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Old 24th March 2020, 07:02 PM   #1
CharlesS
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Default A Fine and Fascinating SE African YAO Dagger

Fellow member and friend, Rsword, introduced me to the Yao dagger, and when I first saw one I would have sworn it was SE Asian until learning more about them.

When you look at it you could potentially imagine a dha/daab dagger, but the scabbard would not match a dha dagger, nor does the blade. The hilt's bolster looks like it would be comfortable on an Islamic kard dagger. The blade has the look of a Bhutanese or Nepalese profile, minus the central fuller. The hanger ring is silver and looks like it could be part of an Arabian jambiya. Indeed, only the tooled leather scabbard might make one consider its African origin.

So why such a confluence of multicultural features on a dagger of African origin???

The answer I think is pretty simple. The Yao originally lived on the southeastern corner of Lake Malawi. They were among the first sub-Saharan Africans on Africa's southeastern coast to trade directly with the Arab world when the Arab traders began to settle and work that coast. The Yao profited hugely form this trade, creating several large and wealthy kingdoms. Their key trading commodities were ivory, grains, and slaves. The power and wealth of the Arab trader's and their "mirror to the world" made quite an impression on the Yao kings and chieftains, and they rapidly converted to Islam, an act that was soon followed by most of the Yao, though their native traditions would never be completely snuffed out by Islam.

I believe this dagger is a fine example of the multiculturalism of that trade. While we will likely never be able to specifically point to how each element of the dagger was incorporated by the Yao, or if, perhaps, they were trade knives, but I think just one look at the dagger allows us to generalize about the dagger's multiculturalism where we lack facts.

Enjoy, and comments are welcomed.

Dimensions:
Overall length: 15in.
Blade length: 7.5in.
Blade width: 1.25in.
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Last edited by CharlesS : 24th March 2020 at 08:02 PM.
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Old 25th March 2020, 03:45 AM   #2
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My only question : are you 100% sure that the sourced origin is Yao of SE Africa and not Yao of S. China/Vietnam/Laos?

Sorry, no insult meant. But this dagger is so unusual for Africa and looks so much like SE Asia...
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Old 25th March 2020, 11:49 AM   #3
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I'm not insulted Ariel, and I could not agree with you more. I am only going on the info I have and I can certainly be wrong. I agree that it is much more akin to what we would see from SE Asia, but then again, it has many characteristics that are not SE Asian...and therein is the conundrum.

Let me add that the Yao's #1 trade commodity with the outside world was ivory. Is it possible that this is the way it came back to them? I am not saying they made the dagger, only that it is associated with them.

That said, if someone could prove to us that it is S. Chinese or thereabouts in origin, I would be happy to listen, and even agree that it made a lot of sense.
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Old 25th March 2020, 02:19 PM   #4
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Let me be devilís advocate for a moment.
The sophistication and the quality of this dagger is highly unusual and, frankly, exceptional for any sub-Saharan weapon.
That is an argument against its origin.

As to association through ivory, there are plenty of elephants in SE Asia.

One would love to be able to distinguish African from Asian ivory, but I do not know how.
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Old 25th March 2020, 03:24 PM   #5
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I like the Omani ring on it (but it's easy to add a ring on top of a sheat).

I like the story around the knife. But I agree with Ariel, nothing in this knife looks African.

There is a very long discussion about these knives:

http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/showt...54&page=1&pp=30

The conclusion was Malawi, lake Nyassa... African.



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Old 25th March 2020, 03:30 PM   #6
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https://research.britishmuseum.org/...ges=true&page=1

https://research.britishmuseum.org/...ges=true&page=1

https://research.britishmuseum.org/...ges=true&page=1

https://research.britishmuseum.org/...ges=true&page=1

https://research.britishmuseum.org/...ges=true&page=2

The British Museum has a number of Yao knife examples that were collected in Malawi/Mozambique from the late 19th to early 20th century. The first link shows a Yao knife with scabbard of very similar style to Charles example. The 2nd link shows another Yao knife with similar blade. Note the crude fuller on both examples. The next two links show Yao pipes. Look at the zig zag carving which is the same as on Charles scabbard. This zig zag carving is found in East Africa on a number of items. The final example is a fly whisk with ivory handle to show that quality ivory carvings can come from this region. The scabbard style, which is unlike anything from SE Asia or China but very similar to the British Museum examples, along with the silver ornament on the scabbard which is very similar to African bracelets and then the crude blade which is similar to the British Museum example, all point to East Africa as an origin for this knife. SE Asian and Chinese minority examples don't tend to have blades this crude. The similarities are much more in line with these documented African examples than any SE Asian or Chinese minority knife I have ever seen.
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Old 25th March 2020, 04:15 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ariel
Let me be devilís advocate for a moment.
The sophistication and the quality of this dagger is highly unusual and, frankly, exceptional for any sub-Saharan weapon.
That is an argument against its origin.

As to association through ivory, there are plenty of elephants in SE Asia.

One would love to be able to distinguish African from Asian ivory, but I do not know how.



