Takouba - Sword of the Western Sahel

The word takouba is an anglicised version of the Tamasheq (language of the Tuareg) term takobi – meaning simply, sword. The word is found also among the Hausa and Fulani. In the antique arms and armour collecting community the term has come to be applied to a range of swords commonly attributed in public to the Tuareg people group. Linguistically takouba implies no classification in and of itself and the sword is in fact encountered in areas were the term kaskar would be used instead. However, the word is now commonly recognised to refer to a cross hilted sword, with either a curved or straight blade, a pommel that is either flat with stacks of metal on the terminus, or a pommel that is ovoid and vaguely resembles a European Brazil nut pommel. Grips and guards can be leather wrapped or metal plated. Swords with these basic characteristics can be found in an area ranging from the desert proper with the Tuareg, into Cameroon’s highland forests.

The usage of the term in the collecting community likely stems from contact with the Tuareg, who continue to carry swords in modern life. While the Tuareg remain the most recognised group using this style of sword, the Hausa, Fulani, Nupe, Kanuri and other, smaller tribes made use of almost identical swords made under similar conditions and circulated through close knit trade routes.

Due to local practice of renewing hilts fairly regularly it is often difficult to estimate exactly how old any particular complete sword is, besides knowing that it predates the 1900s. However it is generally safe to say the type in more or less its current form has existed since at least the 18th century as verified examples from the 1830s are known and blades as early as the 14th century.

The roots, origins and influences which led to the form of the takouba are both complex and somewhat uncertain. Theories currently circulated generally point to similarities with early Islamic swords, often citing the influence of Byzantine designs in Pre-Islamic Arab warfare. Others The type has continued to evolve in modern usage and still a regular item among the Tuareg, worn for heritage more than use and playing a part in various traditional events such as sword dances. Among other Sahel cultures the takouba is less noticeable in everyday life but still makes appearances among the regalia of local rulers and yearly festivals such as the Durbar in Kano, Nigeria. The modern evolution of the form is supported by sales to tourists, changing local tastes and the renewing of old blades with new mounts. It remains an important part of the local economy in Tuareg society and helps to preserve traditional craft work.

Takouba blades fall into two categories – imported and those of African manufacture. Typically speaking the imports are from Europe and were highly regarded locally, as the heat treatment was generally better than native smiths produced. However, a vast number of blades the collector is likely to encounter will be locally produced and of widely varying quality. Some of the better Hausa products have excellent flexibility and passable hardness. At worst, blades can be soft and lacking carbon. The local smiths doubtless were calculating on having to straighten a blade out being an acceptable alternative to having a brittle blade break. While one can occasionally see European blades from before the 17th century (I own one from the 14th) the vast majority of imported blades came onto the market in the 18th and 19th centures with concentrated manufacturing efforts from German centres such as Solingen. These blades were designed for the general Sahel area, the same patterns showing up in both kaskara and takouba, often with extensive tip re profiling to fit local taste. Central Hausa cities such as Kano dominated this trade and imported vast numbers of blades to hilt and re-export. City states with better access to quality iron ore tended to have more home grown manufacturing – in particular Sokoto and Katsina. The high regard given to European blades led to European blade markings being attributed with talismanic properties and these marks were widely copied onto natively made blades.

While most native blades confirm to the geometry of European imports, a small number are wide and practically triangular. With similarities to early swords from the Arab world, it is quite possible these represent an earlier local form before the European blades entered the market and became in vogue.

With several distinct sub types takouba hilts generally fall into two broad categories; those that have leather covered hilts and those that have brass hilts. Between the two there can be overlap with some brass hilted swords still featuring leather grips. Generally speaking brass hilted swords are a good indication of age, as the practice seems to have been much less prevalent in the 20th century. As many of these swords would have be hilted in Hausa areas, the colonisation in the late 19th century of most of these states would account for the lack of brass hilts in early 20th century pieces. It appears that older pommels are usually those in an ovoid shape, with the stacked plate form being much later. Various intermediary types can be seen, in particular the Air Mountains region has a flat pommel style with small numbers of plates. Sometimes old hilts were modified to confirm to changing tastes – such as a sword in my collection with a classic pommel, re-hilted to accommodate a 1943 Egyptian coin.

Starting in the late 19th century or early 20th century an evolution of the pommel occured among the Tuareg. The ovoid shape was flattened and stacks of brass and copper were added. This change may have come around for several reasons, possibly talismanic, possibly adapting to a lack of Hausa manufacturing as firearms took hold in most of the Sahel.

The construction, decoration and even linguistics of the takouba mark it clearly as a weapon which, whatever its true origins, because a key part of the history of the Sahel and took on a uniquely Sahelian flavour – imbued with attributions of Islamic influence and traditional animistic tribal groups. The importance of the sword inside Tuareg culture, the lavish decorative embellishments of the Hausa and Nupe, a range that extends from Algiers to the far reaches of the Mandara Mountains point to a sword form that was so effective, dominate and crucial to these cultures that it influenced the course of history.