MANILLAS, Arm- and Ankle-Rings used as Currency in Westafrica
Group of various old Manillas made of copper and brass cast
Two heavy wedding Manillas made of copper

Manillas belonged to the most essential means of payment in West Africa. Their use extended from the whole Guinea Coast up to the Kongo Areas. First used in the kingdom of BENIN spreading to CALABAR and further into the inland regions. From the 16th century Manillas were the most essential currency form in Nigeria until abolition 1949 by the English colonial government.

Origin of Manillas:

About the true origin of Manillas there are some of assumptions. Some authors are of the opinion that Manillas were brought by Phoenician sailors to West Africa. Others are thinking that the local aboriginals have used the metal bolts of wrecked ships to made manillas. According to a third version coast-dwellers found bronze rings in a wreck which they showed to the Portugueses with the request to obtain them. At the moment, the question whether Manillas, or a sort of Manillas were known before arrival of the Europeans is not answered yet. Fact is, that the import of Manillas by the Portugueses and later followed by the Dutch- and English people, the manillas met with a high acceptance by the native population.

Distribution by European trader:

Already with beginning of the 16th century A.D. the Portugueses started to send therefore large quantities of Manillas to West Africa.

Via the trade station of San JORGE da MINA between 1504 and 1507, already 287.813 pieces were imported.

At the business with the Manillas even the FUGGER were involved. Since middle of the 16th century they took over a large part of the Manilla market. After a notarial act from the year 1548, they obliged themselves, next to other use objects of metal, to deliver thousands of brass clasps or, MANILHAS De LATAM, to the Portuguese king. After the Portugueses the Dutchman and finally Englishman took over the business with the Guinea Coast. Since the 18th century they also produced large quantities of Manillas in England and delivered them to the west African coast.

Market value of the Manillas:

The European traders used Manillas primarily in the exchange against pepper, ivory, gold and palm products, but mainly to obtain slaves. According to sources from the time around 1500 you got for one arm ring (Manilla), one ivory tusk and for 12 to 15 pieces, one slave. Because of this narrow connection to the slave trade, they were oftly described also as "Slave Money". After the abolition of the slave trade, the Manillas served primarily to aquire palm oil. Beside their function as means of payment Manillas also were used in ceremonial causes for one beat them rythmic together. Beyond this they were component of the bride price and functioned as grave gifts. In addition, Manillas were also used for the production of jewellery and used as raw material for the early BENIN bronze casts. A frequent representation on these BENIN bronze plates shows europeans with Manillas. These motives are already appearing in the 16th century.

Different Manilla types:

The name MANILHA (Manilla) dates from the portuguese language and its meaning is MAHO = hand and ANILHO = ring. However, this name was used only in the trading between Europeans and local people. There were many kinds of Manillas which the local peoples distinguished after size, form and ornamentation. The arm- and ankle rings were manufactured of different metals, mainly however of brass or from a mixture been different metals, later also from iron. However not all which looked like a Manilla, was accepted for a Manilla by the local people. The Englishmen for example tried to import Manillas from cast iron. But because they did not sound if beat against each other, they were not accepted by the local people. As well the surface roughness at the ends, which were regarded as lack from production technical view, were not allowed to be filed away.

The average weight of the Manillas was 500 to 1000 grams. But there were both, lightens of 100 to 200 grams but also heavier up to 4 kg and more.

Which Manilla was allowed to be named as a "true" Money Manilla, or whether they may be carried only as jewellery, about this there are divergent views under experts. In general, we can assume that there wasn't a fixed limit between the function as jewellery and its means of payment.

Just the same is the assessment of the Manillas under each other. Form, use, as well as the value, were depending primarily on regional features.

Over centuries, Manillas were relative stable in value and not subject of value fluctuations. But the later introduction of the colonial currency system, which was parallel exsisting to the Manillas, led to seasonal fluctuations and later to considerable value losses. At the end Manillas were only accepted as means of payment due to their metal value.

The end of the "Manilla Money"

The English currency system side by side with the Manillas, the trade companies made use of the price fluctuations of the Manillas for speculations. For example, the traditional Manilla payment was bought and hoarded April till July after the palm oil harvest at sinking value, in a case in OPOBO up to 3 to 4 million pieces-, during the harvest season the increased need for Manillen then led to a higher prices. 108 Manillen cost an English pound in January, in July one however only received 103 pieces for the same amount.

Imagining with which order magnitude the business houses were working, the enormous profit margin gets clear.

On April first, 1949, Manillas were forbidden in Nigeria. Every family was allowed to keep 200 Manillen only for ceremonial purposes, the rest one had to exchange for English money at the government within a particular time. 32.5 million piece were given back, which the colonial government cost them 400.000 pounds at that time.

"elkiss", heavy arm rings made of highly solid silver from the Tuareg people, used as article of value and bride price.
Typical Manilla made in Birmingham U.K., dating from the 18th century A.D. African soil find.

Heavy cast brass Manilla / Armring with two dodecahedron ends, partial inserted with copper strips. Area of Mali-Niger, worn by the Tuareg women, mainly around Agadez.

"khalakahl", moorish ankle ring made of solid silver, used as article of value and bride price.
2 Senufo ankle rings made from brass cast, the upper one strongly worn off. These were only worn by women. About in the middle, 2 children arm rings with zoomorphic applications.
Arm-ankle rings with bells from the Senufo people. To be worn mainly by medicinemen but also by musicians, children and youths during dancing.

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