Wit and Wisdom from West Africa; Or, A Book of Proverbial Philosophy, Idioms, Enigmas, and Laconisms


Richard Francis Burton (1821–90) was a British explorer, soldier, spy, and diplomat, best known for his travels in Arabia, India, and Africa. After service in the army of the British East India Company and a brief engagement in the Crimean War, Burton led a Royal Geographical Society expedition to explore Africa’s Great Lakes region in search of the source of the Nile. In 1861 Burton left the army and entered the Foreign Service. He was appointed consul for the Bight of Biafra and the island of Fernando Po (present-day Bioko, Equatorial Guinea). He spent four years in Fernando Po, where he acquainted himself with the language and culture of various West African ethnic groups, traveling on official missions to the Kingdom of Dahomey (in present-day Benin) and exploring the Congo River and the mountains of Cameroon. In this book, a product of his stay in West Africa, Burton states that his aim is to provide an insight into the characters and thought modes of mankind. He attempts to redress the prevalent attitude that there was little culture in the Africa of his time. The work consists of 2,859 proverbs translated from the Wolof, Kanuri, Oji, Ga or Accra, Yoruba, Efik or Old Calabar, and Mpangwe (Fan) languages. The proverbs are grouped according to each language. They are mostly one or two sentences, with the Romanized original saying provided alongside the English translation. On occasion, Burton provides a number of explanatory notes but largely leaves each proverb without adornment. Towards the end of the volume, there are also some longer tales and sayings; these are also accompanied by full translations. The work ends with a description of the significance of single words from a miscellany of languages, with the context of their use described. The book was published in London in 1865.

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Tinsley Brothers, London

Title in Original Language

Wit and wisdom from West Africa : or, A book of proverbial philosophy, idioms, enigmas, and laconisms

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455 pages ; 24 centimeters

Last updated: November 6, 2017