Money A look back at African currencies

Money, one of the earliest and most significant inventions of civilisation, is essential to the development of trade.

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Written by Isaac Khaguli Esipisu

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

In pre-colonial times African currencies included shells, ingots, gold, arrowheads, iron, salt, goats, blankets, axes, beads and many others.

On its website, Historyworld.net notes that during the colonial times the respective colonial powers introduced their own currencies to their colonies or produced local versions of their own currencies. 

The National Museum of African Art in Washington DC notes on their website say that in our world today, currency 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.

According to the Museum, throughout Africa's past, many objects have served as money - salt, shells, beads, metal, indigenous coins, European coins, jewellery, woven cloth, weapons and tools.

But according to historyworld.net the earliest currency used in commercial transactions appears in Egypt and Mesopotamia by the third millennium BC.

It consisted of gold bars which needed to be weighed to establish their worth each time they were exchanged. Later they were supplemented by gold rings for smaller sums.

“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,” notes the National Museum of Africa Art.

The Museum says that 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.

Here are a few examples of ancient barter objects provided by the National Museum of African Art:

Cowrie shells

These shells were 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 Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean, these polished, olive-sized shells served for small everyday transactions and, gathered together in the millions, for bride wealth and other major purchases and gifts.

Cloth strips and raffia mats

Another widely used common currency was woven goods. Two types were used—the cotton woven strip roll and the raffia mat or bundles. Strip cloth known among Nigerians as gabangawas often plain and undyed.

Copper wires, rings and rods

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.

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 together 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."

Manilas

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.

Katanga Crosses

Few sites in Africa yielded as large a supply of copper ore as the Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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 1400 A.D. two distinctive types had developed.

Bridewealth Blades

The institution of bride wealth 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.

Jewelry

The currencies with the most obvious artistic values are the various bracelets, collars and earrings crafted from gold and silver.

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 the empress Maria Theresa and went out of use there in 1854.

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