Field-photo of the day: the Luba chief Kilulwe with his staff of office

Luba chief Kilulwe Congo Burton staff

While researching an important Luba object, I came across this amazing field-photo of a Luba chief in the 1922 book Missionary pioneering in Congo forests: a narrative of the labours of William F.P. Burton and his companions in the native villages of Luba-Land” (p. 196).

Traveling the Luba region around his missionary post at Mwanza, William Burton made a stop at Kilulwe, which was renowned far and near for its iron work. He writes:

The old chief Kilulwe came to meet us in the most extra-ordinary get up. He had a sort of halo round his head made of blue, black, and white beads, a similar bead-covered insignia across his breast, a very keen, well-made Luba knife stuck into his belt, a beautiful little leopard skin around his loins, and most extraordinary of all, an elaborately carved staff in his hand, on the head of which were artistically carved two Luba women arm in arm.

I did some research and was able to track down this staff; it is now in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum.

Luba staff. Height: 104 cm. Image courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum.
Luba staff. Height: 104 cm. Image courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum.


This staff was donated to the museum by Katherine White, who had bought it from Alan Brandt. Unfortunately it is not known how and when it left Congo. What can be sure is that Chief Kilulwe certainly did not give it to Burton, who writes:

By the afternoon, the chief, who had become offended, had recovered from his sulks and attended the Gospel with a big following, though his whole attitude was that of graciously condescending to patronize our meeting with his august presence; and I fear that he will have to bend his bead-crowned head considerably lower before he can enter the strait gate of Salvation through repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

ps Kilulwe was also documented by Burton as a blacksmith & sculptor. Considering the important role of blacksmithing in
 the founding of the Luba kingdom and the original culture hero’s identity as a master blacksmith, it is not surprising that a chief would also by be an artist. So possibly it was Chief Twito Kilulwe himself who carved this remarkable staff.