|My drawing of a leather punishment sack, as described by William Seabrook.|
For now I want to share a passage from Seabrook's 1934 book The White Monk of Timbuctoo. The book is a biography of a white French missionary named Yakouba who eventually "goes native" after being assigned by the church to bring religion to the natives of (what's now) Timbuktu, in the west African nation of Mali. Seabrook writes about a large leather bag found at an abandoned Tuareg campsite:
"They found also a large empty cowhide bag, tanned soft and pliable but strong, with a heavy silver lock attached to the thongs which drew the neck shut. Nobody was able to guess its use, so when they returned they gave it to the mission as a curiosity.
When the little baptized Tuareg cubs–the mission now had three–saw it brought in, they all began howling bloody murder and tried to run away. They were too scared at first to explain intelligibly, but one of them kept yowling, "Don't put me in it! Don't put me in it!" so the solution was easy to guess. Grown calmer, they told that they were put in such sacks for punishment–as white mothers will sometimes shut up a child in the closet. But as even this seemed insufficient to explain their terror at the mere sight of the sack, Yakouba kept questioning them further, until one of them said, "Big people sometimes scream and die in it."
They got the full explanation later from a Bellah. It is rather ingenious. Putting bad children in such sacks for an hour or so is not their principal use. They are used to punish or torture grown-ups whom the Tuaregs do not wish to mutilate, particularly recalcitrant girls and women. They are stuffed in the sack with their knees doubled under their chin, their heads bent, their bodies drawn tight in a ball, and with a small hole left somewhere for the air to come in so they can't stifle. "Three or four days and nights of it," the Bellah said, would "completely tame the most rebellious." In the daytime the sack was left in the sun, at night it was rolled and left on a pile of sharp stones or camp gear such as tent-pegs, mallets, tools; if they moved from one camp to another, it was simply put on a camel with other baggage.
Sometimes, he explained, the sack was first soaked with water so that after the supple leather "had been drawn as tight as possible, it would shrink in drying and become still tighter." Weak ones sometimes died, he said, but not often. Usually they "were not spoiled." It was amusing, though, he said, to hear them, after the first day, begging and pleading to have a spear stuck through them. Another amusing thing, he said, was that if they wanted to keep a girl that way a long time, they would fasten her in a tight ball with her head outside the sack so they could give her food and water."
There is no other mention of the sack (or any other type of bondage) in this book, but you can definitely get a sense of Seabrook's fascination with the object in question. As horrific as the experience sounds, I must also admit a part of me wants to try making such a device to see what may come of it (and to find out just how unbearable it might be).