Monday, March 19, 2012

Manila The African Money Of The Slave Trade


Copper was the "red gold" of Africa and had been both mined there and traded across the Sahara by Italian and Arab merchants. The early Portuguese explorers of the 1470s observed that copper bracelets and legbands were the principal money all along the west African coast. They were usually worn by women to display their husband's wealth. The Portuguese crown contracted with manufacturers in Antwerp and elsewhere to produce crescent rings with flared ends of wearable size which came to be called "manilla," after the Latin manus (hand) or from monilia, plural of monile (necklace).

While copper bracelets dating prior to 1600 AD which likely had some exchange function continue to be excavated around Jenne-Jeno and related sites, we can only guess today at what prototypes may have inspired the distinctive flare-ended crescent shape. One theory is that Europeans copied a splayed-end raffia cloth bracelet worn by women, another that the well-known Yoruba Mondua with its bulbous ends inspired the manilla shape. Much closer in form to modern manillas, however, is this type, excavated at Igbo-Ukwu. In "Die sog. Geldeifen aus Benin," Der Primitivgeldsammler #28/1, p.29-35, Rolf Denk summarizes what is known about heavy, faceted pieces with enlarged ends such as this one (25cm across and 4.5cm gauge) from the Museum für Volkerkunde in Vienna, which may predate European manillas.

PORTUGUESE MANILLAS (TACOIS).  Late Schetz Type(?), ca. 1524 Brass, slightly flared ends, average 306gms, 103 x 87mm size, and gauge increasing from 12mm at center to 22mm at ends, giving a "flare ratio" of 1.86. Found in ship wrecks, and best studied from a 1524 wreck in Guetaria Bay, Spain.

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. The standard in 1529 was supposedly about 240m long, about 13m gauge, weighing 600 gram. 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. Do these heavy Schetz manillas even exist today, and if so, what do they look like? Duchateau, Royal Art of Benin, page 15 shows a plaque with a European holding two pieces with barely flared ends whose apparent size could match these specifications, while page 60 illustrates five pieces of conventional form, but without scale. Then, too, the Dutch participated in the trade. Did they get their manillas from nearby Antweerp as well, or did they use something different still?

Manillas from the 1524 wreck recently recovered from the Guetaria Bay off the Basque coast of Spain are described in detail in Der Primitivgeldsammler #26/1 p.9-12 (Manuel Artica). These brass manillas average 306gms, 103 x 87mm size, and gauge increasing from 12mm at center to 22mm at ends, giving a "flare ratio" of 1.86. The shape is thus more similar to the familiar French Popo manilla than the British, but even less pronounced in the flare. There was a falling out between the Portuguese and their supplier Schetz, with 1547 given as the date they switched their contracts to Cristoff Fugger. If correct, the Guetaria Bay finds would thus be Schetz products. The new Fugger pieces were called tacoais with different standards, of 284gm (Mina) and 241gm (Guinea), for the different trading areas.


Four types of manillas lighter than the Guetaria Bay specimens are known. Their average weights match the Fuggers' Guinea specifications with two specimens (281, 294 grams) in the Mina range. Possibly earliest is the least flared, #937 with a modest 1.96 flare ratio and average weight of 241gm. Opitz p.213 upper left is likely this type. Other types with visibly greater end flares (#939-941) range from 226 to 294 grams, though to date few specimens have been studied. The earliest British manillas have flare ratios approaching 3.0. The Portuguese called the Fugger manillas tacois. An African name for the more flared Guinea pieces, at least, is Mkporo. As the manilla shrank in size over the centuries, the Mkporo were promoted from everyday trade use to burial money and a standard of wealth.

Although Gold was the primary and abiding merchandise sought by the Portuguese, by the early 16th century they were participating in the slave trade for bearers to carry manillas to Africa's interior, and gradually Manillas became the principal money of this trade. By the end of the 1500s the Portuguese had been shouldered aside by the British, French, and Dutch, all of whom had labor-intensive plantations in the West Indies, and later by the Americans whose southern states were tied to a cotton economy . A typical voyage took manillas and utilitarian brass objects such as pans and basins to West Africa, then slaves to America, and cotton back to the mills of Europe.


Early in the 18th century Bristol, and then Birmingham, became the most significant European brass manufacturing city. It is likely that most types of brass manillas were made there, including the "middle period" Nkobnkob-Onoudu whose weight apparently decreased over time, and the still lighter "late period" types such as Okpoho and those salvaged from the Duoro wreck of 1843. Among the late period types, specimen weights overlap type distinctions suggesting contemporary manufacture rather than a progression of types. The Popos, whose weight distribution places them at the transition point between Nkobnkob and Onoudu, were also made in Nantes, France, and possibly Birmingham as well. They are wider than the Birmingham types and have a gradual, rather than sudden, flare to the ends.

The 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. The price of a slave, expressed in manillas, varied considerably according to time, place, and the specific type of manilla offered. Internally, manillas were the first true general-purpose currency known in west Africa, being used for ordinary market purchases, bride price, payment of fines, compensation of diviners, and for the needs of the next world, as burial money. Cowrie shells, imported from Melanesia and valued at a small fraction of a manilla, were used for small purchases. In regions outside coastal west Africa and the Niger river a variety of other currencies, such as bracelets of more complex native design, iron units often derived from tools, copper rods, themselves often bent into bracelets, and the well-known Handa (Katanga cross) all served as special-purpose monies.


