Copper was the “red gold” of Africa and had been both mined there and traded across the Sahara by Italian and Arab merchants. The early Portuguese explorers of the 1470s observed that copper bracelets and legbands were the principal money all along the west African coast. They were usually worn by women to display their husband’s wealth. The Portuguese crown contracted with manufacturers in Antwerp and elsewhere to produce crescent rings with flared ends of wearable size which came to be called “manilla,” after the Latin manus (hand) or from monilia, plural of monile (necklace).
Although Gold was the primary and abiding merchandise sought by the Portuguese, by the early 16th century they were participating in the slave trade for bearers to carry manillas to Africa’s interior, and gradually Manillas became the principal money of this trade. By the end of the 1500s the Portuguese had been shouldered aside by the British, French, and Dutch, all of whom had labor-intensive plantations in the West Indies, and later by the Americans whose southern states were tied to a cotton economy . A typical voyage took manillas and utilitarian brass objects such as pans and basins to West Africa, then slaves to America, and cotton back to the mills of Europe.
The Africans of each region had names for each variety of manilla, probably varying locally. They valued them differently, and were notoriously particular about the types they would accept. The price of a slave, expressed in manillas, varied considerably according to time, place, and the specific type of manilla offered. Internally, manillas were the first true general-purpose currency known in west Africa, being used for ordinary market purchases, bride price, payment of fines, compensation of diviners, and for the needs of the next world, as burial money. Cowrie shells, imported from Melanesia and valued at a small fraction of a manilla, were used for small purchases. In regions outside coastal west Africa and the Niger river a variety of other currencies, such as bracelets of more complex native design, iron units often derived from tools, copper rods, themselves often bent into bracelets, and the well-known Handa (Katanga cross) all served as special-purpose monies.