Object biographies

Eric Edwards, Balfour Library, Pitt Rivers Museum

On the lower gallery, in Case 75.A, Ornaments Used as Currency Objects, is an object known as a manilla (1884.99.42). Part of the Pitt Rivers' founding collection, this manilla was salvaged from a shipwreck off the coast off Cork, Ireland, in 1836. General Pitt Rivers was stationed in the army in Ireland some thirty years later, from 1862 to 1866, when he probably obtained the object. Donated in 1884, it was originally displayed at Bethnal Green Museum in London. Made in Birmingham, this manilla was one of a quantity on a ship bound for New Calabar (Nigeria) where they were to be traded for palm oil and ivory. The old Pitt Rivers Museum label said that these manillas were to be traded in Ibo country, West Africa.

Manillas (which were a traditional African exchange medium) were originally metal bracelets or armlets. Later forms were made of copper, bronze, or brass open rings (penannular or almost ring-like), often horse-shoe shaped with enlarged finial terminations. The term is derived from the Spanish for bracelet or manella or the Portuguese for hand-ring (Rees 2000). The origin is from the Latin manus (hand) or monilia, or monile the plural for necklace. The universal name for manillas, which are an ancient form of money or barter coinage, is Okpoho.  Manillas originated at Calabar and the word 'okpoko' is the Calabar, Efik, Annang, and Ibibio term for money or brass.

During the 1470s Portuguese explorers became aware that, all along the west coast of Africa, copper bracelets and leg-bands were a means of exchange. Copper, regarded as the ‘red gold’ of Africa, was mined and then traded across the Sahara by merchants from Italy and Arabia. This ‘red gold’ was seen always as the primary metal for exchange and value judgements (Herbert, 1984), whereas gold was regarded by Africans for purposes of adornment and the export trade. For internal purposes one of the oldest, and original general-purpose currencies, was the copper or bronze manilla, and were known at Calabar in 1505. By 1859 manillas were reported on the Benin River and again seen in Calabar in 1688. (Einzig, 1949). These early Portuguese traders bought tusks of ivory, peppers, and slaves by exchanging currency 'bracelets' acceptable to the Africans (Rees, 2000). Eventually manillas became known as slave trade money after they were used by Europeans to acquire slaves. The slave trade in question was that to England and the Americas prior to 1807. Furthermore, Dutch traders “…bought slaves against payment in rough grey copper armlets which had to be very well made, otherwise the natives rejected them by the hundred.” (Meek, 1937). A slave cost about 12 to 15 brass manillas in the 1490s but correspondingly less if they were of copper (Rees, 2000). With inflation a female slave aged 16 in Benin cost between about 50 manillas in 1522. Indeed, smaller pattern Popo Manillas, which were too small to wear as bracelets, were manufactured in Birmingham solely for the slave trade.

The earliest use of manillas was in West Africa. As a means of exchange they originated in Calabar.  Calabar was the chief city of the ancient southeast Nigerian coastal kingdom of that name. It was here in 1505 that a slave could be bought for 8-10 manillas, and an elephant’s tooth for one copper manila (Einzig, 1949; Talbot, 1926). Manillas were noted by voyagers and traders on the Benin River in 1589 and at Calabar in 1688. African names for manillas varied according to local customs. The Mkporo was probably a British or Dutch origin manila but a Popo was French. The British Consul to Fernando Po (1856) delineated 5 different manilla types used in Nigeria (Einzig, 1949). There was the Antony Manilla which was valued in interior markets; the ‘bottle necked’ Congo Singolo which was valued only in the market at Opungo; the Onadoo was best for trade in the Kingdom of Calabar, and also in Igbo country between New Kalahari and Bonny; worth half the value of an Antony the Finniman Fawfinna was acceptable in Qua market as well as Julu Town; finally other patterns of manilla represent types evolving at their point of manufacture in Birmingham, England. The Ibos of Nigeria and the Guineans still used manillas as currency in the nineteenth century (Talbot, 1926) (Einzig, 1949).

