This article is largely drawn from Eugenia W. Herbert's Red Gold of Africa (U. Wisc. Press, 1984). Herbert goes far beyond any of the usual numismatic writers in illuminating the manufacture, trade, and uses of Africa's primary pre-coinage monies, which were copper in the form of "ingots" (crosses) from Central Africa, drawn copper wire, and bracelets from centers in both Central and Western Africa, plus European imports. Her thesis is that while European gold lust led to the transformation of Africa's economy, gold was considered by the Africans as a metal of adornment and export, while "red gold" was always the primary metal of exchange and standard of value. Page references that follow are to Herbert.
    Herbert's extensive research is more theoretical than object-oriented, and thus leaves largely unanswered the questions most important to a collector of these objects: the attribution of particular pieces by tribe, location, and time period, their range of variability in form and decoration, their special or general uses locally in trade or otherwise, and their wider diffusion in trade. More useful in this regard are three works on African art: André Blandin's Afrique de l'ouest: Bronzes et autres alliages (1988), and Fer Noir d'Afrique de l'ouest (1992), and Angela Fisher's Africa Adorned (1988), respectively abbreviated BA, BF, and F below. Another valuable source of attributions are the illustrated price lists of Paul Dillingham, (D) who missionaried in Africa in the 1960's with several later visits, and sold odd & curious monies from about 1968 to 1985. Seattle's art museum is home to the renowned Katherine White collection, formed ca. 1959 -79, whose attributed bracelets are referenced herein as SAM plus accession number.
    A major problem today with attributions is that almost nobody from early Portuguese traders to 20th century academics has bothered to give careful descriptions of these objects, much less a sketch or photo. Museum curators would get a find spot for donated objects, though the donor could seldom be expected to know whether it was made there or simply found in use. Quiggin herself was an anthropologist and far more object-oriented than most, yet almost no specific pieces are attributable by her book. Herbert quotes no anthropologists, but has reviewed the archaeological literature up to 1984. Relatively little has been done in sub-Saharan Africa, and most known sites are unexcavated. Even when archaeologists do find "manillas", they are likely to give no description or sketch. Herbert notes that African bracelets are "consigned by the hundreds to oblivion in museum storage drawers" (p210) because they do not conform to Western ideas of fine jewelry - and, most likely, because their currency function is not generally appreciated. Johansson's Nigerian Currencies, (1967) & Nigerian Primitive Currency Values "Supplement" (1968) and Eyo's Nigeria and the Evolution of Money (1979) go into greater depth, but addresses only a limited number of types. Finally, some good work has been published in the EUCOPRIMO journal Der Primitivgeldsammler (PS) by Denk, Klussmeier, DeBoer, Koschatzky, and others, mainly on Central African types. Blandin's Bronzes is the one real bright spot in this otherwise obscure picture. An advanced collector, armed with photos of his own and museums' pieces and archival pictures of bracelets in use, Msr. Blandin has scoured museum catalogs and art literature and trekked through former French West Africa seeking both objects to purchase and informants. A supplement in his second book which deals with iron objects presents feedback from noted scholar Timothy Gerrard and others. My only lament is that the numerous types of Nigeria and Cameroun were not within the scope of his study.
    Nomenclature is a major source of obscurity in most works. African money bracelets are variously referred to as manillas, bracelets, rings, bangles, etc. I have used "manilla" to refer only to European-made bracelets which I believe to be the medium to small sized brass pieces with crescent-shape, flared ends and uniform overall appearance. The rest I have called bracelets, without meaning to imply that they were wearable or worn on the arm. Some pieces were clearly intended to be worn as anklets, arm-bands, rings, nose-rings, or not worn at all. In preserving Herbert or another author's usage I have offset the word in quotes when used in another sense.


    So much for what is not known. At least one probable myth can be dispelled. Numismatic authors either state or imply that the use of bracelets as money in Africa began with European contact. This is almost certainly false. The basic qualities of money use are exchange, storage of wealth, and standard of value. Primitive money collectors, if not economists, are inclined to accept any one or of these as sufficient. As to standard of value prior to European sea contact, we have almost no information.
    That bracelets served for both storage and display of wealth before European sea contact is quite clear. Early explorer and trader accounts almost always mentioned bracelets or bangles worn by the Africans. The observation made by Vasco DaGama, anchored in what was probably the Limpopo River in 1498 is typical: "In this land there seemed to us to be great quantities of copper which they wear on the legs, arms and twisted into their hair." (p109). Later anthropological investigations have established that the wearing of bracelets (rings, armbands, anklets, etc.) is generally a form of wealth display, particularly when the weight or size impedes movement. The distinction between monetary objects and ornament is a purely Western one.