As the slave trade wound down in the 19th century so did manilla production, which was already becoming unprofitable. By the 1890s their use in the export economy centered around the palm-oil trade. Although manillas were legal tender, they floated against British and French West African currencies and the palm-oil trading companies manipulated their value to advantage during the market season. Probably for this reason the British undertook a major recall dubbed "operation manilla" in 1948 to replace them with British West African currency at a rate of 3 Pence for the commonest type. The campaign was largely successful and over 32 million pieces were bought up and resold as scrap. The manilla, a lingering reminder of the slave trade, ceased to be legal tender in British West Africa on April 1, 1949.

An unanswered question is whether "manillas" were made in Africa by native smiths during the period when European types were imported. It is hard to believe that no such attempts were made. Offered for sale below and linked to scans are obvious counterfeits, but such pieces made of lead, or underweight pieces in impure brass are rather uncommon and it is unclear where they were made. More interesting is the group of horseshoe-shaped pieces as well as gleanings from several years' worth of poring over Africa Traders' stocks, looking for pieces with flared ends within the known manilla weight range. Are they proto-manillas, early European manillas, or African-made pieces during the period of European importation which - deliberately or coincidentally - resemble the European type? All are copper, rough with verdigris indicating some age.

Many other things are called manillas by authors and collectors. Commonly available are many distinctive regional bracelet forms of copper, brass, nickel, and iron made in Africa in the 19th-20th centuries with varying monetary functions and ranges of use. Legbands, collars, and coiled forms made of Calabar rod. Those with flared ends are often called manillas. Other flare-end forms of large size, called "King" and "Queen" manillas, are ceremonial rather than trade manillas, and from Zaire come large copper crescents in several distinctive shapes, sometimes including flared ends, which are likely forms of bullion storage (like the Katanga cross).

A Katanga cross, also called a handa, is a cast copper cross which was once used as a form of currency in parts of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
For more depth on bracelet monies in general see InfoSheet 62. There is a remarkable lack of academic interest in the tangible objects of the slave trade and African monies in general. Artica's Der Primitivgeldsammler bibliography references a to-be-published article in "Gaceta Numismatica" (Barcelona) by A. Benito and M. Ibanez. "Copper to Africa: Evidence for the international trade in metal with Africa" by P. T. Craddock and D. R.. Hook, p. 181-193 of British Museum Occasional Paper 109 (1995), notes that the British Museum is beginning to keep samples of trade goods found on dateable wrecks, but so far has manillas only from the Duoro of 1843, and The Charles of 1684. The Duoro pieces are well known, and I am trying to get a picture of the earlier type. Another well-researched article, which I have yet to digest, is R. L.. Leonard's "Manillas - Money of West Africa" published by the Chicago Coin Club in 1998. (source:

Benin bronze: Foreign trader surrounded by manillas. Photo: Ursula Kampmann.

African Ceremonial Manilas West Africa, large Mondua copper manilla

Manillas, alloyed copper in the shape of a bangle, are among the oldest forms of African gold ingots. Our piece is a Mondua manilla, a copper ring ingot from the province of Sokoto in Nigeria.

The first European manillas were transported by Portuguese boats to Africa, where traders exchanged them mainly for slaves and African pepper. The first written sources on this actually exist from the 14th/15th centuries. We know from one boat, which put into Benin in 1515 and had onloaded 13,000 manillas. No less interesting is the fact that in 1548 the agent of the king of Portugal entered into a contract for the delivery of brass manillas according to the instructions drawn up with the Fugger company.

We have, mainly from the kingdom of Benin, informative sources on how the exchange of goods between the Portuguese and the king's house was handled. The trade was a monopoly of the Oba, the ruler. The king decided to whom the market was to be opened and granted to deserving members of the king's house the privilege of trading with the Europeans. According to the king's instructions the copper that was bought was mostly turned into splendid works of art, which we know nowadays as Benin bronzes.

As so often happens, the competition among the importers undermined the value of the imported goods. It came to a kind of inflation: the price of a slave rose from 12 to 15 manillas at the beginning of the 16th century in 1517.

At the beginning of the 18th century this currency had outstripped itself in Benin. Nobody there was interested in it any longer, so that a whole load of manillas had to be sent away as unsaleable. (source: Coins Weekly)


  1. wonderful, wonderful information. thank you.
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  4. Nice Info! There are many junk metal dealers who also wants real sellers of junk metals and wants to buy metals in bulk.

    Sell Scrap Copper | Lead Scrap Prices

  5. I would like to buy some African manillas made of copper, brass or preferably nickel, any ideas where.


  6. I was watching an episode of the British archaeology show Time Team and they were excavating a copper refinery in the Welsh town of Swansea. One of the buildings at the refinery they were trying to find was the Manila House. I had no idea what one was, and when I googled it your site came up first.

    You gave me the explanation I needed. Thank you, excellent work.

  7. I have something similar although a lot wider and about 3 kilos in weight, do you think it could still be a Manila? It has a design on it and will fit a wrist but would be so heavy to carry?

  8. Awesome post.Thanks For share this post wit us.The urge to boost our physical look with jewellery is unchanged. String Bracelet each doable a part of our body is adorned with jewellery, be it ear rings for the ears, anklets String Bracelet ankles or neckpieces for the necks.

  9. Great information. Thank you for putting in the work and sharing.

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