African Caribbean religions and the problem of representation

Updated Tuesday, 3rd May 2022
Hilde Capparella explores the negative narrative created around Africa and African cultures by the West and how this lead to the demonisation of African Caribbean religions.

This content is associated with The Open University's Religious Studies qualifications.                

The master's tool will never dismantle the master's house (A. Lorde)

To understand the stigmatisation, misrepresentation and demonisation of African Caribbean religions, it is pivotal to develop a cultural consciousness which could look critically at the narrative constructed by the West during centuries of colonisation, cultural, religious and political hegemony toward these cultures.

The roots of this problem of representation began with the Western negative narrative created around Africa and African cultures since the Portuguese arrived in West Africa in the sixteenth century. The African worldview toward things, their societal relationships, and values have always been stigmatised and conceived as ‘fetishism’ by Europeans. William Pietz in his series of essays called ‘The problem of the Fetish’ (1985, 1987, 1988) highlighted that this term was developed and deployed by the Catholic Holy Inquisition in the sixteenth century during the commercial exchanges between African and Europeans. In fact, it was the Catholic Holy Inquisition that at first portrayed African objects, costumes and religious items as fetish. In addition, the European negative approach towards African objects and cultures, described as ‘fetishes and ‘fetishism’, have been accentuated also by the narrative of European travellers and philosophers during the Enlightenment and beyond (Böhme, 2014).

When Christian travellers, missionaries and merchants (such as the Portuguese and the Venetians) reached West Africa in the sixteenth century they perceived African objects as idolatry and ‘fabrications’ (factitus), as the invented art of ‘making gods’ and the magical ability to unite these ‘with holy images and divine mysteries’ (St Augustine, in Böhme, 2014, p. 349). However, during the time of Reformation, Protestants used to view Catholicism as involved with fetish objects as much as West Africans people through the cult of relics. Saint’s relics such as blood, bones and piece of clothes were (and still are) at the very centre of liturgical Christian Catholic life. Protestants ‘who saw African fetishism firsthand identified it with Catholic sacred equipment, images, and statues’ (Böhme, 2014, p. 144). 

Throughout the Enlightenment, the term fetish was revisited by Charles De Brosses to describe African religions in general. In doing so De Brosses extended the term fetishism to African people, cultures and traditional religions by placing this term in opposition to the European Enlightenment ideal of rational thought and to the Catholic Christian dogma of idolatry (Böhme, 2014). As reported by Böhme, fetish gradually replaced the concept of idolatry in the Western discourse to the point that the application of the Enlightenment thought to fetishism did not seek to understand it but instead to engage in ‘fighting and destroying it’ (2014, p. 145).

An illustration of Auguste Comte

An exacerbated debate about fetishism among academics and later social scientists has been ongoing since the Enlightenment. Among the Enlightenment intellectuals Auguste Comte (pictured), the founding father of French sociology, is the only one that presented fetishism in some sort of positive light (Böhme, 2014). In contrast with other intellectuals such as Hume, for whom fetishism and polytheism were the crude beginnings of all religions a sign of a lack of education and a form of primitivism, to Comte’s fetishism represented the ‘positive’ starting point of all developments for humankind the ‘childhood of humankind’ as he put it (Böhme, 2014). Edward B. Tylor (1871) and Émile Durkheim (1912/1915) in their works similarly rejected Hume’s thesis of fetishism as the foundation of all religions and replaced the term fetishism with animism and totemism. Tylor defined fetishism as ‘the doctrine of spirits embodied in or attached to or conveying influence through certain material objects’ (1871, vol. 2, in Böhme, 2014, p. 175). Therefore, two elements always come together in fetishes ‘spiritual potency and material carrier object’ (Böhme, 2014, p. 175). Successively, Marcel Mauss rejected the word fetishism by replacing it with indigenous expressions such as nkisi, mana and so on (Mauss 1969, pp. 244–5, in Böhme, 2014). Mauss replaces the theories of fetishism with a theory of magic for which fetishism and magic are the same thing, an attempt to control the world (Mauss, 1902–1903/2001).

This ‘eternal’ debate has led only recently to a positive evaluation of the term fetish and of the relationship between people and material things. As argued by Matory, African objects come to be called fetishes precisely because Africans, Europeans, and their descendent have looked at them and intensely disagreed about the value and agency that can legitimately be attributed to them and their makers’ (2018: p. xix). According to Pietz (1988) any given value related to an object has the power to create relationship and hegemony among a certain social group. By giving high value to gold which is merely a metal and in denying the value of African objects and cultures the Europeans were able to create a hegemonic narrative on value, a legacy and continuity still visible today. Furthermore, the European negative perception toward African objects was extended to all African people in general through time. This developed in a negative narrative related to blackness and any dark skin colour. It is on this narrative that African and African Caribbean religions were created and portrayed as fetishised cultures by the Europeans.

