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Manilla: the money used during the slave trade in West Africa

June 27, 2019 at 06:00 pm | History

Etsey Atisu

Etsey Atisu | Staff Writer

June 27, 2019 at 06:00 pm | History

Photo Credit: Scott Semans

If the era of slavery involved mostly buying and selling of human beings regarded as commodities to the highest bidders, then what was the form of currency used to trade?

Manilla, copper bracelets and leg-bands, became the form of money that was used in West Africa, becoming the accepted form of exchange used predominantly during slavery among the Portuguese and later the British and French who came to Africa to trade.  

Discovered by the early Portuguese explorers of the 1470s, these “red gold” of Africa had been both mined there and traded across the Sahara by Italian and Arab merchants long before their coming; they quickly acclimatized to its use and soon begun trading with it.

Manilla, being the principal money along the West African coast, was usually worn by women to display their husband’s wealth.

Already being produced in large numbers, the Portuguese crown went into business with manufacturers in Antwerp and elsewhere to produce crescent rings with flared ends of wearable sizes which came to be called “manilla,” after the Latin manus (hand) or from monilia, plural of monile (necklace), inspired by the African designs.

The manilla – the brass bracelet-shaped objects, produced in a wide range of designs, sizes, and weights, continued to serve as money and decorative objects used by Europeans in trade with West Africa from about the 16th Century until the late 1940s and are still sometimes used as decoration.

And once, the British, French and Dutch, all of whom had labor-intensive plantations in the West Indies, and later the Americans whose southern states were tied to a cotton economy, entered the African trade. They turned the manilla trade into a more commercial export business.

By that, they began to locally make them in their home countries and then had them imported to West Africa, taking over what was a predominantly West African trade operated by Africans.

Photo: US Slave

Africans of each region had names for each variety of manilla, probably varying locally. They valued them differently, and were notoriously particular about the types they would accept since manillas were partly differentiated and valued by the sound they made when struck.

It should be noted though that gold was the primary and abiding merchandise sought by the Portuguese when they first came ashore but the strong presence and use of manillas became their new principal money for trade.

The price of a slave, expressed in manillas, varied considerably according to time, place, and the specific type of manilla offered.  

Antique African solid bronze manilla/ebay,co.uk

Records of a contract between the Portuguese government and Erasmus Schetz of Antwerp, who supplied the Portuguese factory at Mina with as many as 150,000 manillas per year, are widely quoted. In 1529, the standard manilla was supposedly about 240m long, about 13m gauge, weighing 600 grams.

However, no examples of torque-shaped bracelets in this weight range are known today, and a wreck dated to 1524 carried Manillas of typical form but only slightly flared, averaging 306 grams.

Besides, manilla typology is a largely unexplored subject. While trader and traveler accounts are both plentiful and specific as to names and relative values, no drawings or detailed descriptions have survived which could link these accounts to specific manilla types found today.

Distinguishing factors are thickness and the diameter and degree of flare to the ends, size/weight, and shape.

The bracelet form of manillas was the most common money form in Africa. It served the important monetary functions of portability and wealth display. Variants of this form were accepted virtually everywhere in Africa, with the result that today it is often difficult to know where a particular type originated or was used, and to what extent it was either money or jewelry.

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