In the introduction to The Mystery of the Sherman Ranch: Horror or Hoax, I mentioned the notable parallels between the Native American legends of Skinwalkers and certain secret societies indigenous to West Africa. Sensationalized accounts of the mysterious events documented in George Knapp’s 2005 book Hunt for the Skinwalker have brought international fame to an aspect of Navajo culture that most tribal members consider taboo. They believe even talking about these evil wizards can bring bad luck or death. In deed, it appears that Knapp’s primary sources were members of the Ute tribe. The traditional enemies of the Navajo, the Ute entered into treaties with the U.S. government that made them the beneficiaries of the forced displacement of the Navajo during the 1860’s. Thus, the legend popularized by Knapp is not an accurate cultural history of Native American witchcraft, but more an account of supernatural warfare between the rival tribal groups. Today the term Skinwalker has become a catchall applied to all manner of superstitions, paranormal phenomena, and cryptid encounters almost entirely estranged from the original meaning.
However, this article is not actually about the legendary Navajo Skinwalkers, per se, but a much bigger phenomena I noted during that investigation. While sifting through hundreds of alleged eyewitness accounts and obvious creepypastas, I did find a few credible Native sources that offered trustworthy perspectives on the nature of that phenomena. From that small handful of narratives I observed the interesting similarities to what I would presume to be totally unrelated secret societies I’d studied many years earlier.
I remember reading Burton’s “Wanderings in West Africa” as young teen, although I can’t remember comprehending much of it. I think I first learned of the fabled Human Leopards through Tarzan movies and Tintin comics, depictions that even then I recognized as blatantly racist. I returned to the subject as an adult while researching an art project and dove headlong down an amazing rabbit hole of occult studies. In a 2009 paper published by the University of Pretoria, Vicky van Brockhaven wrote about the distinct social role these secret societies played in African society after colonization. The sources cited by van Brockhaven are largely from the region of the Belgian Congo, where European colonialism was easily at its most violent and depraved.
The Congo Free State was established in 1885 as a private property of Leopold II of Belgium, and under his personal rule the peoples of the Congo basin were systematically enslaved to work rubber plantations and diamond mines. All along the Congo River the Belgians sought to commodify natural resources into capital at the expense of those who lived at one with nature. The brutal injustices that King Leopold inflicted upon the peoples of the Congo were exposed by Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. While essentially unsympathetic to the African victims of Belgian imperialism, Conrad was ahead of his time in identifying the dehumanizing effects of capital extraction more generally. Vicky van Brockhaven postulates that the secret societies we know as Human Leopard Societies were a response to the violence of colonization, and she presents good evidence supporting that framing.
The first reference in English to the existence of such secret societies can be found in an 1888 travel-log with the florid title “Sierra Leone: Or, The White Man’s Grave” by George Alexander Lethbridge Banbury. Aside from being well removed from the heart of the Congo basin by over two thousand miles, the history of Sierra Leone is notably different. Originating from as a slave trading post built by the Portuguese in the 15th Century, the British established the Crown Colony of Sierra Leone in 1808 as a place where freed slaves could repatriate to Africa without foregoing the benefits of being subjects of the British Crown. Following the American Revolution thousands of Blacks who had won their freedom fighting for the Crown sought refuge in Canada, the West Indies, and the U.K. The number of “Free Blacks” would only expand as the British Empire gradually spearheaded the abolition of slavery between 1807 and 1833. The exploitation of human labor was still essential to the economies of British Crown Colonies, but unlike the Continental powers the English had learned to favor a laissez-faire approach to their African territories.
The British were by no means the benevolent colonizers that their own propaganda would have the world believe. No empire is entirely good, and the British did not shy away from extreme violence to maintain their authority when deemed necessary. There was however a Quaker influence on British liberalism that maintained a constant tension with powerful conservatives who resisted any and all reforms that might decrease their personal wealth. The decision to establish a Crown Colony in Sierra Leone was not made out of pure kindness as the Tory Prime Minister wanted to be rid of the community of Black American veterans who had settled in London after the U.S. won its independence. Of course, the indigenous folk already residing within the vicinity Sierra Leone were none too pleased to have British settlers of any race clearing their forests and claiming their lands. The first decades were no less violent than any White colonization, efforts to establish plantations, levy taxes on the natives and impress them into road building projects sparked small scale wars of subjugation. Within a few generations the descendants of the Black British Army veterans had established cities and towns that the English began to view as a successful colony.
The British colonists did not document any evidence of the Human Leopard Society in Sierra Leone until nearly a century after they first settled there. Although rumors of some kind of clandestine cannibalistic cult percolated out of the hinterlands. It was well understood that the indigenous culture was organized around secret societies composed of the senior members of each community. These secret societies have been theorized to date back far into antiquity, but it is believed the strict occultism was a response to the social devastation inflicted by the slave trade. Priests and shamans withdrew into stockades hidden deep in the bush, and all but the initiated members of the fraternities were forbidden to approach their sacred groves. Harshly enforcing the taboo against intruding on these enclosures helped to protect these cultural custodians from the slave traders who had decimated the coastal tribes in the centuries before the arrival of the British.
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