Tobacco Bags from the Eastern Cape

The Eastern Cape of South Africa is home to several groupings of Xhosa-speaking people who were historically herders and subsistence farmers. Smoking, for recreation and for ritual, was common for these people, and skin and cloth bags were used for carrying personal tobacco and dagga supplies. This twentieth-century collection shows examples of small, elaborately decorated cloth tobacco pouches known as 'inxili' from across the Eastern Cape.

BagOriginal Source: Iziko Museums of Cape Town

The People of the Eastern Cape

Several groupings of Xhosa-speaking people live in the Eastern Cape, and were historically herders and subsistence farmers. The main chiefdoms include the Thembu, Xhosa, Mpondomise, Mpondo and Bomvana, while others moved in from KwaZulu-Natal during the nineteenth century, including the Xesibe, Bhaca, Hlubi, and the remnants of many other groups who came to be known as 'Mfengu', from 'imfengu' - homeless wanderer. 

BagOriginal Source: Iziko Museums of Cape Town

Beaded cloth bagOriginal Source: Iziko Museums of Cape Town

BagOriginal Source: Iziko Museums of Cape Town

Close Proximity

After four centuries of living in close proximity in the same type of environment, with similar external contacts, differences in material culture were not as marked by the twentieth century as they may well have been originally.

The exception was in clothing, where in the twentieth century there was still a distinct difference in style and colour between those living west and east of the Umzimvubu River.

BagOriginal Source: Iziko Museums of Cape Town

Beaded cloth satchelOriginal Source: Iziko Museums of Cape Town

BagOriginal Source: Iziko Museums of Cape Town

Tobacco and Dagga

Smoking was common to all these groupings both as a recreational activity and as a part of certain rituals, and it was also an indication of adult status. Tobacco and dagga (Cannabis sativa; dagga; marijuana) were widely cultivated and used, sometimes eked out with other aromatic herbs.

BagOriginal Source: Iziko Museums of Cape Town


Hemp originated in Asia and tobacco in America and both appear to have been in southern Africa for at least five centuries, but how they were introduced has not yet been established. Hemp was smoked through water, but its use later became illegal. Tobacco may also have been so smoked, but later on copies of European pipes were used.

Beaded pouchOriginal Source: Iziko Museums of Cape Town


Tobacco was also ground into snuff, which was contained in a variety of snuff-boxes and taken by means of a spoon. Both pipes and snuff-boxes were often elaborately designed and ornamented with beads.

Tobacco pouch (basket)Original Source: Iziko Museums of Cape Town

Tobacco Pouches

Bags made from sedge were used for storing tobacco in bulk, and skin or cloth bags were used for carrying personal supplies. Tobacco pouches (ingxowa, ingxiwa) for daily use by men were made of the whole skin of a small animal, such as a genet, rock rabbit or a goat, and in addition to tobacco the pipe and other smoking equipment was kept in it.

Iziko DAC Co LogoIziko Museums of South Africa


The Iziko Museums of South Africa’s Social History Collection comprise unique, precious, very rare and culturally significant collection(s) of artefacts. These include furniture, art, textiles, ceramics, anthropological items, historical objects, maritime archaeology and paper collections. They are historically and culturally significant in terms of representing South Africa’s cultural diversity as well as with regard to their value, aesthetics and rareness. They range from artefacts from the early Stone Age, slavery and the colonial period to the struggle against apartheid and the achievement of democracy. In addition, some of these collections, from antiquities to the present, are from around the globe, linking South Africa with other countries.

Social History Centre by Carina BeyerIziko Museums of South Africa

The Iziko Social History Centre

The Iziko Social History Centre is situated in Church Square, Cape Town. It is housed in the magnificent former National Mutual Life Association of Australasia building, designed by Sir Herbert Baker and Francis Masey in 1905.

The Iziko Anthropology Collection

The collection focuses mainly on African material culture, with special emphasis on southern Africa. With over 15 000 accessions, the collection illustrates indigenous African technologies, as well as ways of life and processes of cultural change among hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and farmers (and their descendants) in southern Africa during the colonial and post-colonial periods.

A small but representative sample of artefacts from similar types of societies elsewhere in Africa and the rest of the world is held for comparative purposes.

Basketry, ceramics, clothing and ornaments are especially well-represented, and there are objects of ethnographic and historical value associated with significant historical personalities. Material contributed by early South African anthropologists, notably Winifred Hoernlé, Dorothea Bleek, Isaac Schapera and Eileen Krige are important complements to their published work.

Other sections of the collection, such as clothing, toys and political material document selected aspects of contemporary urban society.

Due to the nature of these anthropological collections in Iziko, the names of the makers of these artefacts were often not recorded.

Credits: Story

Created by Gerald Klinghardt and Sarah Schäfer.

© All rights belong to Iziko Museums of South Africa unless otherwise stated.

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