Voyage iron: the metallic currency that brought assorted goods to Africa and shipped slaves to Europe 

Stephen Nartey October 18, 2022
Image via Wikimedia Commons/ Nagyfaszu.velociraptor

The interest was not only in the trade of cheap labor during the transatlantic slave trade but assorted goods and raw materials among Europeans and inhabitants of the African continent. 

The coasts of West Africa from the late 1400s and mid-1600s witnessed the brisk trade of goods ranging from tobacco, cotton, rum and glass. 

But, the Europeans were particular about the taste of the African consumers and tailored their goods shipped to suit these standards. 

Researchers Chris Evans and Goran Ryden in their journal ‘Voyage Iron’ published in Oxford Academic said early Europeans were however interested in the mineral resources such as gold, ivory, pepper and precious woods that abound on the coast of West Africa. 

But, one key object that played a significant role in this trade is the voyage iron, a metal which was minted in northern Europe and served as the currency used in the transaction between the Europeans and coast dwellers of West Africa. 

The origins of the voyage iron can be traced to Sweden though many have not considered the region to have played a leading role in the slave trade business. 

When early Europeans shifted their interest from precious metals and general consumer goods for African markets and began targeting cheap labor from the West Coast, the voyage iron was commonplace in the trade. 

The voyage iron and guinea rods known as copper dominated the trade and were widely recognized by those on the West African coast and the actors of the transatlantic slave trade. 

As the trade witnessed a boom, so was the production of the voyage iron. Historical documents place the voyage iron shipped in the 1700s at 1,530 which is close to thirteen tons and accompanied by 4,000 copper rods. 

The African ship that left the coast of Bristol for the Bight of Biafra in 1774, London’s Royal African Company and Copenhagen’s Vestindisk-Guineisk Kompagni are cited in this shipment of the iron bars. Data on this shipment does not place a figure on iron bars moved by Liverpool merchant William Davenport but it is believed to be huge. The archival record shows that the consignments could be substantial. The Liverpool merchant, Davenport, supplied voyage iron to eighteen slaving ventures to the Bight of Biafra in the 1760s.

It is believed that 420 tons of iron bars were shipped by Davenport to the Bight of Biafra between 1760 and 1769. Historians say the voyage iron had a widespread influence on the West African economy and the transatlantic slave trade. Economically, it pushed the export of agricultural products to Europe through the use of voyage iron. 

The irony, however, is that while the voyage iron helped the African economies to flourish, on the dark side, it created easy access to trading humans for the slave plantations. 

The only challenge was that local artisans struggled to replicate the iron bars which were minted in Northern Europe. This is because it had physical characteristics which were creatively designed making it difficult for local artisans to find a way around it.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 18, 2022


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