This particular mystery took me many years to solve. In 1988, long before computers, the internet, and I, became acquainted; I was at an antique fair in the south of England, and espied this strange hat on someone’s stall. Walking back across the showground
with it, I was stopped by a stallholder, who
‘That’s nice…what is it ?’ ‘ No idea,’ I replied.
‘Was it expensive?’ ‘No, I paid six pounds for it’.
‘Gosh, I’d have paid twenty quid for it !’
‘So would I !’
I truly had never seen anything like it before. It is made of leather; almost certainly goatskin, tanned and dyed in different shades of brown, and mounted over a funnel shape, very wide at the brim and closed in at the top.
Inside, the framework is most beautifully
worked, using rings of bent wood encased in leather, for rigidity, and some kind of palm or fibre to weave the body of the hat. I had never noticed anything like it, and spent ages searching in my reference books for something similar…with no results at all. I had a vague gut-feeling that it may have come from the continent of Africa; but that’s a very big place. I was still running a business at the time, so had little opportunity for serious research. The hat went into the growing collection, and I thought no more about it, until some five years later; at another fair, I was delighted to find another similar one.
This one is much wider, but the materials
and construction are the same, and I was sure it came from the same part of the world. The craftsmanship is fascinating to study.
Two years on, I discovered another one, and shortly after that, a fourth , in 2006 ! All the same, but different. By this time I was really intrigued.
Why in the world had these obviously tribal pieces of headgear, ended up in
England ? It was not until I was idly watching Michael Palin’s travel programme on television one evening that the mystery was solved. It was his series called ‘Sahara’, and there, walking across the screen was someone wearing one of these hats !
All four have the same type of materials, construction and colour scheme, and must surely have been made from locally obtainable resources……but why did they make such a huge journey to the U.K.? It was only when I began researching into Saharan Africa that the penny dropped.
In days gone by, long before the advent of televised travel programmes, and package tours to any place you can think of, there were explorers and travellers determined to go as far from their own firesides as possible. There was one particular place which became synonymous for being one of the furthest places on earth.
Michael Palin’s ‘Sahara’ series was the link I had always hoped to find; so I got out the atlas, to see what countries it encompassed. Mali was one of them, and although its capital city is Bamaco, there is another city fabled worldwide, with a name known to everyone as a place of unimaginable remoteness. It is called Timbuctu……..with various similar spellings…but I am sure you will have heard of it, for as well as its remoteness, it was spoken of as a city of great wealth.
How probable then, that these hats made their way home with intrepid travellers, as souvenirs of their trip. They would have been shown to all and sundry, until their novelty value waned, and then ended up in the loft until a later generation had a clear-out. Certainly the four in the History on Your Head collection have some considerable age to them…but it is impossible to say exactly how much. I hazard a guess at seventy to eighty years since they were made !
THE RED ARROW POINTS TO TIMBUCTU
Above is a map of the area, and further research has brought to light a lot of information about the region, and the people who are still making and wearing these hats today. There is a thriving internet business, particularly popular in the United States, offering modern reproductions of these hats for sale.
They are known as FULANI hats; named after the tribe which still wears them.
I had never heard of the Fulani, but they are reputed to be the largest nomadic tribe in the world; ranging over a colossal area encompassing Mali, Burkino Fasso, Niger and Guinea. Mali alone is one of the biggest countries in West Africa; and is about twice the size of Texas in the USA.
These hats are only worn by the men. (Women wear a colourful fabric scarf, tied round their heads in a turban sort of arrangement.) The men wear them mainly at festivals, as status symbols, and to attract women. They have become a big tourist attraction, with many visitors, as in times past, buying them as souvenirs of their visit.
The lifestyle is that of pastoralists, their wealth being held mainly in cattle. They are Muslims, with a proud tradition and four castes within the tribe. They frequently adorn themselves with tattoos in a quest for beauty, and young girls are subjected to circumcision…..an operation known in other parts of the world as FGM, and repugnant to our culture. The Masai, in another part of Africa are increasingly halting this archaic procedure, and it is to be hoped that other tribes will follow their lead.