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Copper Manilla Bracelets

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Artifact Description

Nine horseshoe-shaped copper artifacts known as manillas – a non-monetary form of currency – were recovered from the southern half of site 35F. All are uniform in shape and size from 8.6-9.0cm long, 6.8-7.1cm wide, 0.8-1.0cm thick and feature flared terminals averaging 1.9 x 1.9cm in width.  

The word manilla is of Latin derivation (manus, hand, or monilia, necklace or neckring) undoubtedly transferred into usage via Portuguese merchants. According to legend, they were originally cast from copper hull-fastening bolts removed from ships wrecked on the West African coast. These uniquely shaped objects remained highly uniform between the 16th and 20th centuries and are thus not useful indicators of site 35F’s chronology.

Manillas were not used consistently across West Africa, but competed with tribes’ localized preferences for cowrie shells shipped from India to Western Europe from the Maldive islands, copper rods and iron bars. For example, in Southern Nigeria c. 1450-1560 the Portuguese bartered with brass manillas on the Slave Coast, brass and copper manillas along the Western Delta, and copper manillas on the Eastern Delta. But by the late 17th/early 18th century, cowries and iron bars prevailed along the Slave Coast and cowries on the Western Delta, while copper manillas and iron bars were only preferred along the Eastern Delta and copper rods at the Cross River.

West African exchange demanded and consumed enormous quantities of this form of currency. As early as 1504-07, a single trading station along the Guinea coast imported 287,813 manillas from Portugal. In 1505 a Portuguese merchant reported that at Calabar a large elephant tooth could be exchanged for one manilla and a slave purchased for 8-10 copper manillas.

The origins of the manillas’ copper and place of manufacture between the 16th and 17th centuries remain undetermined. However, by the end of the 18th century European merchants were mass-producing the currency predominantly in England, but also in France and the Netherlands. Manillas remained popular into the 19th century and were known to have been manufactured in Birmingham, England. As late as 1858, they were observed in use in Equatorial Guinea, and by the Ibo of Nigeria in more recent times. At Wukai, a deep bowl filled with corn was considered equal in value to one large manilla.

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