African Makonde Chess Pieces.
African Makonde chess Pieces are made by the Makonde tribe of south-west Tanzania and Mozambique. The pieces are fabricated from African Blackwood (mphingo hardwood), which is used in clarinets, and natural yellowwood. The King stands 4.4″ tall with a 1.2″ diameter base. These pieces probably date to the early 1960s. Chess sets of this style are still carved in Tanzania and Mozambique. Here’s a brief description of the individual chessmen. The descriptions are taken from Wikipedia.
- The king (bulisa]), as the tallest piece, has a very tall African tribal hat worn by tribal chiefs. The king always has this hat even in sets which do not take human form.
- The queen, as representative of women (nkongwe), carries a water pot on her head which is the custom in rural Africa.
- The knight is in the style of a giraffe (twiga). Horses were unknown to the tribe as they cannot survive in this part of Africa because of the tsetse fly!
- As there were no castles in Makonde territory, they designed the rook in the shape of a grain store representative of the importance of a good grain harvest, or sometimes as a tribal hut (ng’ande).
- The bishop (chikopa) has a traditional bishop’s miter headgear (possibly due to European influence) but without the facial scarification of the other characters. In some carvings the bishop appears as a witch doctor (native to 19th century east African culture).
- The pawn is carved in the style of an ordinary Makonde tribesman.
The Makonde tribe has been carving objects-de-art for centuries. Makonde art is a distinctive style. The African Makonde chess Pieces were originally made for export to Europe, but the pattern of the pieces follows traditional Makonde designs rather than any established chess pattern. The Makonde are actually a tribe from Northern Mozambique, who spill over into Southern Tanzania, and have long been renowned as carvers, especially of large tribal masks. Their sets all show traditional Makonde hierarchy. The European market for Makonde art developed from the 1930s through Portuguese colonization. Chess sets were first exported in 1956 by Norman Kirk, a New Zealander who owned a plantation in Tanzania. Kirk had been impressed by the work of the Makonde artists and began buying and exporting Makonde art to Europe. The pieces in the chess set were based on the chidiu, a traditional bottle stopper. This took the form of a human head with Makonde facial scarification. After Kirk’s death in 1969 a group of carvers who had formerly supplied Kirk continued to carve chess sets. This group was centered on the village of Ziwani near Mtwara.