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05/14/2013 | Pressemitteilung

Kassel researcher unravels the mystery of leopard killings

A series of murders with around 1000 victims spread terror in colonial Africa for decades. A historian is now uncovering the background. Secret societies may have played an important role.

A mysterious series of murders disturbs the population and authorities in colonial Africa. The victims are gruesomely mauled: the bodies scratched, often deprived of their organs, injuries to the neck. At first glance, these appear to be traces of a leopard attack, but investigations show that these injuries were inflicted by human hands. About 1000 Africans are killed in this way between 1850 and 1950 - often the victims collaborated with the colonial masters. The courts of the colonial powers convict the killers (or who they thought they were), but it remains unclear: Are they lone perpetrators? Are anti-colonial guerrillas behind them? Are they religious ritual murders? Decades after the end of the colonial era, Kassel-based researcher Stephanie Zehnle sets out to uncover the background to the so-called Leopard Murders.

The murders spanned a vast area from West Africa to the Congo and East Africa. At the time, the phenomenon was also known in Europe and found its way into popular literature. For example, in the comic strip "Tintin in the Congo," first published in Belgium in 1930, a devious medicine man dons a leopard costume and announces a leopard-killing-type crime. After decolonization, the leopard killings were largely forgotten, but they remain mysterious. Although hundreds of interrogation protocols and court records lie in the archives, a comprehensive explanation of the motives and backgrounds has not yet been achieved. Historian Stephanie Zehnle, a research associate in the Department of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Kassel, now wants to change that. Her research project "Leopard Men. A Translocal Phenomenon of Violence in Colonial Africa," is being funded by the German Research Foundation with about 300,000 for three years as part of the "Communities of Violence" research group coordinated in Kassel. "I can't convict individual perpetrators after the fact or exonerate those who have been convicted," says the historian, concretizing the objective. "But I want to clarify who can be considered as perpetrators, whether there were religious or political motives, whether the perpetrators killed on their own behalf or on behalf of the local population. And I want to clarify the role played by the animal myth."

To do this, Zehnle goes to the archives - in particular the British National Archives in London, where a large part of the records of the British Colonial Office are kept - and examines files and protocols. But she also evaluates other sources, including historical press reports from archives of African states. To be sure, reports, like files and protocols, are often colored - by the colonial masters' view of Africans, but also by the self-interests of translators, bailiffs or journalists. "Through the sheer mass of sources, however, comparisons can be made and colorations filtered out," the scholar is certain. Zehnle, who studied history in Giessen and is about to complete her doctorate in Kassel, suspects that the perpetrators were among the ranks of the so-called Leopard Men; they formed secret societies that were widespread in large parts of Africa. These groups exercised many of the supporting functions of pre-colonial African society, from the administration of justice to the socialization of young men and religious functions. For the Europeans, the members were hardly identifiable; vis-à-vis the population, they sometimes made an appearance, but many rituals also took place in secret. "The Leopard Men had their role and significance questioned by the colonial administration," Zehnle describes. "They had reason to be hostile as a result." In addition, there were initiation rites in which those taken in slipped out of a leopard skin and were thus symbolically reborn. This could give a new meaning to the leopard tracks on the murder victims; they then not only serve to conceal the murder, but are also signs of a role change: the perpetrator becomes an animal for a while and thus distances himself inwardly from his deed.

This explanatory approach thus points beyond the phenomenon of the leopard murders; it paints a picture of the struggle between two social systems. On the one hand, the European colonial masters with modern administrations and legal systems based on the division of labor; on the other hand, the pre-colonial secret societies that laid a comprehensive claim to many areas of social life. While the series of leopard killings ended with decolonization, the fate of the secret societies is less clear. "Interestingly, the constructed social opposition modern/pre-colonial has continued," Zehnle says. "The first postcolonial governments often demarcated themselves even more sharply against anything so-called uncivilized than did the Europeans."


Image Leopard Man
(Caption: "This is how Europeans imagined leopard killers: Sculpture by Paul Wissaert from 1913 in the Africa Museum Tervuren (Belgium)." Photo by J.B. Burton©RMCA/Afrikamuseum Tervuren)


Image by Stephanie Zehnle (Photo: Uni Kassel):

More on the "Communities of Violence" research group:



Stephanie Zehnle
University of Kassel
FB 5 - Gesellschaftswissenschaften
Fachgebiet Neuere und Neueste Geschichte
Tel.: +49 561 804-7538
E-Mail: zehnle[at]uni-kassel[dot]de