The Bracelet Money Of West Africa, Okpoho (Southern Nigeria, 1801-1948)-Article

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

This horseshoe-shaped bracelet is a Okpoho (Efik for Money). A type special trade currency once used in West Africa. The Okpoho dates to the late phase of the English slave trade, beginning in 1800. Although Okpoho have the distinction of remaining in circulation into the late 1940s. They are most commonly made from cast brass, although some bronze example exist. While most Okpoho vary in overall size and weight. They roughly average between 57-62mm (2.24-2.44 in) wide, with a weigh of 65-85g (0.14-0.19 lb).


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A Brief Guide To West African Manilas

Manillas (Portuguese for bracelet) were a pre-colonial West African universal currency. Said to originated from the trade port of Akwa Akpa (Calabar), the powerful city-state of the Efik people. Their design was based on the prestigious copper (known as red gold) torques worn by West African kings and affluent elders/traders. Although can be made of other metals, such as bronze and brass.


Overall "manillas" were known locally by various names and types, based on the languages and customs of each particular people. Value was judge by weight and the sounds made when struck by an iron rod. As some traders and ports were keen on the quality of "manillas" they accepted. Wearability was particularly considered, ownership of many was a sign of affluence. As married men would display their wealth, through their wives. Leading to less affluent women to imitate a distinct walk/movements, to appear weighed down.


In everyday use "manillas" were used for purchasing goods at the local marketplace. Change for small purchases was given in the form of polished cowrie shells, taken from the East African coast. In addition to being used as payment for taxes, fines, and marriage payment. As man was expected to posses a certain degree of wealth prior to marriage. Similarly "manillas" were used as burial money, to pay tribute to the ancestral spirits.


In the 1500s, Portuguese Empire began trading "manillas" for slaves. Beginning the notorious Atlantic slave trade to the Americas. Leading to the Portuguese to begin producing their own "manillas" to monopolize the market. Little is known of these Portuguese made "manillas", although some account report some were refused on poor quality. According to the Portuguese, a slave could be purchased for 8-10 copper "manillas" during this period. While a young female were considerably more expensive, at 50 brass "manillas". The Portuguese monopoly was later broken by French, then the English.


The English monopoly period can be divided into 3 distinct eras, based on their dominate styles. Which become increasingly smaller, the closer one get's to the abolishment of slavery. Despite becoming associated with the slave trade, "manillas" remained in use long after its abolishment. These late variants called Okpoho (Efik for "money") circulated until 1948. When the British instituted "Operation Manilla", in an effort to replace them with the British West African Pound.


Even after "manillas" were replaced by coins and banknotes. They continue to have a symbolic value in modern West African culture. Many were melted down by local craftsmen to produce artwork, in their towns and villages. In Benin some women wear large large "manillas" around their necks at funerals. Which are later laid down at a family shine, to pay respect to the ancestors. Although the more modest practice of hanging a "manillas" over a grave is more common.





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