West African States Coinage and the Sawfish

Started by radars_teddy, August 29, 2021, 05:15:37 PM

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West African States Coinage and the Sawfish

Recently, we aquired the 1972 50FR W. African States FAO. This coin was mostly stumbled upon, as one of set that included a Uragay coin that we were looking for. The set that I obtained was Page 2.A of the FAO coin sets. The 50 Frank coin stands out among its peers, not just because of its condition, and the toning which was lost evenutally to the conservation by ANACS, but the truly unique design. While the reverse, with a 50 Fr value stated upon it with a series of local food crops (,peanuts, rice, cacao and coffee), the reverse was a stunning representation of statues of a very stylized sawfish that traditionally was used to weigh valuables (gold according to th Europeans, but that is contended in the literature). At first I thought it was a mask, but research lead me to understnad that this was not the case. The sawfish itself is a powerful cult figure in the Akan and Baoule people of West Africa.

Fish mythology among the Akan and Baoule people of West Africa is old and deep. Much has been written on the statues and the myths of of the sawfish. They are covered in 1968 by Albert Ott, in his report preserved in the Historical Society of Ghana, Vol. 9 (1968), pp. 17-42 (26 pages). It is hard to understand the nature of weights used in comerce from the context of the West Africans. They had a highly proverbized langauge, and the familiar shape of a weigh, that of a mythological god at that like the sawfish, integrates itself into the very daily speach of the poeple of West Africa. This hightens the assocation of this coin to real value.


Mythology involving fish and sawfish specifically can be explored to understand the importance of this symbolism to the peoples of West Africa. We have this quote:
The last god -animal incarnate to be discussed is the sea god • called Opo by the Ashanti. The Fante and Ga peoples believe that Bonsu the whale embodies the sea god, and they make offerings of corn to his spirit. He is also a fishing god and, like Tantrobu and Abodinkra, once a war god. Both concepts are visible in the powerful confrontation on this god at the Asafo shrine in Plate 35. In relation to fishing gods, fish are the offspring of these and of different lakes (Abosom), and enjoy a sacred status. They characterize the deities as givers of fertility. "If you dream about fish, your wife is going to conceive. "62 Bosumtwe is a lake approximately 20 miles from Kumasi. It is circular and approximately five miles across. It has no outlet so is quite stagnant and evaporates in the intense heat. Decomposition of vegetable matter causes an accumulation of gases, which "explodes like gunpowder." This is considered to be a supernatural event, and colorful legends explain the water's nature and the veneration of the fish which inhabit it. ''Twe is said to be the name of an obosom who came out of the water and made love to an old woman, Aberewa, a name also given to the earth goddess, Asase Yaa. Twe promised to give fish to the old woman whenever she wished, if she would simply knock on the water. To this day, no hooks or cast nets are allowed for fishing in the lake, nor can canoes be used. The fisherman who 1 i ve in the villages round the lake balance on logs, paddle with their heads, and catch the abundant fish in reed baskets. On Sundays, Twe emerges from the lake to sit among worshippers.

Sawfish were very central to the national and cultural identity of West African Cultures, and attached to concepts of fertility and prosperity. It is like the American Bald Eagle and the Turkey together. Yet the last sawfish native to West Africa was last seen about 2004, which is sad for for them, and worthy a whole other discussion (one done in academic literature).

The coin was conserved by ANACS and returned a healthy MS66


Ghana 'When a sawfish attacks another fish, the victim never escapes.' Akan proverb | Ghana The Akan people of western Ghana are renowned for making a strong connection between visual and verbal expressions and for how they blend art and philosophy. Proverbs and sayings featured prominently in their culture and had political, economic and social significance. The many beautiful weights they made from 1400 AD onwards were used as counter-weights for measuring out gold dust (their traditional currency until replaced by coins and paper money). These weights, made from brass, often had forms that were linked to specific proverbs. The sawfish was sacred to the Akan people, symbolising individuals who held power in coastal communities. The proverb associated with the weight depicting a sawfish is 'When a sawfish attacks another fish, the victim never escapes'. This was meant to convey the indisputable authority of the king. More generally, fishes symbolised abundance in West African cultures. The sawfish symbol, which linked prosperity and leadership, was so important for Akan societies that the West African Monetary Union chose it, in the stylised form of the sawfish weight, to adorn all the coins and notes of the West African franc (the currency of Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry). Around the Volta Estuary in eastern Ghana, the Ewe people revered sawfishes as spiritually powerful entities, classed as tro, of a divinity between humans and God. The Ewe had formal sawfish propitiation rites to dispel the danger presented when a sawfish became entangled in a fishing net. The powerful spirit was appeased with offerings of corn meal, alcohol and palm oil. If this ceremony was not performed, fishers who caught sawfishes were believed to have bad luck – illness might strike them or one of their family members, or they might be involved in accidents, for example.





this is not the section I wanted to put this in


always willing to trade modern UK coins for modern coins from elsewhere....


I, Bl'Neada, Promise you I tried to put it there!


Thanks for interesting pictures. Numismatics has moved into studying the relation between coins and weights relatively recently only, but once you start thinking about it, it's a natural. An aspect that is important here is that a weight can be used to weigh anything within its scope. A gold weight can be used to weigh gold, or silver, jewellery, opium or rare spices.

Of course, this coin only pictures a weight. As a design element, it has two functions. First, it shows an item from the local culture and history, much like other countries show local plant, crops or animals. The coin is used to affirm identity to the user. Second, the weight conveys the message "this is a coin".

The second message is as old as coins. Its first form was imitation of another coin, generally accepted as money. There is no attempt at affirming identity, only at acceptance. In a later form, earlier money used in the same territory is alluded to, but not copied. In early medieval times, this could take the form of one side (e.g. the horseman of a bull and horseman coin) being imitated and the other side being radically different. A modern example are the chains of dog teeth on colonial coins of British New Guinea.

On this modern coin, taking the weight, rather than the money is yet another step removed from "acceptance" and towards "identity". However, think of the inland farmer, producing cotton or rice or the gold trader. Traditionally, they think of money as a quantity of stuff they handle or produce, like the gold rush small miner would have paid with gold dust, never taking the detour of thinking of it in terms of currency, let alone coins. A lesser known but clearer form of non-coin thinking of money is China, where official wages were set in weights of rice. People there eat rice every day and the average amount of rice they need is pretty constant. Therefore, rice is not subject to inflation or deflation. If your wage is expressed in rice, the price of rice is irrelevant. This is how a weight is connected to money.

An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.


The entitre mythology that surrounds sawfish is a major aspect that is used to communicate that this money should be accepted by the people, as it provides a good omen.  This is somewhat of an African concept.  I wouldn't say it is uniquely African, but it is clearly not Western, although perhaps it is somewhat related to a lucky coin.

Maybe I need to write up something about the connection between mystism and coinage.