    That copper bracelets served early on as a medium of exchange is fairly clear from both archaeological finds and Arab traveler accounts. Although raw copper is rare in sub-Saharan West Africa, it was smelted as early as 2000 BC in Takkeda, Azelick and other sites in what is now upper Niger. Additionally, both Venice and Genoa conducted a thriving copper and brass export through Muslim intermediaries into sub-Saharan Africa from the 12th-16th centuries; bars, rods, and wire were traded. The Arab traveler Al Bakri noted that rings of copper functioned as currency at Silla in Takrur in 1068 AD. (p113). In 1354 the well-known traveler Ibn Battuta found copper being mined at Azelick, and cast into bars for trade with the south. In nearby Takkeda red copper rods or wire " meat and firewood with the fine rods; they buy male and female slaves, millet, ghee, and wheat with the thick." (p195) Many bracelets found even today are nothing more than lengths of such rod bent to a crescent shape.
    When objects of no obvious utilitarian value are found in graves, they are presumed to be adornment or money for use in the afterlife. When they are found stacked around the corpse rather than in likely wearing locations such as fingers, arms, etc. the presumption is for a monetary use. Archaeologists have found bronze discs and bracelets at Daima (pre-1000 AD), and in mounds in lower Senegal and the Saloum valley. Bracelets have "been unearthed at scattered sites such as Wassu (Gambia), Dallol Bosso (Niger), Dawu in northern Ghana, Imperi in Sierra Leone, Songon-Dagbe and Bokabo in Ivory Coast . . . the Kainji Reservoir area of the Lower Niger. Many of these finds may well be pre-1500 but they are just beginning to be dated. At Benin . . . the only copper objects that almost certainly antedate the arrival of the Portuguese are five heavy pennanular objects, fifty six bracelets and three finger rings...dated to about the thirteenth to fourteenth century AD. All were probably made by smithing rather than casting." (p.120). "It seems reasonable to suspect that peoples on the Gold Coast and at Benin, and perhaps those farther east as well, were eager to accept rings as both a money of account and an actual currency, in the early decades of European trade, precisely because their contacts with the north had already made rings thoroughly familiar." (p201)
    The best documented archaeological find of bracelets seems to be those excavated at Igbo-Ukwu in eastern Nigeria. Typically, they are not illustrated in his reports, but Johansson (Fig.2) photographed five pieces which are typically crescent with flared ends, though somewhat thicker-gauge and twisted out of true. They were first announced as dating to the 9th century but later more reliably to the 15th or later. Denk concludes that they are lost-wax cast and of African origin. In any case, their dating does not permit conclusions as to whether this true manilla shape is European or African in origin.
    In central Africa (Angola, Congo, Zimbabwe) copper was more plentiful then in west Africa. The rich mines of the Congo and Angola were being worked when the Portuguese arrived, looking for gold, and had probably been worked for centuries. Carbon-14 dating establishes mining near Katanga in the 4th century AD and associates Katangan mines in the 9-12th centuries with "an H-shaped copper ingot." "Further testimony to the importance of copper in intra-African trade and to the irrelevance of gold where there was no stimulus of foreign demand is offered by the case of Sanga and other sites of the Upemba rift in southeastern Zaire....Copper first appears toward the eighth century in the form of heavy bracelets or anklets and cylindrical beads...about the tenth becomes so abundant as to be the defining about the fourteenth or fifteenth century." (p.111) Herbert distinguishes the central African "H" cross from the more familiar "X" or Katanga cross and speculates that pieces over about 2 kilos were mainly a raw material and a prestige currency. "If they were to have functioned as general purpose currency it could only have been through conversion into smaller units, most especially into the copper bangles found so abundantly not only at Ingombe Ilede (ca.1400 AD) but throughout Later Iron Age sites on the was... standard practice in the nineteenth century to transform the bars and crosses from Katanga as well as the coils of brass wire from the coast into bracelets, to provide an all-purpose currency." (p187) Though even early European accounts of African customs may reflect European influence, there is evidence that the Portuguese, with their superior ships, took over a pre-existing trade in bracelets from the Congo to West Africa. In 1607 a Dutch trader described these Congo (Kingdom of Loango) bracelets of "beautiful red copper, weighing anywhere from 1.5 to 14 pounds" (p141).


