The Artistry of African Money

Throughout history, many different objects have been used to facilitate trade for goods and to measure wealth.

Today, we usually think of dollars and coins when we define what we regard as money, although much commerce is carried out without any physical currency at all.
Value is counted by entries in bank and credit card accounts, and the transfer of money often takes place through electronic impulses between computers.
Objects have served the same purposes as well, in other times and places.
Throughout Africa's past, many objects have served as money—salt, shells, beads, metal, indigenous coins, European coins, jewelry, woven cloth, weapons and tools.
The keys to understanding why a particular object came to be used as currency are acceptability and value.
Acceptability encompasses such aspects as familiarity, usefulness and artistic expression, which add to the intrinsic value of the medium itself.
Thus, while the scarcity of copper might have caused it to be exchanged on that basis alone, its use was further validated through the forms into which it was cast.
Iron was more ubiquitous in African societies, but refining, forging, forming and decorating similarly increased its value.
Economists and financial historians writing about mediums of exchange typically define currency as a durable, divisible and accepted means of measuring and storing value.
Governments and laws largely define acceptance today, but over the course of history, acceptance was more often conferred by broader cultural currents, including religion, myth and beliefs about the nature of the universe.
In Africa, where few extensive nation-states existed, the needs of trade and commerce depended on commonly held beliefs or values that spanned great geographical distances and an almost unimaginable diversity of activities.
Consequently, the currency needed for even the simplest daily transactions was backed by shared beliefs as much as by the intrinsic value of the currency itself.
Transactions that involved significant life events — marriage, procreation, health and death — were validated by objects with high intrinsic, symbolic and artistic values.
 
Cowrie Shells
 
These shells were an ancient money used not just in Africa, but throughout the world, predating the use of coins or in some instances used in the same economy as metal coins.
Imported from the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean, these polished, olive-sized shells served for small everyday transactions and, gathered together in the millions, for bridewealth (a groom's gift to the family of the bride) and other major purchases and gifts.
In the 18th century, one could purchase a cow for 2 500 shells, a goat for 500 shells and a chicken for 25 shells.
The shells were counted and measured in many different combinations, but the most typical in some parts of Africa was the rotl, a string consisting of 32 shells, which was then aggregated in strings of 5 to constitute a bunch.
Ten bunches was called a head. The shells were believed to possess the power of fertility, thus ensuring their acceptance throughout the wide territories of Africa.
 
Cloth
 
Another widely used common currency was woven goods: the cotton woven strip roll and the raffia mat or bundles.
Strip cloth known among Nigerians as gabanga was often plain and un-dyed.
As a rule, the strips had a standard width between four and six inches. Variations in width and the quality of the weave gave the parties of the transaction a means to negotiate value.
Cloth was also frequently used in connection with other currencies, such as brass rods, lending additional flexibility to the negotiations.
As there was no government regulation of cloth production, its circulation was limited by the cost and effort of production (the need to spin fibres into threads and then weave the fabric) and by demand.
Cloths or mats of more-or-less uniform size were used for gifts, peace offerings, payment from a son to his father upon attaining adulthood and payment upon the birth of a child or the burial of a parent.
Cloth currency was also used as a tribute for a spouse who remained chaste or, by contrast, as a penalty for adultery.
 
Copper
 
In some areas of central Africa, unadorned copper and iron rods and wires served as currency until about 1907.
Instead of being valued according to weight, these currencies were priced by length.
In the Congo River region, these rods came to be used to set the price for goods, which could then be purchased for equivalent values in other currencies, whether beads, cloth or other items.
Although these rods were to have a fixed length, they often lost length as they passed from hand to hand. In one area, the rods lost more than 20 inches in the span of about 24 years.
Bundling tiny copper and brass wires provided an alternative form of exchange for small transactions.
 
Kissi Pennies
 
These long, thick iron wires, usually between 12 and 15 inches long, were traded throughout Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
With the exception of Guinea, kissi pennies were still in use in the 1970s.
The ends were flattened, with one of the ends shaped like a wing, and the wires were often bundled and twisted togehter to create higher values.
They were called the coins with soul, and if a penny was broken, it could not circulate until repaired by a blacksmith, who would restore its “soul”.
 
Manillas
 
Manillas were open bracelets, cast from copper and then brass and later still from iron.
From the late 15th to the early 20th centuries, they circulated widely, especially along the West African equatorial coast, in various sizes and weights.
Manillas were also cast in Birmingham, England, and traded as currency in West Africa.
The manillas include the smaller standard size and the so-called queen manilla. The larger specimens were considered a store of wealth.
Small manillas would often be amassed and then taken to the blacksmith to be melted and re-formed into the larger size.
Some manillas were decorated with incised designs, or a second coil of metal was twisted around the shank.
The quality of their ringing sound and the amount of “flash”, or excess metal extruded at the joints of the mould, helped determine their value.
Metalsmiths from the Kingdom of Benin, part of today's Nigeria, melted down the imported manillas and recast the metal into works of art.
 
