Old iron currency, Kwele, Gabon / Congo


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Old iron currency (Mandjong), Kwele, Gabon / Congo

Material: iron
Condition: nice rusty patina, small part missing, no stand
Dimensions: 49 cm x 42 cm
Supposed age: late XIXth century – early XXth century


Ancient texts mention the use of iron currencies in East Africa as early as the first millennium AD in Ethiopia. Copper currencies circulated in West Africa in the 2nd millennium AD. In the Akan world (Ghana), iron currenciess were in use before gold powder, as O. Dapper in 1686. These were small iron rods that were used mainly for small transactions. They were less valuable than copper.
With the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, European iron entered West Africa in the form of bars, and became so important that by the 17th century, on the Senegalese coast, the iron bar or barriferri had become the unit against which goods were valued. The English explorer Mungo Park remarked in 1796 about the inhabitants of the Gambia: “It was mainly iron that attracted their attention. Its usefulness in making weapons and tools for crops makes it superior to all other metals. One slave was worth 150 bars.
In the 19th century, other iron rods circulated in West Africa in various forms, such as guinze or sompe. They “consist of an elongated body, the lower part of which is flattened by hammering, and an upper part consisting of a strip of iron added hot and hammered”.
In Chad, some currencies had a crescent shape, while among the Kota (Gabon, Congo) they were simply more or less heavy masses of iron.
In Central Africa, the shapes were different, they were hoes, single or double bells, arrowheads and even hairpins. J. Rivallain, to whom we owe most of the details given above, notes again: “Hair was used for storage, as a purse, for people moving around with very little clothing. The pins, stuck in the hair, were unlikely to get lost”. Among the Zande, only women used them as currencies. For the most important transactions, such as marriage or buying land, weapons were used for payments. Some of them were modified in shape or size. Fighting weapons were replaced by prestige weapons and then by money weapons. Freed from functional requirements (handling, resistance), these weapons can often appear as works of art in the eyes of Westerners.
The starting point is often the arrowhead. Thus, among the Ngbaka of Oubangui, enlarged and supplemented by small additional “wings”, it had the value of a currency used in matrimonial compensation.
The spear or javelin point, among the Topoke of Zaire, gave rise to another currency remarkable for its size, which equalled that of a man.
Among the Kwele of Gabon, a currency with an elegant silhouette is derived, not as one might think, from the arrowhead, but rather, according to S. Vogel, hoe iron became a remarkable work of art.
The traditional multi-bladed throwing knife has also given rise to shapes for trade that are totally unsuitable for fighting. This is the case of the oshele of the Dengese (Zaire). A badge of authority, it remains, even today, associated in the popular mentality with mysterious and occult powers. Jan Elsen points out that it can be used after a murder to pay the price of blood. It would also have had the value of a talisman, capable of cutting off the enemy if it was placed on the edge of the village.
Among the Mbugbu of the Central African Republic, finally, throwing knives often had rounded ends. We find them, enlarged, in the evolved version that served as currency.

Excerpt from: Meyer, Laure. Metal Arts in Black Africa. Editions Sépia, Saint-Maur, 1994.