Africa, the arrival of Europeans and the transatlantic slave trade

Barbados penny

Probably commissioned by Sir Philip Gibbs, 1788

Object number Oldham RH3
Unknown donor

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Barbados penny

This penny was struck in 1788 for use in Barbados, the first coin to be used on the island. It is thought to have been privately commissioned by Sir Philip Gibbs, a local plantation owner, and is therefore considered a token rather than legal tender.

The front, or obverse, of the coin has the profile of a black African man or woman with a plumed crown above the words 'I SERVE'. Enslaved Africans had worked the sugar plantations of Barbados since the mid-1600s. The crown and plumes are harder to explain. The plumes are usually associated with the Prince of Wales, whose motto is also 'I serve'. This suggests the design was intended to be humorous or satirical.

Sugar became an integral part of people's diets in 1700s and 1800s in Britain, almost entirely grown by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. West Indian rum, made from sugar, was also widely available in Britain. Protective duties on West Indian sugar meant that these plantations had a virtual monopoly over Britain's domestic sugar market. This remained the case until the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834.

Increasing awareness among the general public that sugar was produced by slaves led to a series of national boycotts in the late 1700s. Women in particular helped to raise public awareness by setting up societies such as the Manchester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society and by producing and distributing pamphlets encouraging people to buy sugar from other sources, such as South Asia, where sugar was not produced by enslaved Africans.

This information was provided by curators from Gallery Oldham.