Cover Image

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

 October 9, 2023    African Arms

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. While there are certainly regional preferences to be found with takouba, Briggs seems to have stumbled to a degree on what appears to be rather the lineage of the type and the degradation of form to be observed in the 19th and 20th centuries.To be fair, Briggs article was focused on European blades to be found in takouba and made no great attempts to decipher the history of the type or the possibilities of regional classification. However, since there is so little material published, particularly in English, regarding takouba what little he did write has of course had a certain amount of influence. Briggs noted, as far as we can tell accurately what was observable at the time regarding the styles popular in the Tuareg regions he was interested in.

Unfortunately for a trained anthropologist he makes a number of curious errors with the oddest being the assertion that what is clearly a Sudanese kaskara is a “Hausa” sword type. Given the wealth of museum examples of takouba and photographic evidence available at the time of Hausa carrying takouba this oversight seems almost unforgivable and casts a very uncertain light on Briggs’ work outside of his examination of purely the European blades. 

Briggs seems to use three main factors in his classification. The shape of the pommel, the width/form of the guard and the use of leather or metal plates on the guard with the additional note that the grips on the Sudanese type are spindle shaped. It is bizarre then if this classification is accurate that almost invariably older takouba have both spherical pommels and brass guards. Of course there are exceptions, but following Briggs classification the number of supposedly southern type swords turning up in areas that fall under his central classification are quite surprising. For example the following image. 

The central type is declared to have wide flat quillons with leather covering, but plenty of examples show the smaller square quillon form as well. 

The brass plate examples are supposedly of this smaller square format, but many are in fact quite broad with this one having a pommel form Briggs attributes to his central type although this is a hilt made entirely of brass!

So, both in terms of the evidence on the ground and the extant examples, this classification from Briggs doesn’t really hold up. This article is not designed to somehow belittle his work, but merely to point out there is a better way to examine the issue. To do this, it is necessary to step back and start from the beginning. Which is the construction of the three key elements, the pommel, guard and grip. Rather than being the regional attributes Briggs seemed to think they were, in my opinion they are key indicators of age and for very specific reasons. Firstly let’s examine the guards. Briggs accurately notes a different in the wide flat guards and the stubbier square form. But there’s a third type as well, the wing shaped guards that are also found on reasonably old swords. Square guards are made of one piece of metal, bent at the back to form the back of the guard and with small blocks inserted and brazed in place to form the square. The wing shaped guards use two pieces of metal for each side with small blocks inserted at the ends. Meaning the profile when viewed along the flat of the blade has a wing shape to it.