Batakari (War Shirt)

By: Adenike Cosgrove

Description

The Akan make use of a number of different types of textiles and garments to identify specific social roles within a community. In addition, magical amulets are worn for protective purposes. Combined, textiles and amulets are worn by hunters, warriors, chiefs, diviners, and local healers during war, hunts, and during selective ceremonies.

Called batakari (meaning ‘war shirt’), Thomas Edward Bowdich, the 17th century traveller, described their use as follows: “The most surprising superstition of the Ashantees is their confidence in the fetishes or saphies they purchase so extravagantly from the Moors, believing firmly that they make them invulnerable and invincible in war, paralyse the hand of the enemy, shiver their weapons, divert the course of balls, render both sexes prolific, and avert all evils but sickness, (which they can only assuage) and natural death.” (1819:271)4

Warriors use the tunics to protect themselves during warfare; diviners and spiritual healers wear the tunics to advertise their trade but also to protect themselves against the evil forces that dwell in the forest world of spirits; and Akan chiefs wear great-batakari shirts (batakari kese or batakarisese; war shirts heavily laden with multiple amulets and much more colourful than ordinary batakari shirts) during their initiation rites and also during the funerals of other chiefs.

Distinguishing Features

  • Tunic made of cotton
    • Some have a blackened surface from blood sacrifices offered to increase the tunic’s protective power
  • Amulets attached to tunic
    • Packets of medicine contained in leather pouches
    • Leather and hide covered gourds
    • Blue, red and white cloth-covered amulets also attached
    • Some packets encased in gold or silver
    • Some packets contain inscriptions (some from the Koran)
    • Other packets have local patterns called ‘magic squares’ believed to have magical powers
    • Animal horns and claws sometimes attached
    • Miniature bows and arrows sometimes attached
  • Batakari kese more lavish and colourful than ordinary tunics