The OED says the first recorded use of the word ‘zombie’ (a word originally ‘of West African origin’) in English is 1819:
1819 R. Southey History of Brazil III. xxxi. 24 Zombi, the title whereby he [chief of Brazilian natives] was called, is the name for the Deity, in the Angolan tongue... NZambi is the word for Deity.I've found some earlier examples. Here's an article from the Universal Magazine (‘Account of a Republic of Slaves which Existed For About Sixty Years in Brazil’) in 1809:
And here, fifty years earlier, is a passage from George Sale, George Psalmanazar and Archibald Bower's Universal History, from the Earliest Account of Time (1760). This one is especially interesting, because in this case ‘zombi’ (or ‘zambi’) means not ‘ruler’ but fetish. A missionary to the Congo is bigging-up his crucifix for the benefit of the locals:
So, no: Southey does not get the credit for introducing this African word into English.
The French pick up the word via Guadeloupe quite a bit earlier, by means of a novel, The Zombie of Great Peru, or the Countess of Cocagne (1697), by Pierre-Corneille Blessebois. It is some kind of crazy libertine novel with a colonial setting. Doug Skinner translated it a few years ago - here is his description of the book.ReplyDelete
Well that's very interesting: thanks for that pointer, Tom! Skinner's translation is not online, but the original French is (here, in a 19th century reprint, for instance) and isn't very long: 40+ pages (though the prose is constantly being interrupted by little stanzas of verse, which slows things up).Delete
The narrator is Monsieur de C--- who is about to be executed as a sorcerer, and who tells his tale to exculpate himself. It concerns the comtesse de Cocagne, mistress of the aristocratic Marquis du Grand-Pérou. The Comtesse is a mixed-race woman, beautiful but unhinged (“insensée” is Blessebois’s word), given to walking about barefoot and serving dishes of têtard to her guests—tadpoles, that is. She loves the Marquis and wants him to propose marriage, but he treats her with cruelty and disdain, so she begs Monsieur de C---- to use his magic powers to make her a ‘zombi’, so she can use that creature’s fabled invisibility to torment the Marquis at night until he relents. The narrator agrees in return for the comtesses’s sexual favours, but he has no magic; so instead he tells everything to the Marquis, who agrees to play along with the conceit, for shits and giggles and so he can catch-out his mistress. The comtesse, though, becomes convinced that she actually has the magic invisibility of the zombi, and can’t be persuaded that she’s been tricked. Indeed, she decides to use her new powers to exact revenge upon everybody on the island who has ever wronged her. Public opinion turns against Monsiuer de C---, who he is arrested and thrown in the dungeon on charges of actual withcraft—which is where the novelette leaves him. Fascinating stuff!
I'm now wondering whether the comtesse is indeed mixed-race, as I say above: she's described as 'une belle créole', which might mean that, or might just mean she's a white woman born in colonial Guadeloupe.Delete
One more thing: intriguing though this little novel is, it doesn't seem to have made any kind of impact at all at that time: it was published anonymously, perhaps in Guadeloupe, maybe in France, and languished more-or-less unread until 1829 when a French critic Charles Nodier discovered it and attributed it to Blessebois. Now Blessebois had a bit of a reputation as a rakehell and sexual adventurer, a sort of precursor to Casanova, so this raised the book's profile; but it's far from certain Le Zombi even was by him. So although this is the first time the word 'zombie' appears in a European text, it went unnoticed until the 19th-century.Delete
Thanks for directing me to this rabbit-hole, though, Tom: it's been fascinating.
My pleasure. Skinner became interested in the book because Apollinaire wrote a preface for it, published with the historiette in 1921 in Bibliothèque des curieux, a promising title.Delete