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coins of the month - april 2016
The abolition of slavery in tokens and medals
The struggle to abolish slavery has been recorded in tokens, medals and coins since the late eighteenth century. In the UK, The token mania of the late eighteenth century in the UKs created an opportunity to propagate abolitionist messages and symbols through the quasi-monetary instrument of privately minted copper tokens, passing for one penny or half penny. The tokens passed for currency, and were also sold to finance campaigns, along with hundreds of other privately produced designs. They displayed the well-known image created initially as a pottery medallion for Josiah Wedgewood, on behalf of the British Society for Suppression of the Slave Trade created in 1787. Under the motto “Am I not a man and a brother” a kneeling African slave, covered with chains and almost entirely naked to show his destitution, pleaded with joined hands for an end to the barbaric and inhuman practice of slavery. On the reverse two hands are joined in friendship, underlining the message “may slavery and oppression cease throughout the world”.
The version of the token here illustrated is slightly different and, being made in base lead metal, it could not pass for currency but was necessarily sold or distributed openly and exclusively for propaganda. The reverse invokes the biblical principle of reciprocity (or in Kantian terms, “universalisation without contradiction”) to awaken awareness of the atrocity of slavery and reads “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them”.
The imploring slave became the symbol of both the British Society for Suppression of the Slave Trade and the Society of the Friends of the Blacks, formed in France in 1788 and animated by important figures of the enlightenment and political leaders of the French Revolution such as Brissot, Condorcet and the Abbé Grégoire. The image was later adopted by American abolitionists and replicated showing a female slave (“woman and sister”).
The rebellion of slaves in Haiti from 1791 onwards helped convince the French Convention to abolish slavery in February 1794, pressed as much by practical reality as by the fervent convictions of some of its members. By that time, however, Brissot had already passed the apex of his political influence and had been guillotined after the elimination of the Girondin faction, while Condorcet survived only a few weeks more in hiding. Robespierre, Danton and Grégoire were therefore the most prominent promoters of the vote on the abolition of slavery in the colonies.
At the time no medals, coins or tokens recorded the abolition of slavery. In 1802, Napoleon reintroduced slavery in the French colonies in the law of 30 Floréal, Year X of the French Revolution, although he failed to recapture France’s main slaveholding colony, Haiti. It was only after the 1848 revolution that the Second French Republic abolished slavery in French colonies.
In 1989 the Paris Mint included the abolition of slavery in a series of large medals to commemorate the most important moments of the Revolution. The medal, here reproduced, is inspired by a watercolour drawing made at the time by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1754 - 1837). It shows the intervention before the vote of the Convention of African slaves and mulattos, one of whom is lifting her child in the air. The delegate of the Convention in Saint Domingue, Sonthonax, had autonomously abolished slavery on 29 August 1793 and three representatives (one white, one black and one mulatto) had arrived in Paris to explain the dramatic situation and ask the Convention to ratify and extend his decision.
In the UK the abolition of the slave trade was voted by Parliament in 1807 and the Royal Navy started actively patrolling the African coast to stop slave ships. In 1834, Parliament voted a complete – but gradual – abolition of slavery in the British colonies.
Medals to celebrate the decision were made both in 1807 and 1834. The 1807 medal was dominated by the standing figures of a fully dressed European shaking hands with a naked African under the words “we are all brethren”, and showed in the background groups of Africans dancing naked under a tree, plantation huts and former slaves plowing the fields. The 1834 medal was exclusively concentrated on Africans dancing under a palm tree, but they had gained some clothing in the imagination of the engraver, limited to the lower part of the body, with long trousers for men and skirts for women.
Even the one cent token for Liberia, issued in 1833 by the American Colonization Society, which resettled former African American slaves there, replicated the image of the primitive “good savage”, without any sign of its specific culture. It showed a naked African standing under a palm tree (of liberty?), angrily shaking his fist at a departing slave ship, already off the coast, the symbol of a dying practice of oppression.
In 2007 the UK also decided to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, striking a large circulation two pounds coin – an unimaginative and uncontroversial graphic combination of the date 1807 and a broken chain of servitude -- here illustrated.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics