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Durham University

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Publication details for Dr Cherry Leonardi

Leonardi, Cherry (2007). The Poison in the Ink Bottle: Poison cases and the moral economy of knowledge in 1930s Equatoria, Sudan. Journal of Eastern African Studies 1(1): 34-56.

Author(s) from Durham


Poison cases - in which people are accused of deliberately administering a toxic substance in food or drink or by touch - have long posed a problem for the government judicial system in Central Equatoria. Although poisoning is potentially provable in court on the basis of a material substance, it also transgresses the boundary between occult practice and 'real' criminality. The recent revival in the study of African witchcraft has circumvented the question of 'reality' to argue that occult discourse is a sophisticated discussion of modernity and its economic inequalities. This approach risks ignoring the longer history of occult thought and practice and its place in prior economies. This article uses colonial records of mass trials of suspected poisoners and a detailed account of a specific accusation, all in 1930s Kajo Kaji, to demonstrate that poison existed as or derived from physical substances with a history of acquisition and utilisation, and embodied historically dynamic social, economic, and gender relations. The argument is that both the longer-term histories and the individual specificities and local realities of occult expressions can be understood in less isolation if approached through the idea of a moral economy of knowledge. Occult discourse and practice was fundamentally connected to the differentiated introduction or possession of foreign or specialist kinds of knowledge. The article looks at the sources and exchanges of knowledge and materials that formed the deeper historical context for the practice or belief in poison in Kajo Kaji, before turning to the actual cases of the 1930s. The latter reveal how claims and accusations could be wielded as tools of resistance and contestation, as changes in local authority and socio-economic relations were being worked out.