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Kaskara Terminology

 October 8, 2023    African Arms

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.

Even in the case that a local language was also employed as is the case with the Beja, the term kaskara still does not appear, instead the term badad. The same situation can be seen in Darfur where the term seer is in use in the Fur language. Where then did the kaskara term come from and how did it enter the collecting lexicon? The term in English publications seems to appear first in Burton’s Book of the Sword ( first published 1884) then in Stone’s glossary of arms and armour in 1934. In both Burton and Stone’s work the entry contains a telling detail. They label the kaskara as the sword of the Bagirmi – a medium sized kingdom near lake Chad.

Stone references Burton directly and notes that the sword is of the type “such as is used in Sudan.” Burton gives no description or illustration of the form as he is discussing in most general terms the swords of the region and merely uses the term in relation to Bagirmi. By the time of Burton’s writing both Heinrich Barth and Dixon Denham had visited the kingdom and the area was known from the accounts both men had published of their travels. Barth is directly responsible for the term, detailing his travels in Bagirmi and noting that: “Very few of the Bagirmi people are wealthy enough to purchase swords ("kaskara"), which they are not able to manufacture themselves.” This is doubtless the precise origin of the term in Burton’s work. The origin of the term in Bagirmi can be found in the closely related and regionally dominant Kanuri language. Two works are important for revealing this, Barth’s Sammlung und bearbeitung central-afrikanischer vokabularien from 1862 and Grammar of the Bórnu or Kanuri language by Sigismund Koelle published in 1854.

Barth personally travelled in the regions around lake Chad and took extensive linguistic notes and records the term kasakkar in the Kanuri language. Koelle was a missionary based in Sierra Leone, but was an ardent student of African languages and collected much of his material from freed slaves. He records the phrase “djigei kam su gotse, kannu bago kasagar tsegarin?” how can one take iron, and beat it into a sword without fire? It is then apparent that many variations are to be found of the basic term with different spellings and minor differences in pronunciation. The word is widespread wherever Kanuri influence is clear including into Northern Nigeria as the vocabulary of the Ngizim clearly shows. The spelling is closer to the modern usage - in this case it appears as kasakar.

The term is then rooted in the Kanuri language, with regional variants including the Bagirmi version of kaskara. How then did this become associated with Sudanese swords? It would seem illogical to conclude that British soldiers returning from the Sudan campaigns of the 1890s would not have been familiar with the local terms for the war trophies they brought back. Regimental records like those associated with the trophies held at Blair Castle simply catalog the items using English terms - in this case sword, with no further native classification.

Burton did publish an engraving of a kaskara - but labelled it as a Dankali sword. It is quite possible then that the term only appears in association with Sudanese swords after Stone published his glossary with an image of a kaskara. Stone was one of the standard works for collectors to identify weapons for many years and is still held up as a bible for arms and armour collecting. Another possibility is that the term transmitted into the Sudan via the Shuwa or Baggara Arabs. A nomadic group with long standing connections to the Sultans of Fur (including land grants). The Fur Sultanate in what is now Darfur was well connected with Egypt and the early Mamluk presence and the Fur were enthusiastic users of the kaskara form. 

The Baggara Arabs have a massive range that extends down into northern Nigeria and Cameroon. They are well known in the areas of the Bornu and Bagirmi kingdoms. In these regions the takouba and kaskara began to overlap. Bivar in his Nigerian Panoply notes the presence of the Sudanese style sword in Bornu - referring to the modern state of Bornu in Nigeria. Photography from the early 20th century in the Dikwa emirate, successor to the Bornu empire, reveals the use of takouba quite clearly as well. During the Mahdist war Baggara Arabs provided a large percentage of the Mahdist forces. The second in command to the Mahdi was in fact a Baggara - Abdallahi ibn Muhammad. Many Baggara Arabs moved to the regions of Omdurman and the central Sudan. It is quite possible other Muslims in the area speaking a Chadic language with kaskara or a variation of the term, also answered the Mahdi’s call. It is important to also note that Bagirmi was famed as a source of slaves and via that trade the term might also have come into isolated use in Sudan. However that seems a highly unlikely avenue. On balance we consider that the term therefore has little bearing on the sword form we associate with it except to perhaps illustrate the range of the type. Its use in a modern context seems to be entirely tied to Stone’s glossary and to that publication’s widespread use as a reference among collectors.