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As Lições de Jill Dias

Maria Cardeira da Silva
Clara Saraiva

História com antropologia

The ambivalence of promoting a humanitarian value (About a penny token commemorating in Arabic the Slave Trade Abolition Act of 1807)

Adel Y. Sidarus

Texte intégral

  • 1 The piece was acquired at the beginning of the year 2000, at a coin fair in Lisbon. Both author and (...)

1Among the coins to be found in the private collection of Maria Cristina Neto (Lisbon) there is a bronze medal with a bilingual English and Arabic legend, which commemorates the Abolition of Slavery in 1807.1 With a diameter of 36 mm, a thickness of 2 mm and a weight of 16,90 grams, the disk has a perforation on its upper border. This hole, which is not original, has damaged the underlying part of the low-relief image and inscription. We do not know if the hole was designed to enable one to insert a thread into the coin for it to be carried together with other samples or to be worn as a pendant, as the face of the medal is richly illustrated (Fig. 1a).

2In the foreground, from left to right, a European and an African are giving a right hand shake. Both are represented in profile, the first wears a dinner jacket and is bareheaded (a businessman?) while the second wears a loincloth and a feather headdress, which falls over his right shoulder like a scarf (an indigenous king?). In the middle ground, on the left hand side, there stands an African village consisting of four huts and four palm trees. On the right, five characters, noticeably Africans, dance around a tree. Slightly below, two men of the same kind perform agricultural work. The background displays the outlines of a mountain relief on the horizon, probably the actual Serra Leone.

3This side of the coin also includes a double English inscription in capital letters. In the exergue one finds the following motto in the form of an arch: we are all brethren.

4At the bottom, occupying a quarter of the whole surface and separated from the image area by a raised line, a three line inscription forming a triangle reads:


  • 2 As reported by Vice/Pridmore 1975 and found in Eimer’s catalogue, p. 125, # 984.

5At the very bottom of the disk is a signature, inscribed in very small characters: G.F.P. As in the case of the reverse side a variety is listed, omitting this signature.2

6Slightly off-centre in relation to the obverse, the reverse (Fig. 1b) is occupied almost exclusively by an epigraphic Arabic field, divided into two unequal parts (2/3 vs. 1/3). These are separated by a line similar to the one found in the face and by two palm tree branches lying flat. They cross each other and are tied by a complex knot.

  • 3 For the Arabic text together with some linguistic observations, see the Appendix.

7Whereas the second inscription repeats in a single line the motto found on the obverse, the first inscription is four lines long and bears the following text3:

It was abolished <the trade> // of slaves in England // in 1807 of Jesus’era // during the rein of King George III.

8Again at the very bottom of the disk there is a signature in very small characters: JP. FECIT. As in the case of the obverse there seems to be a variety without this indication.

The medal’s issue and its historical context

  • 4 Vice/Pridmore 1975. In this study we may find a fair amount of information, historical and otherwis (...)
  • 5 This is the correct information made available by the BMAG and attested by virtue of the attached b (...)
  • 6 Actually on behalf of the Macaulay & Babington Company. Thomas Gisborne Babington was Macaulay’s ne (...)

9The well documented study by Vice and Pridmore4 shows this medal to be really a penny token, fifty thousand of which were struck at the Soho Mint House, South West of London, in 1814. The designer was J. Philpp (sic = JP. in the reverse), who worked for the house owned by Matthew Boulton, Birmingham. The firm had ordered the engraving from a man called G. F. Pidgeon (= G.F.P in the obverse),5 who first complained for not having been sufficiently well paid and then because the mintage was not faithful to the original. The minting was commissioned by the philanthropist and abolitionist Zachary Macaulay,6 who was the governor of Sierra Leone between 1794 and 1799 and the secretary of the Sierra Leone Company until its effective dissolution in 1815. He used to order from the same mint house the coins current in the island.

10In fact, the company’s dissolution had already been authorised by the British Parliament since 1808, thus allowing the territory to be turned into an English colony (!) within seven years. But a year before this deadline, that is seven years after the Abolition Act, the token was struck. It was precisely the year of the Vienna Congress, where England succeeded in extending abolition of the slave trade to all European countries!

11In any case the difficulties involving the circulation of national currency and coins persisted, despite integration of the African territory into the emerging British Empire. Macaulay, now a simple but influential trader, was lead to revive a Company’s ancient practice by putting into circulation a local low value coin replacement, as was common practice at that time in the home country itself. The purpose was to facilitate the trading of products in his many warehouses and stores spread throughout West Africa. Instead of the simple hand shake on the reverse of the older coins (Fig. 2) we find now on the obverse–in a direct line with the abolitionist ideal so dear to Macaulay–two men in full stature shaking hands against an evocative background of the physical and human landscape of the country.

12The references to the Company and to “wild” Africa on the obverse of the old coin were omitted anyhow, to give place, on the reverse, to the famous declaration announcing a new era of “fraternal” cooperation and indigenous prosperity.

  • 7 In Eimer’s catalogue, we find 1850 instead of 1832. But the cluster “1830-1850” is preceded by ‘c[i (...)
  • 8 The political and economic circumstances of these new issues are not at all clear. The elements gat (...)

13Again, according to the two English authors other issues were made in the years 1830-18327: struck from bronze, gilded or otherwise, or even made of silver–in either case with certain changes in weight and size or even in the legends.8 By 1987 the approximate quotation values in London were as follows: £ 32 for the first issue; £ 35 for the later bronze issue; £ 180 for the same one, but in silver (Eimer’s catalogue).

  • 9 Eimer’s catalogue, # 983 and # 985. About Wilberforce, see Fyfe 1962: passim (see the index, p. 771 (...)

14Besides the previously discussed commercial purpose, this medal is, in one way or another, part of the propaganda and commemoration cycle of the Abolition Act. However, we do not find many medals in this cycle. In Eimer’s inventory only two others are to be found beside ours, and were probably issued in England as a tribute to William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and William Roscoe (1753-1831): two further philanthropists and abolitionists who were deeply engaged in African issues, indeed trading business–note it!9 On these medal’s faces, each bore an engraved bust and, on the reverse, the subjects represented had nothing to do with Africa or the original scenery found in our medal from Sierra Leone. It would certainly be interesting to compare this representation with the whole iconography developed around the abolitionist ideal, but this falls outside the limits of the present paper.

15And what is Arabic doing in that context?

  • 10 Fyfe 1962: passim (see the index, p. 767b).

16Islamic tribes, of which the Temnes is one of the most important, and against whom, by the way, several wars had broken out, populated the northern territory of Sierra Leone where the penny token chiefly circulated.10 But our company traded with a large part of West Africa, where other populations were Muslim, as the Fulanis and the Hawsas. Now, the only written language accessible to all these peoples was Arabic by virtue of Islam.

17Moreover, as slavery and the slave trading practice were largely in force among these populations, as well as in the remaining European colonies of that region, circulation of the English medal served the dual purpose of broadcasting the abolitionist ideal and of presenting the British nation as a more “fraternal” and constructive alternative to other European nations established in these territories.

Ambivalence of a humanitarian ideal

18The clear connections between the Act of Abolition and commercial development together with colonial domination should have been noted by now.

19Let us look closer at the propaganda discourse underlying the medal in review, or rather the modifications introduced in the engraving of the penny token common before the “glorious” Act of 1807:

  1. What is striking is the contrast between the sobriety of the latter and the exuberance of the new metal piece, which could even serve as an appealing pendant.

  2. Instead of the wild naturalistic representation, with the lion in the forefront and the mountain in the background, there now appears a rich human and programmatic iconography, enhanced by means of the magic of the word–a dimension that was missing until then.

  3. In order to ascribe the rightful space for the solemn proclamation of the Abolition Act, the contents of both sides of the old coin were combined on the face of the new one, thus freeing the whole other side for that purpose.

  4. Instead of the simple hand-shake without faces (on the back), one finds on the front side two men of both continents, displaying their full physical stature and socio-cultural background.

  5. By depicting the village and the dancing in the background, a humane touch was added in contrast with the wild landscape mentioned above.

  6. The same may be said of the representation of agriculture, which also points to the country’s new development prospects.

20Behind all the humanistic and solidarity propaganda (“We are all brethren”...) focusing on the celebrated Act of Abolition, it seems there is an intention to mask the unilaterally decreed colonization of the territory, as well as the virtually absolute hegemony of the “recycled” owner company. Rather than talking of local development, focusing on the agriculture issue, was there not, after all, the intention to promote paid work, by exploiting a (cheap) workforce, as an alternative to the current slavery, which was untenable for Britain?

21There is a debate regarding the real weight of a humanistic ideal in motivating the abolition, first of the slave trade (1807) and later of slavery itself (1833). I am not qualified to discuss the matter in depth. However, our previous appointments together with the very fact that the British Empire attained almost world hegemony precisely in that century leave us considerable food for thought.

  • 11 The case of Portugal for example is described in Marques 2004, Ch. 7. In pp. 127-31 the author pres (...)

22After the economic achievement of the English industrial revolution of the previous century, attained through wanton exploitation of mainly national popular forces, the same model was to be applied now to the “primary sector”: the intensive agriculture of the occupied or colonised land based on a paid foreign force, mostly African. And if the successive repetition of the British parliament’s promulgation of the Act of Abolition (1824, 1843, 1873), or other treatises signed in the context of European conferences (1814 etc.), did not suffice to internationalise the principle and make it effective, the country will not tolerate the “disloyal competition” of noncompliant nations. Therefore, without any international mandate, the powerful British Navy by virtue of the “West African Squadron” took to policing the Atlantic, the crucial point for the well-known trade. It is said that thousands of ships were seized as booty and thousands of slaves either freed or thrown into the sea (!).11

23One could find a parallel in the second half of the 20th century in the promotion, mostly conducted by the United States of America, of the rights of peoples to self determination. After its triumphant involvement in the Second World War, with the European nations’ resources drained, the great American “civilising mission” was to forge ahead by challenging classical colonialism and offering the peoples, mostly African and Asian, their much sought after liberation. What was happening meanwhile in Central and South America with the Yankees’ hegemonic plots and aspirations had no relevance to the issue! The important thing was to clear the path for North Americans to dominate the world in their own way, using different and always disguised strategies. And the following scenario was swiftly accomplished: complete hegemony of the American dollar; supremacy of the American multinationals; free access to energy sources; universal military presence. But all the humanitarian claims employed to achieve imperialistic domination and expansion were promptly exposed with the Second Iraq war, as is all too familiar. Moreover, the ongoing Egyptian revolution that broke out this year, more than any other, has further demonstrated the kind of dictatorship the Americans used to assure political stability, which, after all, serves their own interests.


EIMER, Christopher, British Commemorative Medals and their Values. London: Seaby, 1987 (Eimer’s Catalog).

FYFE, Christopher, 1962, A History of Sierra Leone, Oxford, University Press.

MARQUES, João Pedro, 2004. Portugal e a Escravatura dos Africanos. Lisboa, Instituto de Ciências Sociais.

VICE, D.; PRIDMORE, F., 1975. “Sierra Leone Penny Token 1814. Issued by Macaulay & Babington, African Merchants”, The Numismatic Circular (London: Spink), July-August, 279-81.


Appendix. Philological comments on the Arabic legend

The first Arabic text inscribed on the reverse side of the penny token is as follows:

Wudhira <bay‛>
abīd fī al-ingl[a]nd
١٨٠٧ mina al-sanah al-īsawiyyah
ahdi al-sulṭāni jārji al-thālithi

It was abolished <the trade>
of slaves in England
in 1807 of Jesus’ era
during the rein of King George III

The second text in a single line gives the following Arabic equivalent of the motto engraved on the obverse: Innā kullun ikhwatun (We are all brethren).

The texts are only partially vowel marked, including in case-endings, whereby we have no clues as to the precise criteria of this hesitant procedure. Due to the quite random location of the corresponding diacritic marks, we think that the engraver’s work did not accurately follow the original model, having slipped few marks.12 He would have been guided by aesthetic considerations, such as the harmonious organization of free space13–In any case a very common practice in Arabic calligraphy. Our transliteration, given above, could do no more than follow the strict linguistic rules, with the exception of the case-endings, where we followed the original options. As the legend is reproduced in Fig. 1b, one might refer to it for any verification or more thorough analysis.14 Let us, however, address the following points:

1. Attention should be drawn to the absence of any hamz mark in the text. On the three occasions where it should have appeared under the alif (al-’Ing(a) land, innā and al-’ikhwa), there is only a kasra.

At the beginning of the second line, one finds the aberrant case of the alif of the definite article with a ḍamm mark15. As this is not repeated in all other cases of alif al-waṣl, I deem it stands for the original end-vowel of the previous word bay‛.

2. The double ḍamma, which appears a couple of times, is generated by two overlaid marks, the second inverted as found in certain manuscripts or ancient printings.

3. On line 3 the tā’ marbūṭa appears twice written without dots and also without end-vowel.

4. In the word sulṭān, line 4, the ḍamma precedes the shadda instead of hanging upon it and therefore appears above the lām of the article. This is clearly due to reasons of space and the aesthetic characters distribution alluded to above.

5. In the proper name Jārj ([Djārdj] George), the right case-vowel should have been fatḥa instead of kasra, in accordance with the bi-partite flexion rule for foreign names.

Generally speaking, the English was too literarily translated into Arabic, which explains why several lexical, idiomatic or syntactic errors occurred:

1. The correspondence between wadhira and “to abolish” is not evident. The verb, as such rarely used, in fact means “to let, leave, stop, cease” or even “to cut” (e.g. meat), but it is used in the imperfect and imperative forms only, and seldom in the passive voice. On the other hand the exact rendering of the English term is rather problematic, because the possible corresponding Arabic verbs nasakha and alghā relate to religious or legal prescriptions, which is not the case of the slave trade. The common term used today would be the intransitive verb baṭala, or its second or fourth verbal form baṭala/abṭala, passive voice buṭila/ubṭila.

2. The term “trade” is wrongly rendered by bay‘, which means simply “sale”. Tijāra or taswīq should have been chosen.

3. The preposition “in, inside” in no way corresponds to the English by, as expressed in the obverse side. As it is written, the phrase implies the idea that the abolition concerns the English territory, not that promoted by England.

4. Even if Ing(a)land phonetically reproduces the native form for the country’s name, it is the French or Italian nomenclature that already prevailed at that time: Ing(a)latirrā. In both cases we should, at least in the origin, assume the influence of a local language where the Arabic palatal phoneme /ğ/ = [dj] had the phonetic value of the European /g/ = [g]. On the other hand, we question the use of the definite article, which is neither a regular feature in Arabic nor in English.

5. When writing dates in Arabic, one should always put the specification sana “year” before the calendar year number (given in letters or figures). On the other hand, one must mention that it referred to the Christian era and not to the Islamic or Hegira counterpart. The translator-author worked out the artificial formula “of the year of Jesus” using: (i) the preposition min, instead of li–; (ii) the word sana in the singular form for “era”, instead of the plural sinūn, in this case sinīn (gen.); and finally (iii) creating the neologism ‘īsawiyya: a relative adjective (nisba) formed from the Koranic name of Jesus (‘Īsā) instead of the name common among the Arabic-speaking Christians, which is Yasū‘. Anyhow, nowadays as well as in the Middle Ages, both Muslims and Arab-speaking Christians prefer to refer to the mīlādiyya year, that is “of the Nativity”. Hence, one should have written: fī sanat 1807 mīlādiyya or li-sinī al-mīlād, or even, for the sake of the African Muslim readers who might not know the true meaning of this word:… li-sinī mīlādĪsā (’bn Maryam).

6. To suggest the long vowel of the name George, one should have chosen the /ū/ (mostly [ō] in closed accentuated syllables) and not the /ā/. One may well find, in some phonological circumstances–including this one–a dialectal variant that pronounces the last case as [ō]. However, in our opinion it would not have been known to the author of the Arabic text. Could this choice of the /ā/ reflect a certain wide-open English pronunciation of the time [ā]?

7. We should also point out the use of the word sulṭān (originally military or political “ruler”) for “king” instead of malik–the designation that the Arabs have always applied to non-Muslim rulers. Nonetheless, at that time it was not rare to find the correspondence chosen here in texts of European or even Arabic origin, but rather to render “emperor”.

8. Finally, in the Fraternity motto, the determinative kull “all” should have been constructed with the suffixed personal pronoun: kullu-nā.

In conclusion, it is evident that this set of errors or linguistic inaccuracies substantiate the inadvertence of a non-Arabic speaking translator or author, who should be, in this case, an English Arabist.


1 The piece was acquired at the beginning of the year 2000, at a coin fair in Lisbon. Both author and owner are pleased to thank the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery of the University of Glasgow, particularly Sally-Anne Coupar, for pointing out and mailing the two numismatic publications that served as groundwork for a considerable part of their common research which ultimately led to the present paper. I personally owe my thanks to Peter Baldrey, Arraiolos, for the linguistic revision.

2 As reported by Vice/Pridmore 1975 and found in Eimer’s catalogue, p. 125, # 984.

3 For the Arabic text together with some linguistic observations, see the Appendix.

4 Vice/Pridmore 1975. In this study we may find a fair amount of information, historical and otherwise, about the issue of this coin, besides the different personalities and institutions that appear in this paragraph. Re Z. Macaulay (1768 1838), in particular, see also Fyfe 1962: passim (index, p. 751b), were other references to his large family. Check also the site of the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (BMAG) under

5 This is the correct information made available by the BMAG and attested by virtue of the attached biographical notes, whereas Vive and Pridmore ascribe the engraving of the corresponding side to each of the persons mentioned, while providing no information about the designer.

6 Actually on behalf of the Macaulay & Babington Company. Thomas Gisborne Babington was Macaulay’s nephew and became an associate soon after the enterprise was created; see Vice/Pridmore 1975: 279b; Fyfe 1962: 166-167.

7 In Eimer’s catalogue, we find 1850 instead of 1832. But the cluster “1830-1850” is preceded by ‘c[irca]’ and the author mentions the Vice and Pridmore’s article as the only source. Consequently, we believe it amounted to a simple error. Besides, Fyfe 1962: 548, tells us that the company in question was liquidated in 1842!

8 The political and economic circumstances of these new issues are not at all clear. The elements gathered by Fyfe 1962: 187 (see also pp. 203-4) for those years are largely unfavourable to the idea of these issues. The latter, especially the ones made from silver, should belong to a quite earlier date!

9 Eimer’s catalogue, # 983 and # 985. About Wilberforce, see Fyfe 1962: passim (see the index, p. 771b).

10 Fyfe 1962: passim (see the index, p. 767b).

11 The case of Portugal for example is described in Marques 2004, Ch. 7. In pp. 127-31 the author presents shortly the aforementioned academic discussion together with the pertinent bibliography.

12 Oppositely, a kasr mark appears lost between the first and the second lines.

13 Along this line, see the observation below under # 4.

14 In addition to the sample at issue (Fig. 1b), we checked the reproduction of the sample 2001N37 of the BMAG’s collection and the transliteration given in Vice/Pridmore’s paper (p. 279a) of the sample at their disposal.

15 Consequently reproduced in Vice/Pridmore’s transliteration.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1a
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Légende Fig. 1b
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
Légende Fig. 2
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k


Instituto de Estudos Orientais, Universidade Católica Portuguesa

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