Ariel,

Naturally, these are good points, but I not necessarily saying the Yao manufactured these as much as I am that they ended up with them. I think they are the product of the "Islamization" of the Yao from Arab traders. There are some aspects of the knife which match up nicely with the swords from the Swahili coast, the Omani kattara, and the Zanzibar/Madagascar style saif, both popular on Africa's sub-Saharan east coast. I will return to the thread with some examples later.
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Old 25th March 2020, 07:35 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ariel
Sorry, no insult meant. But this dagger is so unusual for Africa and looks so much like SE Asia...

The shape of the handle resembles the samples from SEA. But I cannot recall a single specimen whose handle would be fastened with two rivets.
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Old 25th March 2020, 08:03 PM   #9
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Ariel and others,

I know there has been a great deal of argument about the origins of these daggers or knives. I am not so much interested in an argument as I am in giving you something to consider. In order to do that, I thought it would be a good idea to consider some blades the Yao would most likely have encountered from Arab traders from the Swahili coast, Zanzibar, and Madagascar. I have chosen 3 types including the Omani kattara, common to the East African coast, the Zanzibari style saif/nimcha, also originating with Arab traders, likely from Oman, and a set of knives(notably their handles) made on the Swahili coast which was sold by Michael Blackman(credit to his web site for this image).

1. The kattara: Note the silver work on the baldric mounts and compare it to the knife in question. Note also the construction paper-thin tooled leather.

2. The saif: 1. Note the bolster material which is a silver alloy with a slight yellowish tint. While my picture and lighting are not great, the material is identical in color to that of the knife in question. Note also how the bolster is faceted, like the knife bolster. 2. The saif also has a construction paper-thin tooled leather cover over wood, almost identical in type, if not in decoration, to the knife. 3. You'll see also that the saif's scabbard has its leather cover stitched at the top edge, just like the knife. 4. Finally a singular baldric ring, nicely worked in silver, is located on the saif's scabbard towards the top. This is a very unique feature. The rivets in the knife seem to be very large and I have to wonder if they are decorative rivet covers. And while we normally see a saif's tang run to the end of the hilt, in some cases, they are riveted(see pic).

3. Swahili coast knives: Here are finely worked ivory handles with faceted bolsters that would look just as much at home on a kard dagger as the bolster on the knife we are discussing.

Of course, none of this is conclusive proof, but, again, these are things to consider. Naturally, the ivory hilt on the knife we are discussing does not match ivory hilts that were much chunkier and less artistic found in sub-Saharan Africa's interior. But, we know fine ivory work was done on the Islamic coast and may have even been imported.

Based on the examples we have seen the Yao knife blades seem to be utilitarian and don't seem to have a consistent style or shape...they are just plain, often unattractive, blades. In the case of the knife/dagger under discussion, it has even been suggested to me that it looks Uzbek.

I am not sure we are any closer to a conclusion, and I could not agree more that the dagger/knife has a very E. Asian look to it, but I hope I have offered some reasonable items to consider.
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Old 25th March 2020, 08:31 PM   #10
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I don't think you need to bring swords for your demonstration.
The ring on your knife is a sayyidi khanjar from Oman.
So your slave trader story is supported by the Omani ring token from an old Arab scabbard.
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Old 25th March 2020, 10:37 PM   #11
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RSword and Kubur,

Thanks, for your great additional info. I think this as convincing as any argument made so far about these knives.

Kubur, I don't agree with dismissing any evidence or observations based on one article, though hugely convincing. A case is best made through a compendium of evidence and observations, rather than limiting them.

Thanks again for your additional info!
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Old 26th March 2020, 04:00 AM   #12
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Hello Charles

Congratulations! You have a beautiful knife.

This is undoubtedly a Yao knife from Africa. I think the handle is not made from ivory, but from a hippo tooth. Yao preferred this material for handles.
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Old 26th March 2020, 01:10 PM   #13
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There's one in the Pitt Rivers Museum.
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http://objects.prm.ox.ac.uk/pages/PRMUID35293.html
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Old 26th March 2020, 01:44 PM   #14
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The National Museum of Scotland also has one,
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https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-c...?item_id=338853
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Old 26th March 2020, 03:26 PM   #15
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Baldric mount on the Katara and the Omani khanjar are very good evidence .
But what clinches the story is the Pitt Rivers example with impeccable provenance.

It IS Malawi.

Good job, Charles and a truly beautiful dagger with 100% accurate attribution.
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Old 26th March 2020, 03:30 PM   #16
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Richard, thanks so much for your additions. Those are very old examples!

Ariel, thanks for your comments...you made me do some hard work, but I love it!
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Old 27th March 2020, 12:26 PM   #17
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Here is a knife of the same construction but showing a lot 'African' characteristics, the lack of which seem to trouble some of our fellow forumites
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Old 27th March 2020, 05:44 PM   #18
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This is very nice knife (East African, probably Yao ... and good discussion. Thank you.

(I think that such short tongue could derogate general working life and "load characteristic" of the knife as such. I was always wondering why in some cases they made it so short. In the case of longer and heavier blades - e.g. so called Berber (or Dominican swords it was not too much practical....)
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