September 2021

Metal money, First Nations history

I live on Norfolk Beach on Coochiemudlo Island in Southern Moreton Bay. Last year I found on the beach a metal object that is either bronze / brass or copper. It has some growth on it and looks as if it had been in the ocean for a long time.

Recently I saw a documentary on West African enslaved people which showed very similar objects called “Manilla" which were used as currency in the trade of human beings.

I am intrigued as to how this came to be on our local beach.


Great find! It certainly looks like a manilla. Manillas were noted as currency in western Africa by Portugese explorers as early as the 1400’s. The relative cheapness of copper in Europe prompted Europeans to start manufacturing manillas for a trade system which also saw weapons, textiles and other manufactured goods coming from Europe in exchange for African ivory, furs, timber and ultimately, slaves. It is often stated that a manilla was worth one enslaved person but this is incorrect. As with all commodities at the time, the price of human beings were subject to market fluctuations caused by supply, demand and inflation, and even early in the trade, prices were usually in tens of manillas.

The transatlantic trade of human beings that supplied demands for cheap labour on the sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations of the Americas and the Indies in the 16th to the 19th centuries resulted in many millions of Africans being abducted, sold and transported against their will. The estimates of the numbers of enslaved people vary between 10 and 20 million. During this period tens of millions of manillas were manufactured in Europe and traded.

After the abolition of this form of human trade in the mid 1800’s, manillas remained in use as currency in the lucrative palm oil trade. There were so many in the 1940’s that English authorities in West Africa bought over 32 000 000 manillas from the locals in order to recycle the copper!

The big question is how did it get here?

Metals of all types were highly desirable trade items in Polynesia, New Zealand, New Guinea and Australia as they were only obtainable from foreign, usually European or Indonesian, contact. It is likely that some ships carried manillas as trade goods or gifts to indigenous peoples in the 1800’s.  It is certainly possible that Matthew Flinders carried some as gifts on the Norfolk, as he had caps, cloth and other unnamed goods on board for that purpose. While he did land on Norfolk Beach at Coochiemudlo he did not encounter any of the local Quandamooka People on the island, though he could see evidence of recent camp fires.

We are leaving this enquiry open and would love to hear from anyone who might help solve this mystery!

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