In previous posts I’ve examined the spirit lore surrounding cotton trees (Ceiba), both in Jamaica and West Africa . This month I’m looking at late 19th and early 20th century accounts of a supernatural inhabitant of West African cotton trees. The entity in question is Sasabonsam described by the American anthropologist Joseph John Williams as a large, human-like creature covered in long hair who was believed to live in Cotton Trees (Williams, (1934), p. 61).
Williams, who believed that a gorilla may have been the basis for the origins of Sasabonsam’s appearance, was greatly influenced by the writings of British Africanist and anthropologist, Captain R.S. Rattray. For Rattray, Sasabonsam was a “monster” which lived deep in the forest and whose body was:
“covered with long hair, [had] large bloodshot eyes, long legs, and feet pointing both ways” (in Williams, (1932), p. 130).
Sasabonsam “is hostile to man” and hunters who went missing in the forest were believed to have become its prey (Ibid., p. 130).
Sasabonsam again has a human form and long hair in a depiction given by J.G. Wood, an English cleric and naturalist. Wood included the idea that Sasabonsam was red in colour (in Williams, (1932) p. 199).
Sasabonsam’s link to the colour red also appeared in an account by the 19th century English explorer, Mary Kingsley. Kingsley commented that in Ghana forest travellers could tell if a tree was inhabited by Sasabonsam because red earth surrounded its roots. She heard that in some places human and animal sacrifices were made to the creature (Kingsley, p. 509).
Kinglesy went on to describe how certain people (she called them “witches”) could utilise Sasabonsam’s powers by creating a sutman. First they carved a figure from a piece of wood or plant root. It was then daubed with blood, red earth and rum. Sasabonsam was called upon to enter the sutman and juice from “certain… leaves” would be squeezed on to the object (Ibid., pp. 510-511). If a hissing noise was heard, it meant that Sasabonsam was present in the sutman (Ibid., p. 511).
Sutmans could be employed for both benign and malignant means; for instance, to cause death or to protect against fires and accidents (Ibid., p. 511).
The Jamaican novelist and journalist, Herbert De Lisser also detailed how a sutman, which he called a “suhman” was attained (De Lisser, p. 109). A person would go into the forest in the middle of the night to a cotton tree where Sasabonsam was reputed to live. Collecting some earth, twigs or a stone, they would then pray to the spirit for its power to enter the item(s) (Ibid., p. 109).
Once the suhman had gained its power, its creator would offer it sacrifices and set aside a day of the week for its “worship” (Ibid., p. 109). According to De Lisser, the suhman could now “cause death” but it was also “very efficacious for keeping thieves away from a house or provision ground, if hung up where it can be seen” (Ibid., p. 109).
Whilst both Kingsley and De Lisser mention that the sutman/suhman can be used for both beneficial and evil means, the general depiction of Sasabonsam amongst late 19th and early 20th century ethnographers is that Sasabonsam and those who served him were evil, or involved in witchcraft. De Lisser called the creature a “particular malignant spirit” (De Lisser, p. 109). Rattray asserted that Sasabonsam’s power was “purely for evil and witchcraft” (in Williams, (1934), p. 61).
Williams thought that “Sasabonsam” was used as “euphemism for bonsam”, which he described as the ‘devil’ of the Ashanti ((1934), p. 62). He also believed that its name derived from obonsam, an evil spirit who ruled over the souls of the wicked dead (Williams. (1934), p. 61). Based on the 18th century planter Bryan Edwards’ account of the gods of the Koromanti enslaved people in Jamaica, Williams linked Sasabonsam with Obboney, an Ashanti god, who Williams described as “the author of all evil” (Edwards in Williams, (1932), p. 200, fn, 92).
Next time… I examine how this association with evil contributed to Sasabonsam being linked to Obeah in Jamaica.
Herbert G. De Lisser, Twentieth Century Jamaica (Kingston: The Jamaica Times Ltd., 1913).
Bryan Edwards, History of the British Colonies in the West Indies, vol. II, (1793), p.71.
Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (New York: Dover Publications, 2003, reprint of orig. edn, London: Macmillan and Co., 1897).
- Sutherland Rattray, Religion and Art in Ashanti (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1927), p. 28.
Joseph John Williams, Voodoos and Obeahs: Phases of West Indian Witchcraft (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: L. MacVeagh, Dial Press, inc., 1932).
Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934).
J.G. Wood, The Uncivilized Races of Man, vol.1, (Hartford, Conn: American Publishing Company, 1870), p. 550.
Image: Forests and Woodlands in South Ghana by Joachim Huber, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons