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African Coins Map

Sarah Sophia's Collection of Coins: Collecting the World in a Drawer

Mapping the Personal onto the Global:

Sarah Sophia's collection, as a whole, is international in scope.1 According to Arlene Leis, "It maps a personal geography onto the geography of nations and reflects personal exchanges with members of Europe's social, intellectual and political elites."2 This mapping of the personal or familiar onto the global is particularly apparent in her coin collection's organization of global currency. It is this pattern of placing the unfamiliar within the context of the familiar that is behind the organizational structure of Sarah Sophia's numismatic collection, cataloged by the authority behind the issue of the coin, rather than by the country of issue and use. Sarah Sophia's cataloging of coins attempts to organize the world in a drawer, making the world large but also quite small in terms of the collection's organization by issue and authority.3 Her collection's "organization upholds nationalistic borders," while at the same time mimics "a larger world within which different national cultures interact and overlap."4

Sarah Sophia's African Currency and Taxonomies:

Sarah Sophia"s collection of African coins, in particular, illustrates a distinct overlapping perspective on the history and politics of African coinage. At the time of Sarah Sophia's collecting, amid the whirl of the anti-slavery movement, the question of commerce with Africa had taken a center stage.5 Globally-minded eighteenth-century Europeans inscribed "on the tabula rasa of the African continent" and backed expeditions, like that of Scottish Explorer, Mungo Park's travels of West Africa to explore the relatively unknown interior of the continent,6 where the aims of commerce and civilization collided.7 Coins and paper money were made in European style and were introduced into sub-Saharan Africa in the late eighteenth century.8 Catherine Eagleton and Johnathan Williams note that the imagery on these forms of African currency "reflects European interests."9 The form and character of African currency later changed during the consolidation of European rule in the late nineteenth century and the African independence.10 While much writing about European encounter with the economic practices of places like Africa is tinged with racism and notions of primitivism. Today, however, these practices have been examined for their advanced integration into particular patterns of social development.11 Collecting African coins took part in a larger history of Europe's fascination with monetary practices in regions that did not use coinage,12 such as West Africa's cowry shells that were used as currency and were later imported by Europeans in vast quantities to trade for slaves and other goods across the continent.

Mapping the arrangement of the African coins in Sarah Sophia Banks's Catalogue

The African coinage in Sarah Sophia's collection is particularly interesting, as it exists in a curious space between Africa and Europe. As Sophie Mew notes, examining the coinage of West Africa illustrates some of the difficulties Europeans faced when attempting to control African currency; the European monetary systems were met with a range of responses by the people of Africa, everything from curiosity to resistance.13 With the exception of the four cowry shells gifted to Sarah Sophia by Mungo Park, the African coins in Sarah Sophia's collection reflect, as Eagleton and Williams point out, European interest and design. The African coin collection, therefore, is highly symbolic, not of African monetary practices, but of the European imperial and commercial interest in Africa.

Screen capture of GIS map of SSB's African Coins

Mapping the African Coins in Sarah Sophia Banks's Numismatic Collection

Sarah Sophia organized her coinage according to type and geographically "with each register containing a group of geographically and culturally linked countries."14 According to Catherine Eagleton, the arrangement of the African coins and tokens, "as elsewhere in the collection, is geographical, running anticlockwise around the coast of Africa, beginning with Madeira, then listing two British colonies in West Africa (Sierra Leone and the island of Bulama), Angola, and Mauritius (off the South-East coast). From there, the sequence jumps to the West African kingdom of Bambara[...]."15 Using Neatline to map a sample of Sarah Sophia’s African coins, we have visualized this ordering of her African coins, as well as the structure and clustering of global power which Sarah Sophia saw emerging during the latter portion of her life as she collected these coins. In placing the coins on the map and connecting their country of issue and use to their country of authority, we can further understand how significant this organizational structure of Sarah Sophia's collection was in portraying her personal perspective of the global sphere and the networks of power during the growing British Empire.

Katy Barrett describes coins as "objects on which histories are written."16 She notes that coins were initially seen and classified as written documents17 and states that Banks "annotated her [catalogue] entries with comments about find sites, provenance, and related anecdotes."18Sarah Sophia built her collection of African coins amid the larger historical context of global interest and colonial development in Africa. Her taxonomies, therefore, transcribe for us a history that indicates something of her place within and perspective on these developments. Sarah Sophia's focus on contemporary material and her progressive classificatory strategies make her collection stand out, and her collection of African coinage, which we have mapped here, represents her involvement in "a period when European powers were just beginning to explore and to trade with African peoples.”19 According to Barrett, Sarah Sophia's categorical strategies are in contrast to those of George III, another significant coin collector of the period; Banks privileges the place of England first and then arranges coins by "country of production, date, subject matter, maker, and so on," a classificatory structure that "has obvious parallels with the ways in which we use database fields today."20

Sarah Sophia's African coin collection demonstrates the unique perspective of an educated, aristocratic, fashionable, and informed female British subject on the culture of exploration, encounter, and geopolitical change that surrounded the growth of the British empire. Through mapping the African coins collected by Sarah Sophia Banks, we will visually illustrate the way that she comprehended and organized the shifting geopolitical landscape of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Mapping the coins in such a way that demonstrates her method of cataloguing the coins by authority behind the issue, then connects the coins geographically to the place of issue and use, we have highlighted the ways that this organizational strategy reflected not only her desire to map the personal onto the global but also the manner in which her desire shapes the geographical understanding of the unfamiliar.

By using GIS mapping tools, we have been able to provide a more visual and geographical means for exploring the networks of power at work in Sarah Sophia’s coin collection, while analyzing how a woman like Sarah Sophia thought about and organized her world and collections. Katy Barrett, in her discussion of Sarah Sophia Banks's coin collection, brings us back to the question of wonder, specifically how modern databases and metadata provide a means for exploring her collections. With this map, we hope to have achieved a sense of wonder, one made possible by showcasing these materials in a new way.


1. Arlene Leis, Sarah Sophia Banks: Femininity, Sociability and the Practice of Collecting in Late Georgian England.


2. Arlene Leis, Sarah Sophia Banks: Femininity, Sociability and the Practice of Collecting in Late Georgian England, p. 249


3. Catherine Eagleton, “Collecting African Money in Georgian London: Sarah Sophia Banks and Her Collection of Coins,” Museum History Journal vol. 6 num. 1 (2013): 23-38.


4. Arlene Leis, Sarah Sophia Banks: Femininity, Sociability and the Practice of Collecting in Late Georgian England, p.249.


5. Deirdre Coleman, Romantic Colonization and British Anti-Slavery, Cambridge UP, 20015, p.13.


6. Coleman, Romantic Colonization, p.15.


7. Coleman, Romantic Colonization, p.16.


8.Catherine Eagleton and Johnathan Williams, Money: A History, NY: Firefly, 2007, p.194.


9.Eagleton and Williams, Money: A History, p.194.


10. Eagleton and Williams, Money: A History, p.194.


11. Eagleton and Williams, Money: A History, p. 207.


12. Eagleton and Williams, Money: A History, p.196-7.


13. Sophie Mew, “Trials, Blunders, and Profits: The Changing Contexts of Currencies in Sierra Leone,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 44.2 (2016), p. 198.


14. Barrett “Writing On, Around, and About Coins,” p.70.


15. Eagleton, “Collecting African Money in Georgian London: Sarah Sophia Banks and Her Collection of Coins,” p.29-30.


16. Katy Barrett, “Writing On, Around, and About Coins: From the Eighteenth-Century Cabinet to the Twenty-First Century Database,” Journal of Museum Ethnography, No. 25, Objects and Words: Writing On, Around, and About Things Papers from the Annual Conference of the Museum Ethnographers Group Held at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 14-15 April 2011 (2012), p.64.


17. Barrett “Writing On, Around, and About Coins,” p.65.


18. Barrett ““Writing On, Around, and About Coins,” p.72.


19. Eagleton, “Collecting African Money in Georgian London: Sarah Sophia Banks and Her Collection of Coins,” p.29.


20. Barrett “Writing On, Around, and About Coins,” p.72.