News & Events

23 July 2020

Black Money Matters: Coins and Banknotes as Sources for African, Caribbean and British Imperial Histories

Fulbright alumnus Harcourt Fuller (2018-19) talks about the ways in which currency can reflect our identities and aspirations, past and present.


Money is history. Money tells stories. Money is not just something to spend.

As a public scholar who sees the value of money beyond the obvious (we all need more of it), I find that these small pieces of metal, “paper” and polymer are great flashcards of our past, identity (cultural, national, etc.), ideals, and aspirations.

My interest in currency goes back some way. A decade before I came to London on my Fulbright Global Scholar award, to conduct research at the Institute of the Americas, University College London (UCL), I was pursuing a Ph.D. in International History at the London School of Economics (LSE).

At LSE, I researched the symbolic intersections of history, imperialism, nationalism, and money and was also a Research Assistant in the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, where I co-edited the publication, Money in Africa.

When I came to the UK in 2018 on my Fulbright, I visited the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, where an archivist showed me a special silver coin in their vaults, bearing the image of Emperor Septimius Severus (AKA “Britain’s African Emperor”), the first African Emperor of Rome, who ruled from 193 C.E. to 211 C.E. Emperor Severus was born in 145/146 C.E. in the Roman colony/province of Leptis Magna (modern-day Libya), and died in 211 C.E. in Eboracum, Britain (modern-day York).

My Fulbright award allowed me to conduct research for an in-progress book on the African-born (the Gold Coast/Ghana) Asante leader and Jamaica’s only National Heroine Nanny of the Maroons (c. 1685 – 1755), otherwise known as “Queen Nanny,” “Grandy Nanny,” “Granny Nanny,” or “Nanny.” She was a high priestess, healer, chieftainess and military leader of the Windward Maroons in Jamaica’s Blue and John Crow Mountains (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) during the early-mid 18th century. Using guerrilla warfare strategies, Nanny successfully lead this group of formerly enslaved Africans to militarily defeat the combined armed forces of Britain.

British monarchs have been, and still are featured on the currencies of their former colonies and that of some of the current members of the Commonwealth. Other than Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Nanny is the only other woman to appear on Jamaican money. An artistic rendition of Queen Nanny graces the front of a Jamaican $500 bill, which was issued in 1994. (Queen Elizabeth II, who is currently Head of State of Jamaica, last appeared on Jamaican money in the 1960s, even after the island gained its independence in 1962).

As I show in my book Building the Ghanaian Nation State, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the American and British (LSE) educated nationalist and Pan-African who led Ghana to independence from Britain in 1957, got into hot water with the country’s former colonial master over a coin.

As all newly independent countries do, the Nkrumah government created its own monetary system after opting out of the British currency regime and creating the Bank of Ghana. But that wasn’t the problem, for Whitehall. The new Ghanaian currency depicted Nkrumah instead of the Queen, which was the protocol for Commonwealth member countries at the time.

Official memoranda from the time show that the guardians of Britain’s monetary policy, including the Royal Mint and the Bank of England, expressed their displeasure at Nkrumah’s decision to put his head on the new currency.

Nkrumah wrote a defense of his actions in an article titled, “Why The Queen’s Head is Coming Off Our Coins,” which was published in the London Daily Sketch. In it, he argued that he did this because Ghanaians were more visual people who understood symbols more than words, and that, in order for them to truly believe that they were really independent, they had to see the image of an African like themselves on their money. Nkrumah got out of this diplomatic squabble when he declared Ghana a Republic in 1960, which meant that he, and not the British Queen, was Head of State. He commemorated this development by minting gold coins (with his likeness).


Tangible and symbolic currency

While money is a unique, but underappreciated source of history, it also has tangible and symbolic currency that can help societies heal old wounds and build brighter, more just futures.

We are currently at the beginning of a Movement that is compelling societies around the world to (re)examine past wrongs and present tragedies, from their complicity in slavery to ongoing killing of unarmed Black men and women by arms of their governments. In this moment, both government agencies and major companies have not only confessed how their prior actions have contributed to these lived experiences for people of African descent, but they are also making promises to redress this history. On Juneteenth, the Bank of England issued a short statement to acknowledge and apologize for the role that some of its former administrators played in the slave trade. The statement reads, in part:

“The Bank has commenced a thorough review of its collection of images of former Governors and Directors to ensure none with any such involvement in the slave trade remain on display anywhere in the Bank. The Bank is committed to improving diversity and is actively engaging with staff, particularly with our BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] colleagues, to help us identify and shape concrete steps that can be taken now to progress the Bank’s efforts to be as inclusive as possible.”[2]

In the spirit of historical reciprocity and the current climate of atonement and reconciliation, one symbolic but concrete step that the Bank could take is to put a Black woman on future British banknotes. While the British people will decide who are appropriate candidates for this honor, I think that people who were once subjects of the British Empire should also be considered. This should not be a substitute for the more tangible investments and opportunities that are needed in historically marginalized communities, particularly Black ones, but such a move would be a good signal that the Bank will adhere to the ideals professed in its own statement.

The 2018 Canadian $10 bill features an image of their Civil Rights icon Viola Desmond. This groundbreaking banknote was awarded Banknote of the Year by the International Banknote Society (IBNS). In my 2016 article in The Conversation, titled, “Who was the first woman depicted on American currency?”, I discussed the now-shelved decision to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill in the United States.


Black Money Exhibit

My latest project is a traveling exhibition - Black Money: World Currencies Featuring African and African Diasporic History and Cultures, which uses paper money as a medium to take the public on a journey through the major milestones and episodes in Black History, cultures and lived experiences. The project is part of UNESCO’s International Decade for People of African Descent (2015 – 2024) activities. Comprised of over 300 rare, obsolete, and currently circulating banknotes from more than 80 countries and territories, as well as supporting art objects and visual displays, the exhibition is organized into ten themes that are represented as “money trees.” The pilot received positive press coverage in ARTS ATL and ESPN’s The Undefeated.[3]

Since the launch, we have developed an accompanying educational curriculum for middle and high school students. I’m also writing a book on the 100 greatest banknotes depicting Black History. We have also started filming a Black Money documentary (with Tom Luse as Executive Producer, who I’m also working with on a movie based on Queen Nanny’s story) and working on a soundtrack for the project.

Our goal for next year and beyond is to tour the Black Money Exhibit nationally and internationally. We welcome inquiries from organizations and individuals who can partner with us to facilitate hosting the exhibit at public venues globally. The public conversations around the importance of Black History before slavery, the lingering legacies of enslavement and colonialism, and the Movement to get more people to recognize that Black Lives Matter, need to continue. | Harcourt Fuller, Ph.D.

Harcourt Fuller, Ph.D., received the Fulbright Global Scholar Award and was in residence at University College London, the University of the West Indies-Mona, and the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. He is now an Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University, and founder of the Black Money Exhibit.