    There were two principal methods of manufacturing bracelet money which tend to differentiate the Central and the Western African products. The simpler but more laborious process of drawing wire was used in Central Africa. The earliest copper trade was in rough H-shaped ingots "about 15cm long," different from the more familiar Katanga cross. Many have been excavated at Great Zimbabwe (14th cent. AD) and Sanga (14-18th C.). To make a bracelet, an ingot (cross) would be beaten into a tubular shape. This involved alternating stages of pounding and heating, (annealing), necessary to keep the metal from becoming brittle. Pincers would then be used to pull the beaten rod through successively smaller holes in an iron drawplate until the desired thickness was achieved. A traveler in 1866 noted that the major use of drawn wire was the manufacture of bracelets. Such drawing plates have been dated to 1400 AD. "Given that fine wire drawing requires skill, it is not surprising that it tended to be the specialty of craftsmen within particular groups such as the Kamba, Chagga, and Kikuyu of Kenya; the Longo southwest of Lake Victoria; the Hutu smiths of Burundi; the Bemba north of the Chambezi River; the Nyamwezi and Yeke of Tanzania and Katanga; the Lemba of Zimbabwe and the Transvaal; and the Zulu of Natal. (p80)
    Casting was probably the primary method used in West Africa through the Sudan. The earliest method was called open mould, or sand casting "The Kavati of Mayombe...cast copper bracelets in a mould made of damp sand which had been formed to the proper shape by means of a wooden model of the object to be cast."(p.83)
    Cierre perdue (lost wax) casting was a later development, though probably predating Western contact. Herbert discusses the problems of dating the well-known larger cast brasses of Ife and Benin but notes that the method was limited to West Africa. "It extends across the Sudan from the Senegambia to Lake Chad and northern Cameroon and southward into the forest zone. It embraces..Mossi, Asante, Ife, Benin, Nupe, the kingdoms of the Niger Benue confluence, and the Bamenda grasslands...the Dan and Kpelle of Liberia, the Biafadas of Guinë-Bissau, the Senufo, Bambara, Baulë, Bobo, Libi, Ibo, Tiv and Hausa." (p.88) As evidence of pre-European lost wax casting Herbert notes that manydesigns seem to be Persian or Coptic.
    Both drawn and cast bracelets were very often augmented by hand-chased or punched designs. Sometimes chasing was used to enhance a cast design. A tantalizing insight into such design elements is given by Herbert: "In the Lower Congo the 'anneau de chef' was distinguished from the bracelets worn by women by its masculine decorative motifs: rectangles with two diagonals and two medians, lozenges, small triangles, crosshatchings, and striations." (p266) I have not located any work that explains the significance of the designs found on bracelet money and other metal objects, or attributes them by tribal groups or place. Some art books say they are purely ornamental.


    The first Portuguese traders to venture down the west coast in the 1470's took the same goods already used in the Italian trans-Sahara trade: textiles, beads, and copper in the form of manillas, brass basins, kettles, pots, and rods, though after 1520 the manillas and basins became the standard copper trade goods from Gambia to the Gold Coast. Gold, ivory, and slaves were the main return cargoes. Quiggin, Johanssen and others note the huge tonnage of manillas listed in accounts by the Portuguese factors at their main trading sites during the period 1480-1550; Herbert estimates about 45 tons per year. By the 17th century the trade had passed largely to the Dutch. By this time a wide diversity of goods was demanded by the Africans and it was difficult for merchants to keep current on what was wanted in each trading center at a given time. Even among manillas, the demand was very particularized by shape and "ring." The traders' perplexity over the Africans' seeming arbitrariness on this matter reflects their ignorance of a developed exchange system in which they were just one of many participants. A series of technological improvements in the British brass industry in the 1690s gradually gave them the edge in the Africa brass trade during the next century. The term "Birmingham manilla" is applied to a number of crescent-shaped brass pieces with flared ends weighing under 300 grams (Johansson p.13-14), but most usually to an even smaller piece under 90 grams, though we have no hard evidence of British origin for all of these types.
    The earliest manillas and basins were made for the Portuguese in Flanders, near where the copper was mined. One merchant, Erasmus Schetz, controlled copper extraction in Westphalia and calamine deposits (source of zinc) in Belgium. He also produced finished copper and brassware. "Schetz's brass manillas were considered the most beautiful in the world and served as the standard of perfection against which all others were measured."(p131) But the Portuguese crown went price-shopping. A 1548 royal contract with the Fugger agent in Antwerp specified that the manillas be of brass, not copper, and "well laureated and filed and of the metals suited to the said trade of Mina and Guinea, of such size and sorts and perfection as has always been the custom for the said trades and which correspond to the accustomed weight which is: the mainllas of Mina, 160 in each 100 arrates (the Portuguese pound) just about, and with smooth and well-filed heads, which are called tacoais; and those of Guinea of 190 or 200 manillas in each 100 arrates...." (p128).
    Traders' accounts are full of references to a certain number of manillas of this type or that buying a specified commodity at a given time - all useless now as we have no way of knowing what sort of manilla was meant. Ships' manifests and other records of the day usually refer simply to brass or copper without specifying its form, or they may enumerate either the number or total weight of "manillas," but never both. We know from the above account that the manillas traded by the Portuguese in the 16th century were heavier than those of the English in the 19th, and that manillas of different weights were made contemporaneously for trade into different ports.
    Shown in Benin, Royal Art of Africa, by Armand Duchateau, on p.36 is a massive manilla of 25cm across and 4.5cm gauge, crudely cast with scoop-faceted sides, and well worn. Presently in the Museum für Volkerkunde in Vienna it could be the heaviest (no weight given) and earliest manilla known. However, p.15 shows a plaque with a European holding two pieces of very different form, crescent-shaped without flared ends, though apparently heavy if the proportions are correct, and p.60 shows another plaque representing five pieces of classic form. Another candidate for early manilla is this copper piece which weighs about 483gm and measures 94x80mm, 16mm gauge. In effect, we have no clear idea of what early Manillas looked like, though we have some clues as to their weight. The Portuguese manillas for trade into Elmina in 1529 weighed about .6 kilo (21.2oz), while the 1548 contracted pieces of 160 or 190/100 arates noted above would have been about .28 and .25 kilos (10 & 8.5 oz) respectively. I have two examples resembling Johansson's Mkporo manilla which weigh .274 and .276k. Manillas carried on a 1645 Dutch expedition are said to have weighed 1.5 modern Dutch ounces, or about .15k (5.3 oz.). Zay (1892) in writing of French Colonial monies, also noted a "Birmingham" manilla of .14-.15k used in the Ivory Coast and called "Igbi."
    Regarding English manillas, Herbert quotes an earlier author on the secrecy practiced in that industry. Deliberate secrecy or simple unconcern, the net effect is that we have little to go on today. If Quiggin's fig.26 #3 & 4 do represent pieces exported from Birmingham in 1836 as implied, they appear to be one of the smaller types depicted in Johansson's chart. On p13-14 he illustrates and names 9 types of crescent manillas, presumably the fruits of his own research, as the names do not correspond to those he notes from other sources.
    An 1865 article on Birmingham brass manufacturing describes two types of "brass ring" made for the Gold Coast, one 7/16" thick with a diameter of 3-1/4" which is also a fair description of the "Popo" if the ring is open-ended. Another was "of tubular bars, varying in size from 1-3/4 to 3-1/2 or 4 inches in internal diameter. Each weighed 2-1/2 to 4 ounces. These last were not soldered at the joint, so that they could easily be opened and fitted to the arm or leg of the wearer....None of these does he qualify as 'manillas.' which he discusses separately as 'a species of one time produced in Birmingham by casting'....not brass but copper-lead hardened with arsenic." (p202) I have never seen a jointed or hinged bracelet as light as this, but nonetheless the description provides the only evidence for European-made bracelets in other than the familiar crescent shape. A 1949 article on the withdrawal of manillas in Nigeria describes the object as "an open bracelet in the form of a horseshoe with lozenge-shaped ends, measuring about 2-1/4 inches across and weighing about 3 ounces." (p201). This is clearly what collectors call the "Birmingham manilla," (not shown in Johansson) the smallest, and probably latest, of the mass-produced manillas, said to have been worth prior to withdrawal 3 English pence or 20-25 French centimes. It was easily available on the numismatic market until the 1970s.
    My own conclusion from all of this is that European-made money bracelets (manillas) are limited to crescent-shaped pieces such as Johansson illustrates in his foldout chart, and their larger predecessors of similar shape, such as the Volkerkunde specimen. Bracelets of much fancier design may have been made for export as simple jewelry. It could be argued that the much heavier, broad, unornamented "King/Queen" pieces such as Johansson's Supplement cover, as well as the etched pieces on his Nigerian Currencies cover, Eyo p61, Opitz (2nd ed.) "King" and "Queen," and even Quiggin's fig.27 are earlier pieces of the Portuguese or Dutch period. Denk concludes that the King and Queen types are African-made because of the crude workmanship and the designs. It would, however, be simple to add etched designs to plain pieces supplied by the Europeans. Both the religious fanaticism of the Europeans and their commercial need to produce a fully acceptable product argue strongly against manillas with designs. Seventeenth century Benin brass plaques often depict Europeans with manillas of usual shape, though not necessarily to scale. (See cover PS 1986/2).
    As a sidelight, it seems that not all the European-made bracelets were made in Europe. Herbert mentions that in the 1680s English traders had set up at Delagoa Bay on the Limpopo River and were manufacturing "copper bracelets" to trade inland!


    By the 19th century, bracelets "were used to purchase food and palm wine, to compensate diviners, to satisfy court claims, to contract for a wife, and to be buried with." (p205) Herbert, Johansson, and others give numerous examples, repeating earlier sources' use of generalized terms such as manilla and bracelet. Since the form, weight, and composition of bracelet money clearly mattered to the participants in any transaction, we are left with almost no useful information on bracelets as an exchange medium, though the sheer volume of these now-opaque accounts verifies their widespread use.
    By the end of the 19th century bracelets and manillas were giving way to western monies. The 1948-49 withdrawal was an attempt to end speculation by palm oil traders that was disrupting the economy. The Nigerian authorities bought up three types or classes of manilla, though the account in Johansson leaves many important points unclear. It is uncertain how much of the bracelet suply was affected by this withdrawal. In any case, this policy had to be modified to allow each person to retain 200 pieces for ritual use, specifically burial and brideprice. Johansson and others give examples of bracelet used as brideprice, and no doubt this use persists today in places.
    Another long-lived monetary function of bracelets was their use for wealth-storage and display. Early accounts or bracelet wearing such as that of Vasco DaGama cited previously are commonplace. Europeans were often amazed at the incredible weight of metal carried on arms, legs, etc.. The famous Livingstone even noted a tribe where "those whose status did not entitle them to load their legs with rings imitated the walk of those who did." (p243). "Time and time again we have noted that much of the evidence of the use of copper in the more distant past comes from burials....As long as copper signified wealth, its very presence testified to the affluence of the deceased.   the quantities of copper rods, manillas, and basins inhumed with rich Kalabari and Ijo traders, and the same was true of important Tio men of affairs. The vast cemeteries of the Upemba Depression are replete with croisettes; throughout the Zimbabwe Plateau and Zambia, copper bangles are standard grave goods." (p271)
    Of course, bracelets had non-monetary uses as well. Herbert's section on "Copper and Political Power" (p244) gives numerous examples of particular monies, including bracelets, being paid as tribute. The best-known examples of ritual or ceremonial use are the large "manillas" such as the King/Queen, which were part of the "seclusion" or dying-rite ceremonies of a royal person, and may have been tabu for ordinary exchange. The section "Copper and Ritual Power" (p254) catalogs amuletic and curative uses for bracelets, and other sections detail their use as a badge of office, a mark of status or availability for marriage. One striking example involving symbolic use of brass as a mark of high status is "the Ekpe of Old Calabar and the Cross River. In the mid-nineteenth century...had eleven grades, the next to the highest being the 'brass' or okpoko (that is, manilla). At this stage, the initiate's body was daubed all over with a yellow dye to simulate brass. Brass ekpe was responsible for law enforcement, an especially important function in an area where so many different peoples were drawn together by commerce. The 'sacred yellow band' of ekpe was attached to property sealed by the society...." (p254). Fisher and Blandin show a class of amuletic bracelets with animal figures being used by diviners in the Ivory Coast.
    Bracelet money was rarely the only currency in use, being supplemented by cowries, cloth, beads, ingots and shapes of iron and other metals, even coins and bills. Travelers, traders, and early anthropologists are more impressed by the unusual than the commonplace, and Quiggin's object-oriented cataloguing of money forms belies the widespread importance of Africa's main money objects: crosses, rods, and bracelets, with cowries providing a subsidiary currency in many places.
    Herbert emphasizes that African societies valued copper and brass particularly for their color, as well as their more obvious qualities as metals. "Virtually all descriptions agree that copper and brass were kept highly polished, even that used by ordinary mortals, whether Quota reliquaries, and Ibo bracelets, Ogboni edan, or Benin Bronzes." (p280) The pieces I have handled are often found polished or partly retoned, some types more than others, providing a clue (along with wearability itself) as to which were used in wealth display.
    As with so many other pre-Western currencies, we are far from having the full story on African bracelet money, even though it is quite varied, widespread, and in some cases, European-made. In this sense it is much like trade beads, studied more as art than as economic objects.


Ethnographic Money References    | | |    African Bracelet Money for sale