One of the most enduring of the primitive metallic currencies was the manilla currency of West Africa. Manilla currency took the form of copper or brass anklets, bracelets, or front sections of necklaces. This currency served a dual purpose, acting both as articles of personal adornment and as currency that could be effortlessly carried. Nigeria and the areas along the Bay of Guinea made widespread use of manilla currency into the post–World War II era.
The use of manilla currency stretches back into the mists of history, with no sure origin. Some accounts credit the Phoenicians, famous Mediterranean traders and navigators before the ascendancy of the Greeks and Romans. Metallic bracelets were their favorite medium of exchange, and their ships traveled from Ireland to the coast of West Africa. The Phoenician bracelets may have been the origin of manilla currency, putting the beginning of manilla currency around the eighth or ninth century b.c. The manilla currency also resembles some ornaments worn by the ancient Celts, which may also have had a Phoenician origin.
Another theory of the origin of manilla currency points to the bolts, clamps, and other metal devices from shipwrecked Portuguese vessels. These salvaged pieces seemed to hold a special charm for the natives along the Guinea coast. The Portuguese explored the western coast of Africa during the fifteenth century and used manilla currency to trade with the natives. From 1504 to 1507 Portugal sent 287,813 manillas to just one trading station on the Guinea coast. A slave cost between 8 and 10 manillas, and 1 manilla could purchase a big elephant tooth.
The linguistic origin of the term manilla may be traceable to a mixture of Phoenician and Irish words. A more likely possibility is that the word manilla stems from the Spanish and Portuguese words for “little hand” (from the Latin manus).
As early as 1902 the British government took steps to phase out the use of manilla currency. Outsiders trading with Nigeria continued to find it necessary to trade in manilla currency until 1949, when manilla currency was officially withdrawn from circulation. The official close to the era of manilla currency was later celebrated with the issuance of special postal stamps.