Money and Exchange in West Africa
The objects in this collection, from the crescent-shaped manilla to the colorful banknotes, formed part of West Africa’s vibrant and varied monetary system in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each object has its own story about when and how it was used. A person shopping in a market in Accra, Ghana in the 1980s, for example, might have received the 1 cedi coin below as change from a small transaction. In the Akan language, the word “cedi” means cowrie shell, a currency which a person shopping in the same market a century earlier might have used. Like the 1 cedi coin, cowrie shells were used to make small purchases. Symbolically, the image of a cowrie shell appears on the coin. Not far from Accra, in the old Asante city of Kumasi, the figurative gold weights pictured here would have been used around the same time to measure gold dust for transactions ranging from significant market purchases to judicial fines.
How did West Africa move from a monetary system based on objects like manillas, gold dust, and cowrie shells to one based on notes and coins? It was once popular to attribute this change to the colonization of West Africa by European governments in the nineteenth century. According to this story, colonial governments wanted to impose their own “modern” currencies on West African economies to make it easier for merchants and colonial authorities to do business between the colony and Europe. From recent historical research on West African currencies and their uses, we now know the story is not that simple. Colonial governments did introduce new currency systems with European forms of money, but they were not immediately or universally adopted by Africans in the way that colonial governments intended.
After the end of the colonial period, some countries like Ghana and Nigeria, issued their own currencies as an expression of national sovereignty. Other new countries, such as Senegal and the Ivory Coast, focused instead on building or maintaining monetary unions with shared currencies in order to reinforce links between their economies. Some of these post-colonial coins and banknotes depict pre-colonial currencies, like the cowrie on the Ghanaian cedi coin or the Kissi penny on the Liberian dollar.
The history of West African money from the nineteenth century onwards reflects the history of economic, political, and social change in the region over that same period. This collection uses objects from the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection to tell that history, linking to broader questions about the nature and uses of money, the ways in which economic change can influence how money is used, and the relationship between money and political sovereignty.
Below is a list of suggested readings on West African money and exchange. To see all of the West African currency objects in the National Numismatic Collection, click here. Please feel free to reach out to Dr. Leigh Gardner or Dr. Ellen Feingold with questions or feedback.
Gardner, Leigh A. “From Cowries to Mobile Phones: African Monetary Systems Since 1800.” In The History of African Development: An Online Textbook for a New Generation of African Students and Teachers, edited by Ewout Frankema, Ellen Hillbom, Ushehwedu Kufakurinani, and Felix Meier zu Selhausen. African Economic History Network (2018): https://www.aehnetwork.org/textbook/from-cowries-to-mobile-phones-african-monetary-systems-since-1800/
Guyer, J. and Karin Pallaver. "Money and Currency in African History.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History (2018): https://oxfordre.com/africanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190277734.001.0001/acrefore-9780190277734-e-144
Arhin, Kwame. “Monetization in the Asante State.” In Money Matters: Instability, Values and Social Payments in the Modern History of West African Communities, edited by Jane I. Guyer, 97-110. London: James Currey, 1995.
Herbert, Eugenia W. Red Gold of Africa: Copper in Precolonial History and Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
Hogendorn, Jan S., and Marion Johnson. The Shell Money of the Slave Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Colonial currency systems and African responses:
Feingold, Ellen R. "International Currency Counterfeiting Schemes in Interwar West Africa." Journal of West African History 3, no. 1 (2017): 77-101.
Gardner, Leigh A. “The Curious Incident of the Franc in the Gambia.” Financial History Review 22, no. 3 (2015): 291-314.
Gardner, Leigh A. "The Rise and Decline of Sterling in Liberia.” Economic History Review 64, no. 4 (2014): 1089-1112.
Guyer, Jane I. “Introduction: The Currency Interface and its Dynamics.” In Money Matters: Instability, Values and Social Payments in the Modern History of West African Communities, edited by Jane I. Guyer, 1-34. (London: James Currey, 1995).
Helleiner, Eric. “The Monetary Dimensions of Colonialism: Why Did Imperial Powers Create Currency Blocs?” Geopolitics 7, no. 1 (2002): 5-30.
Hogendorn, Jan S., and Henry A. Gemery. “Continuity in West African Monetary History? An Outline of Monetary Development.” African Economic History 17 (1988): 127-146.
Hopkins, A.G. “The Currency Revolution in South-West Nigeria in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 3, no. 3 (1966): 471-483.
Saul, Mahir. “Money in Colonial Transition: Cowries and Francs in West Africa.” American Anthropologist 106, no. 1 (2004): 71-84.
Money and national independence:
Schenk, Catherine R. “Monetary Institutions in Newly Independent Countries: The Experience of Malaya, Ghana, and Nigeria in the 1950s.” Financial History Review 4, no. 2 (1997): 181-198.
Stasavage, David. The Political Economy of a Common Currency: the CFA Franc Zone Since 1945. Aldershot: Ashgate (2003).
Uche, Chibuike U. “Bank of England vs. the IBRD: Did the Nigerian Colony Deserve a Central Bank?” Explorations in Economic History 34 (1997): 220-241.Read More »