Katanga Crosses
 
Few sites in Africa yielded as large a supply of copper ore as the Katanga region of the DRC.
While archaeologists believe that even unrefined lumps of copper were used as currency because of their standard size and value, the copper currency that possessed refined casting techniques and artistic value were the ingots shaped as crosses.
By 1400AD two distinctive types had developed.
One was shaped like an H; the other was formed like an X. The crosses were cast directly on the ground in many sizes.
The typical size was about nine-and-a-half inches across, with weights varying up to four pounds.
Archaeologists also believe that the larger crosses were made first, followed by the smaller ones as the demands of commerce rose.
The crosses were accepted as trade items throughout central Africa. They also served as a source of copper for re-use in jewelry as well as for other currency.
 
Bridewealth Blades
 
The institution of bridewealth exists throughout Africa, having counterparts in the custom of the European dowry and, to a lesser extent, in prenuptial agreements.
The institution does not refer to purchasing a wife, but to compensating the bride's family for the loss of its daughter's services, which will now benefit her new family.
The typical scenario requires the groom, or the family of the groom, to provide gifts, or bride price, to the family of the bride. Many objects were acceptable as bridewealth, but among the most striking were the enormous iron blades of the Turumbu peoples.
These spear blades span up to five feet long and typically weigh as much as four-and-a-half pounds. The size of the blade determined its relative value.
The blades served as a measure of wealth and were usually not converted into more utilitarian objects.
If the marriage failed, the groom's family would attempt to reclaim the bridewealth.
 
Hoes and Weapons
 
Probably the most dramatic and certainly the most varied metal currency forms are objects believed to be derived from implements and weapons.
Popularly known respectively as hoe money and throwing knives, these objects were fabricated from copper, bronze, brass and iron.
Hoe money came in the shape of a heart, spade, paddle, teardrop, trowel, anchor or blade. In fact, the shapes began to overlap with the objects classified as knives or blades.
Hoe money varied in value but was most often used as bridewealth.
It was also frequently re-formed into other objects or implements as needed.
Currency derived from the throwing knife also came in many shapes and sizes, but its distinctive feature is the complexity in the orientation and size of its blades.
These flattened shapes, often very thin, posed technical challenges to the blacksmith that required considerable skill and craftsmanship.
In addition, many of the throwing knives were elaborately decorated, some on the blades and others only on the handles. Throwing knives are reported to have been used for bridewealth. Other evidence suggests, however, that they were emblems of office or status, carried in dances or other ceremonial occasions, and not currency at all.
 
Other Metals
 
Metalworking has ancient beginnings in Africa.
Archaeologists have dated slag from iron smelting furnaces to 300BC.
Since copper smithing and casting is a simpler process than smelting iron, it is likely that works of copper predated even this early date.
Bracelets, anklets and collars that were cast or hammered from copper had little circulation and were never used in connection with routine transactions. Instead, they served as reservoirs of wealth in a form that was easy to store and transport.
This storage function is best illustrated in the very heavy bracelets and anklets of the Congo River region.
To create some of these bracelets, such as that of the Ekonda, the artists poured molten metal directly into a cast in the ground called a puddle mold.
As the metal cooled, it was wrapped into a circular shape and often even fitted directly to the wearer's body.
 
Jewellery
 
The currencies with the most obvious artistic values are the various bracelets, collars and earrings crafted from gold and silver.
Large gold earrings, called kwottenai, are worn by married Fulani women in Mali.
They are handed down from mother to daughter or by purchase when a husband makes a gift to his wife.
Kwottenai can become very large, representing the accumulated wealth of several generations. They are formed from gold bars that are beaten into thin blades, which are then formed into crescent shape.
 Often the blades are incised with figures, flowers or cattle.
The mercantile value of these earrings is calculated by the weight of the gold, but the artistry of the goldsmith contributes greatly to the prestige of the owner.
 
Coins
 
In the former British, German, French, Portuguese and Italian territories of Africa, coins of the colonial powers circulated, supplemented by the Austrian Maria Theresa thaler, or dollar.
The thaler, which was 83 percent silver, was first struck in Austria in 1780 at the death of empress Maria Theresa and went out of use there in 1854.
But Austria and other nations continued its issue for export long after they had stopped using the thaler on the continent.
The thaler was so popular that the supply could not meet the demand.
The British Royal Mint was authorised to make the dollars for overseas trade in Africa in 1937.
The Italian government also struck them for Ethiopia in 1936, where they were used as legal tender until 1948. – nmafa.si.edu
 

April 2013
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