By the early sixteenth century the Portuguese were actively engaged in the slave trade. Evidence shows that manilas were carried by bearers into the African interior. Eventually the Portuguese lost their monopoly to the English, French and Dutch – all of whom possessed labour intensive plantations in the Caribbean and eventually the Americas. Utilitarian brass manilas were transported from Europe, mainly England, to West Africa. Manillas were then exchanged for slaves who were then transported to the Americas and the West Indies. The final leg of the triangle saw American cotton shipped to Europe. Manillas eventually became the main currency underpinning the slave trade, but the price “… of a slave expressed in manillas varied considerably according to time, place, and the specific type of manila offered.” (Rees, 2000). In 1788 a Thomas Williams (1737-1802), the so-called ‘Copper King’ from Angelsey, and his partners “…declared that the slave trade in particular had led them to invest heavily in the copper industry.” (Herbert, 1984; Harris, 2003).

The Nigerian manillas in the African manilla trade have been described as “…an open bracelet in the form of a horseshoe with lozenge shaped ends, measuring about 2 ¼ inches across and weighing about 3 ounces.” (Herbert, 1984). They are the latest and the smallest pattern manilla and worth, prior to their withdrawal in 1949, three English pence or 20-25 centimes. Bristol, in the early 18th century, was a centre for the copper industry. An important manufacturer was R & W. King who were eventually absorbed by the later United Africa Company. After this period the most significant city manufacturing brass wares in Europe was Birmingham. Most patterns of manilla were made in Birmingham, including the middle period Nkobukob-Onoudu and the lighter in weight late pattern types. Pieces exported from Birmingham in 1836 appear to be of the smaller type – compared to the heavier Portuguese type of the 16th century. A later type was the Okpoho which is the Efik word for brass. Many Okpoho manillas were salvaged from the wreck of the slave ship Douro off the Isles of Scilly in 1843 (Receiver of Wrecks, 2003).

In the 1690s a series of fortuitous developments in the brass industry of Britain improved production. This eventually gave British manufacturers the edge in the brass trade in Africa. This led to the development of the crescent-shaped and flared ended brass piece known as the Birmingham manilla. These were well made and weighed about 90 grams though a larger pattern was about 300 grams. The trade in copper became enmeshed in the slave trade when Birmingham developed into a centre for finished brass wares. In 1767 a factory in Warrington was manufacturing manillas, in 1767 a Warmly company stocked listed its Guinea manillas, and the Cheadle Brass Wire Company opened its Manilla House and Assay Office in 1790 (Herbert, 1984).

Bracelets and manillas were being replaced by western currencies by the end of the 19th century.  Bristol established an important role in African commerce after 1807 in the palm oil trade. Manillas of various types were traded for oil instead of slaves.  Of interest here is the fact that the Pitt Rivers Museum's manilla on display was for exchange in the palm oil trade. Whatever this manilla had been traded for, prior to its loss in a Cork shipwreck in 1836, it became an item of currency for the African palm oil trade. The Pitt Rivers manilla was not therefore associated with slavery when he collected it.

January 29th, 2010.


Bowden, M.  Pitt Rivers...  CUP, Cambridge. (1991).
Einzig, P.  Primitive Money, in its ethnological, historical and economic aspects.  Eyre & Spottiswoode, London (1949).
Harris, J. R.  The Copper King: Thomas Williams of Llanidan. Ashbourne, (2003 2nd ed).
Herbert, E. W.  Red Gold of Africa.  University of Wisconsin Press. (1984)
Lynn, M.  'Bristol, West Africa and the Nineteenth-Century Palm Oil Trade'.  Historical Research, 64 (155), 359-374.  12.10.2007.
Meek, C. K.  Law and Authority in a Nigerian Tribe.  p.5. London (1937).
Receiver of Wrecks.  Annual report, (2003).
Rees, A.  'Manillas'.  Coin News, 46-47, April 2000.
Talbot, P. A.  The peoples of Southern Nigeria.  Volume 1.   London (1926).
Williams, E.  Capitalism and Slavery.  83-84.  Chapel Hill. (1944).

prm logo