The prototype of African as ‘uncivilised’ or ‘fetishised’ people is visible even today in everything that concerns African or Caribbean cultures, social structures, rituals, objects, religions and languages. Recently, it has been noticed by various academics how anything African is treated within the academic world where African and African American religions (see Matory, 2018), languages (see Thiong’o, 2018), and cultures (see the Black Mediterranean Collective, 2021) are not even considered and studied as valuable. They are constantly devalued and dehumanised as something primitive and devilish and something not important for cultural progress. This alone shows how not only objects but also cultures and African Caribbean religions have always been involved and subjected to the arbitrariness of Western values.

The devaluation of the ‘other’ culture has been active since the sixteenth century; however, recently we are witnessing a new turn within social science toward materiality, in reclaiming fetish through processes of de-colonisation which are criticising and rising cultural awareness towards and against the Western worldview. Matory, in his last work Reclaiming Fetish (2018), argues that ‘the spirited things of European, Africans, and their descendants have not been produced in isolation from each other. They result from an exchange of gazes, ideas, and commodities among three continents’ (2018, p. xix). According to his work, it was the lack of recognition of the interconnectedness between nature, people and things that the West was able to develop an individualistic society. The West failed to value the ‘others’ (people, nature, things) as a valuable part of our modern existence, as if the world that we know has been created just and only by the Western rational and intellectual ‘superiority’. The failure to value others has been also accentuated by the West intellectual property over other cultures.

Furthermore, Matory (2018) highlights that the interpretation of fetishism as a primitive, naïve, politically authoritarian, infantile and perverse worldview, is an interpretation that can still be found in the works of both Marx and Freud, who made fetishism a negativity par excellence, for once and for all. Matory (2018) assesses that as on the one hand, Marx’s use of the ‘fetishism of commodities’ can be a useful tool to understand the tendency of capitalist societies to fetishise things, on the other hand, in his argument against capitalism, Marx fetishised Africans and African enslaved in various ways. At first, he neglected the enslaved working power by neglecting the pivotal role of the Atlantic slave trade in the development of the Western’s capitalism. Secondly, by classifying Africans and African enslaved as lazy, passive and mute, he created the antithesis of how the European wage workers should be (Matory, 2018). Furthermore, Matory also denounces the contribution of Freud to enforce this narrative, by enduring the idea of Africans as savages, as the antithesis to any modern rational ‘civilisation’, and exemplars of unenlighttenment about the real value of material things (Matory, 2018).

These two intellectuals, as do their predecessors, enforce the prototype of disorder and chaos around African’s civilisations, rather than see them as the prototype of a different worldview (Matory, 2018). Furthermore, they lacked to see the revolutionary struggle which was at the root of the development of the African Caribbean religions and history in the new world. Probably for their own ignorance and their inherited Enlightenment view of Africans and African enslaved, that they did not see the Caribbean revolutions and revolutionary leaders as active progressive activists for the black liberation. They did not see that they were fighting against slavery and the capitalistic production chain of goods, such as sugar, cotton, rum which developed in the ‘New World’ through Trans-Atlantic slavery (Matory, 2018).

I hope that my presentation on ‘The role of religious African Caribbean leaders in the resistance to colonialism’ will help to revaluate these religions, and to recover part of the neglected history for which Africans and African enslaved were never passive or fully subjected to slavery and colonialism. As it will be discussed in the presentation, their stories are not based on passivity toward slavery or colonial hegemony but on centuries of an ongoing resistance to it. As underlined by D. M. Stewart the misrepresentation of ACRs as devilish or fetish is the result of centuries of Western Race-craft.



Black Mediterranean Collective (2021) The Black Mediterranean, Bodies, Borders and Citizenship. Palgrave Macmillan.

Böhme, H. (2014) Fetishism and Culture: A Different Theory of Modernity. Trans. Anna Galt. Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter.

Mauss, M. (1902-2/2001) A General Theory of Magic. Routledge London. 

Matory, J.L. (2018) The Fetish Revisited, Marx, Freud and the Gods Black People Make. Duke University Press.

Pietz, W. (1988) The Origin of Fetishism: A Contribution to the History of Theory. University of California, Santa Cruz.

Thiong’o, N.W. (2018) Decolonising the Mind, The Politics of Language in African Literature. James Currey Publ.


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