Money That You Can Wear?

I found interest in manillas when I was searching for an artifact for this class. I was scrolling through pictures and this same reoccurring artifact kept appearing. I decided to take a look at what I continued to stumble upon and took interest in it immediately. Being a girl who is into jewelry I feel that it is a completely rational choice for my cultural product.

Manillas originated from bracelets and leg-bands made out of copper or bronze, in rare cases gold. The purpose of these bracelets were that they served as a type of commodity money and occasionally just a simple accessory. They were used primarily in West Africa as their currency in the fourteenth century. It wasn’t uncommon to see women wearing these bracelets or leg-bands to show off their husband’s wealth. Portuguese explorers were among the first to come into contact with this type of African currency. The Portuguese crown had manufacturers in Antwerp along with a few other places produce crescent rings with flat ends which came to be called manillas. The name manilla came from either “the Latin word for hand, manus, or the plural word for necklace, monile” (Seman). There were various suspected inspirations for the flared end of these bracelets. One of which was a raffia cloth bracelet that had a splayed end typically worn by women. As we can see Europeans were notorious for taking someone else or their idea and calling it their own even back then.

There are multiple different types of manillas produced by Europeans. They all valued differently and sellers were particular about which of ones they would accept and which ones they wouldn’t. I would be picky if you were trying to buy my people with fake or damaged money too. Being that the Portuguese government had as many as 150,000 manillas per year produced by Erasmus Schetz of Antwerp, there was ample opportunity for differentiation. They are distinguished by thickness, how large the flare to the ends were, weight, and shape. Over time they went from being large and heavy to small and light, just because of worldly evolution. “The standard manilla in the late 1520’s was approximately 240mm long, about 13mm gauge, and weighed 600 grams” (Seman). I feel like these things would have been worth a lot of money considering you can’t just carry around a pocketful of them and be okay. I imagine that they had pretty high values so that only a few had to be carried at a time. A wreck in 1524 caused a specific kind of manilla to basically go extinct. Recently some of the missing manillas were found in Guetaria Bay. They were brass with the same parameters of the standard manilla which means that they are probably Schetz products. It was recorded that the Portuguese had a falling out with their original producer in 1547 and moved their contracts to Cristoff Fugger, so the chances that the recovered manillas are Schetz are extremely high.

Once the Portuguese realized how much they could benefit in the slave trade from using manillas they took every opportunity that they could. Who wouldn’t want more slaves at this time? More slaves equals more money essentially. “The price of a slave, in manillas, varied considerably according to time, place, and the specific type of manilla offered” (Seman). Typically they sought gold but by the sixteenth century they participated in the slave trade as carriers of manillas to Africa’s interior which made the money bracelets a key currency of the trade. This introduction of money bracelets was almost like the missing piece. “The voyage consisted of taking manillas and other brass objects to West Africa, then slaves to America, and cotton back to the mills of Europe” (Seman).

As time went on these bracelets became more unprofitable. Being that slave trade was winding down in the nineteenth century, the production of manillas only seemed fit to decrease as well. Once the slaves stopped being traded as much the manillas were pointless to have. So much so that in 1948 the British undertook “operation recall” to replace the manilla with British West African currency. This is when this version of money disappeared and became irrelevant in the lives of everyone. There is little to no significance of them now besides the fact that at one time they played a major role in slavery. Typically you can’t find them unless you buy them on the internet or you are Indiana Jones or something. The reason for this is probably because we have found a more efficient way to make transactions rather than trading bracelets. Could you imagine? Seeing that the most popular shirt is worth three different kinds of manillas but you don’t have change so you just give them the one manilla that is worth the price plus more. How painful it would be to make that purchase. It just seems easier to have a paper money that can be reused and isn’t super heavy.

The only way to purchase a slave from other Europeans was through European money, but when it came to buying from Africans they had to switch it up. It was a lot easier to use the currency that the Africans used to buy slaves straight from their homeland. So why not start producing manillas? For Africans this increased the number of slaves that were purchased and taken to be put to work. Which means there are more opportunities to ruin the lives of Africans and their descendants. I know that sounds slightly biased, but essentially that is what they did every time that they purchased a slave. If manillas were not created there potentially could have been less immediate access to West African slaves, meaning slavery wouldn’t have evolved as much as it did.

During the time that manillas were first created slavery was in full swing. Africans were being sold and traded vigorously. But being that it did, slavery has a direct impact on African American lives now. In general slavery has caused African Americans to have certain stereotypes such as lazy or built for labor/athletics. There was also an abundance of racism rooted in slavery that we see now, especially in the last few years. Many African Americans now have European last names that originated during this time period. Just like with the manillas Africans were taken and given a completely different name. Slavery also took part in things such as our dependence on fictive kin, music, and various ceremonies. From small things such as the kinds of food we eat to the larger scale of why Blacks don’t thrive economically or why there is so much self-hate. In other words why there are so many unemployed people who are living off of welfare and why black people are killing each other over the most minuscule things.

Personally I believe that the production of manillas exposed Africans to a whole new level of slavery. If someone came up to me to buy my most prized possession with Canadian money I would be like “um… you’re kidding me right”. There is no way that I’m going to accept that unless they pay me a whole lot. Like what am I supposed to do with Canadian money? I would be way more accepting of a bargain if they money was the same currency that I use in my day to day life.

To tie this into what we have talked about in class I think that this could be a great example of how slavery was a business. The Europeans acquired a completely different kind of currency than they were used to just so that they could purchase more slaves. Since Africans had a whole episode of slavery going on themselves why not go feed off of another thriving business. Keep in mind that in order to do this effectively they had to provide a currency that the African slaveholders would accept. So they made manillas, purchased as many slaves as possible, and continued on with their voyage. No recognition of those slaves families or needs or desires even. It was all about the money.


Works Cited
Seman, Scott. “Manilla Money of the Slave Trade.” Scott Semans World Coins. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

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