The golden guinea

IT USED TO BE THE CASE that, amongst other things, fancy goods and professional services were priced in Guineas, rather than Pounds Sterling. A Guinea was worth twenty-one shillings. That was, before decimalisation, one Pound and one Shilling (£1.05 after monetary decimalisation occurred on the 15th of February in 1971). Although I was fully aware of the nature and value of one Guinea, I had never given its name a thought until 2023, when we went to an exhibition in the Bank of England’s fascinating museum. The exhibition was about the Bank and its various diverse connections with the slave trade.

One exhibit was dedicated to the Guinea. The first Guinea coin was minted in 1663. Its name derived from the West African Guinea Coast, which was an important centre for the British export of African slaves. It was also a place to obtain gold that had been mined by local Akan miners working in the forests of what is now Ghana, but was the British colony called “The Gold Coast”. Some of this gold used to be obtained by the Royal African Company and transported to London.

So much for the origin of the name of the unit of currency. And now for something I knew already, but have always found fascinating. My father had a book in his study – “The Golden Trade of the Moors” by EW Bovill (published in 1961). In this interesting, scholarly book the author described an important trade between the ‘Moors’ of North Africa and the miners in what is now Ghana and nearby parts of tropical Africa. The North Africans mined salt (NaCl) from beneath the surface of the Sahara Desert. At the same time, Africans were digging up gold in the tropical forest of West Africa. However, there was a severe lack of available salt in the places where the gold was being harvested. Long before the British became involved with Africa, North Africans used to transport salt southward across the desert to the tropical forests where gold was being produced. So valuable was the salt to the gold miners and their families that the only thing that they would accept in exchange for gold was the salt carried from North Africa. Salt, an essential for life, was literally worth at least its weight in gold.

Sadly, after Europeans began their involvement with Africa, gold was not the only valuable commodity that could be obtained from there. For several centuries, another major export was human beings: slaves to work in lands across the Atlantic from Africa. The exhibition at the Bank reveals that many of its personnel were involved in the slave trade, but not all. Some were active in the movement to abolish the slave trade. It is a well designed exhibition and most interesting.

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