“Brasse Bracelts” from “Our Native Country”: The West Africa Trade and the Beginnings of English Manilla Manufacture
In 1620 English merchant Richard Jobson made a journey up the River Gambia, in West Africa, in search of trading opportunities. During one of his many encounters with the inhabitants of the region, Jobson recorded seeing a woman wearing “a pair of brasse bracelts” that “did appeare to me, to be such as might very well be brought in their beginnings, either from London, or some other part of our native Country.”
The idea that English trade goods might be present in early 17th-century West Africa is hardly surprising, since by this point in time English trade with the region was well established. What is unexpected about Jobson’s account is his willingness to identify the bracelets he encountered along the River Gambia as probably of English origin. European made brass or copper bracelets had been a mainstay of trade with Africa since the 15th century. These bracelets generally are called by the Anglicized Portuguese name of “manillas.” While there is good evidence that manillas were being made in England during the 18th and 19th centuries, most scholars have assumed that early manillas are Portuguese products.
In 2007 the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation mounted a major international exhibition called “The World of 1607” in honor of Jamestown’s 400th anniversary. One of the items borrowed for this exhibition was an artifact recovered on the site of the Birdall foundry in Exeter, England, in 1984. This artifact, now in the collection of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, appeared to be a mold for making manillas. The Birdall foundry where the mold was recovered went out of business by 1625, so any object produced from the mold had to date to the Jamestown era or earlier.The historical record indicates that early English trade with Africa wasn’t highly organized, and until the discovery of the Exeter mold scholars had no compelling evidence that the trade involved special products made in England exclusively for the African market. So far as they knew, the English trade goods reaching Africa in the early 17th century were things like cloth or household utensils that were no different from the things that English manufacturers were producing for sale at home or in Europe. English traders certainly used manillas when trading in Africa even in the 16th century, but no one knew that they might be English products at such an early date.
While the Exeter mold was on exhibit at Jamestown Settlement, the curatorial staff here had an opportunity to compare that mold with a number of examples of manillas that are in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s own artifact collection. Because manillas were so important to the African trade, the Foundation already had acquired a number of them for exhibit in the “From Africa to Virginia” theater in the Jamestown Settlement galleries. As it turned out, none of the manillas in the Foundation’s collection were large enough or of the right shape to have been produced in the Exeter mold.Since then, additional research eventually turned up a single example of a manilla from a private collection that must have been cast in a mold that was almost identical to the Exeter mold. Furthermore, this manilla belonged to a recognized stylistic category of manillas that are known as “Mkporo” manillas in Africa. Mkporo manillas are very rare even in Africa, and no one knows very much about them. Because Mkporo manillas are so rare, and because they are so different in size from most other manillas, most people assumed that they represented a very early type, but nobody knew for sure. Now we can say with some confidence that Mkporo manillas are of 16th or early 17th century date, and that at least some of them were made in England.
The story of the Exeter manilla mold illustrates that museum exhibits can be important research tools as well as vehicles for public education. Because new sets of eyes got to see this important artifact when it was here in Virginia for “The World of 1607” exhibition, new things were learned about it, and an important but little-known aspect of early English overseas trade can now be better understood. In the light of this new knowledge, Richard Jobson’s speculations about the brass bracelets he saw in West Africa in 1620 make much better sense. Jobson, like ourselves, lived in a world where international trade was a fact of life, and where a traveler in a foreign land should never be surprised to see something from his “native Country.”
By Thomas E. Davidson, Ph.D.
Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Senior Curator