'An end to their days': The Use and Perceptions of the Red Water Ordeal in Early Sierra Leone

African Legal History Seminar

  • Datum: 15.02.2022
  • Uhrzeit: 16:00
  • Vortragender: Tim Soriano
  • (University of Illinois and Newberry Library Fellow)
  • Ort: Videokonferenz
  • Raum: Für weitere Informationen wenden Sie sich bitte an die Organisatorinnen.
'An end to their days': The Use and Perceptions of the Red Water Ordeal in Early Sierra Leone

The African Legal History Seminars are monthly seminars organised by the research groups of Mariana Armond Dias Paes, Raquel Sirotti and Inge Van Hulle. Their aim is to show the study of African Legal History from an interdisciplinary perspective and to explore new and creative ways to approach the topic.

The third seminar takes place online on Tuesday 15 February 2022 at 4 pm when Tim Soriano (University of Illinois and Newberry Library Fellow), will present his paper 'And end to their days': The Use and Perceptions of the Red Water Ordeal in Early Sierra Leone'. 


Thomas Winterbottom's account, An Account of the Native Africans in the neighbourhood of Sierra Leone, written in 1803, described the use of the red water ordeal to uncover an evidentiary foundation for trial with the Temne in Sierra Leone. The accused drank an infusion of tree bark, which usually produced an emetic effect. If this "red water" did not induce vomiting, then the accused was found guilty. Importantly, these red water ordeals were always performed in public, moderated by the preparer of the drink, elders of the group, and the assembled village. The red water ordeal complicates the perceptions by the British of the Temne in providing the foundation of British understanding of African customary legal practices and Islamic Mālikī law, as practiced by the Temne. For example, in his 1756 account entitled Journal of a Slave Dealer, Nicholas Owen states that the ordeals were "false trials" being moderated by a "Mahomitan" over the "ignorant" natives. By an analysis of these events, this paper represents the first direct examination of the ordeals. Thought to be part of an Anglo-Saxon legal past, these ordeals were seen by the British as part of the Africans evolutionary (and modernizing) legal development, from their compliance under English Common Law to their eventual acquiescence of British colonial law. The methodological approach of my paper relies upon the intersection of legal pluralistic historical theory and legal anthropology, thereby combining a multilayered legal history narrative with the anthropological influences of social norms and customary law. Within African legal history, my use of legal anthropology (mainly utilized in contemporary legal analysis) serves as an important tool to decontextualize legal historical events from a Western dominated legal historical narrative. 

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