinese and Tibetan swords as far back as the 17th century. Large guards on Southeast Asian pieces seem to be an element perhaps influenced by outside design given they are usually present on pieces exhibiting other characteristics from outside influence, such as katana like blade profiles.

268271

18th century dao (Met museum)

 

A sword previously owned by Peter Dekker of Mandarin Mansion is another intriguing parallel, perhaps from Yunnan it also features a similar four lobed guard, wing like blade and hard wood handle. In this case the pommel being the characteristic “bulb” of the Yunnan region and Tai people swords. On this piece the guard may be Vietnamese, which is another potential vector of influence for the sword under discussion. Four lobbed guards may reflect the Buddhist motif of the “Four Noble Truths”. However, in this example it is important to note the guard is slotted for the blade, unlike the sword under discussion.

IMG 4497 

Dha2

The reason for including this sword despite its differences is that it is also part of the so called ‘Tai world’. A loose but vital grouping of principalities across what is now northern Thailand and Laos as well as Burma and into southern China. Not only where these states often fluid in their allegiances they also were often crucial in geopolitical events and at the nexus of military campaigns between Burma, Ayutthaya, Lanna and Lan Xang. The Tai where known to be some of the main suppliers of blades throughout the region and as originally settled in the region due to upheaval in their southern Chinese homelands. The Shan and other groups close to the modern-day Chinese border still retain strong cultural ties across the border. This migration happened over a protracted timeline and across many groups with different ethnic designations, but it is an important feature of not only how the culture of southeast Asia developed but also their weaponry. It would be difficult to discuss any dha/daab type sword without including some element of the Tai story. While modern China is often wrongly portrayed as a monolithic society there are in fact still a myriad of ethnic groups particularly in the south with their own unique relationships with the border regions of their southern neighbours.

The reason for this brief diversion into regional history is the importance, in the mind of this author, to emphasis not only the external influences of Japanese and Western culture within southeast Asian arms development, but also an ingrained cross border influence due to the migration and ethnic diffusion of the population of these lands. In fact, many elements that we might be tempted to highlight as an external influence are best viewed as in fact a natural progression or reflection of the changes in ethnic population of these regions due to external pressures. This is not only a relic of earlier periods but an observable fact into the modern era, such as the post-revolutionary (WWII) establishment of Yunnan villages in northern Thailand.

Dating dha/daab is not an easy exercise but it is likely that this sword is most likely from the 17th century, the size, form and quality are all good indicators in this regard. This shape of the spine immediately points to northern Thailand or Laos (Lan Xang) while the guard form owes perhaps something to Chinese forms. This is then an excellent example of a weapon that comes from a crossroads with many elements having been incorporated to achieve a finely made and balanced fighting sword.

A Well Travelled Warrior

DSCF1474

This is a particularly interesting dha sword from Burma, most likely from the Ava region, it is a very large example with a blade of unusual quality and a finally made silver hilt. 

A Burmese Mystery

DSCF1537

This intriguing sword is a mystery on several levels. When it appeared at auction in the UK it attracted no attention, I was in fact the only bidder. Part of that can be attributed to the condition, a heavily pitted and corroded blade, and partly the piece simply does not fit into the usual types of dha seen.

The Everyday Sword

Montagnard dha 001%20%28Custom%29

This is a sword that illustrates an interesting function that such weapons have often filled in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar), not only as a weapon proper but also an essential tool in day to day life. 

A Likely Byzantine or Fatimid Sword of the Xth – XIth Centuries

Ancient near east oa

This extremely rare sword from the collection of Dr. Lee Jones represents a rarely encountered subtype of swords which are thought to be either Fatimid or Byzantine and heavily influenced by Arab designs. Extant examples are few and the piece presented here is unique in several respects.

Of Horseflesh & Steel

Horseflesh%20header

I have noted in the past the trade in blades within the Sahel, the great trade routes that bore them on their long journey over the desert sands, but I have written little about the other key element of warfare in these cultures. As much a part of the panoply of war as the spear and the sword.

What's in a Guard - The Myth of the Southern/Central/Sudanese Takouba

C6a24717d51ded8d2e5449e7b3e4ac2b

While all of us who have an interest in takouba owe a debt to Lloyd Cabot Briggs for his seminal article on Tuareg swords, there is an interesting typological distinction he makes which has stuck, somewhat unquestioned, for years. Briggs divides the hilts of Tuareg swords into a central type, less peaked pommel and leather covered guard, southern, larger pommel and brass guard plates often with round extensions and a Sudanese type with a more spherical pommel and leather guard and grip. 

Reclaiming History

DSC02690

I will never claim to be much of a restorer, but occasionally I happen along a piece in need of rescuing. Something that many would pass over due to condition, but that has value because of its features regardless. One such piece came up on auction in December of last year. I was fortunate enough to secure the lot and by February it was in my hands.

The Authentic Fake

Original fake

One of the most interesting features of ethnographic swords which have a long history of using imported blades is that the locally made blades tend to closely emulate the imports, both in style and the markings applied. Over time it is not inaccurate to say that the form of takouba and kaskara, as well as many West African swords, owes more to the blades imported and then copied, than to any locally derived shape.

To Specialize or Not

6b832f196d2876572fca13545d6a3649

As an unabashedly focused collector I am often asked by fellow collectors why I rarely obtain arms outside of takouba and very related forms. I have always felt one cannot judge a sword form on the most typical examples. Rather, it is necessary to handle as many examples as possible to form any sort of opinion that runs deeper than a cursory description. This belief, coupled with the financial restrictions every collector faces has limited my collecting. For every interesting object I see, I mentally count how many takouba that equals.

Photographic Echoes

6

There is a danger collectors often fall into when looking at period photography of arms, armour and warriors of inferring a historical past on the basis of how these cultures appeared in the 19th and 20th centuries. A tendency to assume a static nature to these societies and the continued permeation of the myth of Africa being stuck in a time warp.

The Sword and the Slave

Silver hilt

There is a nasty historical reality to the great kingdoms of the Sahel. For all the grandeur of the gold trade including the fantastic stories surrounding Mansa Musa the ruler of the Mali Empire in the late 13th and early 14th century, the salt trade or even the ivory and leather trades, by far the most sustained and profitable commodity within the Sahel was humans. Or to put it bluntly, the slave trade.

Inside the Steel

Sword looking inside article

The steel, at the heart of any sword, is often an enigma. Hidden by patina and age, the texture and properties of an antique sword are often not readily apparent. But occasionally an extant example will exhibit damage or flaws that reveals something of the inner character. This is one such example.

A Sword and its Place

Map web

I have talked before about classification and shared some thoughts on when a desire to precisely label a sword to a particular tribe is perhaps not as important as many ethnographic collectors stress or feel necessary. But now I want to talk about the opposite. When a sword has a place.

The True Workhorse of the Sahel

Untitled 1

If you were going to die in martial conflict in the Sahel, chances are it wouldn't be by the sword. Rather it would be one of weapons pictured below. The humble spear.

From Belluno to Agadez

DSC05451

Another evening and another study session. The sword in question this evening, a modified, single edged European back sword, converted in the Sahel into a double edged takouba. This is a particularly interesting sword showing great age (the blade is likely 17th century) with local modifications and an array of marks that make pinning down a likely point of origin much easier than usual.

The Gleam of History

006%2Cmedium large.1394653730

One of the real joys of collecting antiques is the knowledge that you have in your hands objects with stories behind them. Long years of use and journeys across areas often little known to outsiders. For me, there is a particular sense of history and perspective that metal brings. Iron, steel, brass, all are hard, require skill to form and significant effort to obtain.

Power & Status - Wide Blades

DSC06550%2Cmedium large.1400941417

A peculiar and very particular style of takouba exists that differs widely from the usual assortment of trade blade and trade blade influenced designs. Rather than a long, parallel edged design with fullers, the wide bladed takouba is, by contrast, flat, triangular and of purely local manufacture. Termed fatefate in Hausa the style seems to occur in areas with Hausa influence including northern Cameroon.

Forged from the Sand

WP 20140727 14 44 30 Pro

There is a unfortunate stereotype of the African smith as a maker of rudimentary items and their efforts with arms and swords in particular as vastly inferior to European or Asian blades. To a degree this is true. For a variety of reasons softer steels were used, smelting techniques were more rudimentary and imported blades were usually favored.

In defence of "poor quality" examples

DSC07182

Let's start with a very simple statement. This is not a good sword by pretty much any measure you can think of. The blade is made from relatively soft steel or iron. The hilt is not particularly sturdy, the pommel is very basic and crudely made and the scabbard fittings are basic and display relatively little skill.

The "One"

WP 20140621 19 18 45 Pro20140621192456 cover

Every collector has a sword that is the "one". The one sword they would never sell, the one that slides smoothly into the hand and you simply know is an utterly devastating weapon. It does have to be the oldest sword you have, the prettiest or the most tangibly valuable. It is simple the piece that you connect with the best and instinctively know is the sword you would carry with you if that was required.

Classification and tribal attribution - How much is to much?

Mali%20cavalry%201930 39

There are two oddly opposed themes with Sahel broadswords. Either incredibly vague generalizations or attempts to be so excruciatingly precise that the true range of particular forms is entirely lost. The first approach is typically to be found among auction houses, dealers, museums and some collectors with relatively over arching interests.

Trade blades in African swords

Blades

Most collectors are well aware that European blades can and do appear in African swords. However it is still often difficult for some, particularly those with an interest and experience with 18-19th century military swords, to reconcile the crude nature and style of many trade blades with the sophisticated blade production centers of Europe. 

Collecting & Research: A Synergetic Couple

Magreb panoply 720p

It's a fair statement to say that those with an interest in arms and armour tend to be a pretty passionate bunch. I'm no different. I like to visit museums, gaze at swords I can never hope to own, read about the same in books and lust over pieces in the hands of other private collectors. But what I like most of all is learning something new about the pieces I am lucky enough to own.

Warfare in the Sahel

Nypl.digitalcollections.510d47dd e3a9 a3d9 e040 e00a18064a99.001.w

Conflict was a constant feature of Sahel life. Whether it was raiders from on the fringes of an empire, or clashing city states, armed struggles defined the expansion of influence, the control of trade routes and the rise to power of nations. Sahel warfare featured all aspects of armed conflict including firearms.

Kaskara Terminology

001 fllipped

The term kaskara has long puzzled collectors and students of ethnographic arms as it is usually used in reference to the Sudanese sword with a straight blade and cruciform hilt well known from the Mahdist campaigns. However this word is not used locally in Sudan, rather the Arabic term saif is employed as most peoples who use kaskara were Arabic speakers.