World Coins

Marking abolition on coins, medals: Going Topical

One hundred and fifty years ago, the USA outlawed slavery for the entire nation. For the United States, it was a 57-year process. First, an 1808 law made it illegal to bring people into the country for the purpose of slavery. New York banned slavery in 1822. Lincoln stopped slavery in the District of Columbia in April 1862, in the western states two months later, and expanded that to the Confederate states in 1863. The process was nationwide with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

Sadly, slavery continues in one form or another to this day, but the fact that there is no nation on earth where slavery is legal indicates progress. 

Each nation has a different abolition history to commemorate on coins and medals.

Haiti, for example, was first in the New World to ban the brutality, making human bondage illegal in 1793. Ninety-five years later in 1888, Brazil became the last country in the Americas to follow suit. 

Numismatics played a small but significant role in world abolition, through anti-slavery tokens and medals. Using tokens, medals and altered coins, you could quickly educate a large group of people about anything. Abolitionists used this tool to great advantage.

And that role continues today in the form of world coins and medals that celebrate abolition. 

For the 200th year anniversary of the 1807 Slave Trade Act in Great Britain, the Royal Mint issued a ringed-bimetallic £2 coin. That act banned all trading in slaves in the British Empire. Ships were sent to the western coast of Africa to enforce it. The 2007 circulating commemorative coin has a reverse design featuring the international symbol of human slavery, a metal chain, its broken link a symbol of abolition. 

Many modern medals commemorate abolition. 

The Franklin Mint created a series of 200 different medals to pay tribute to the nation’s first 200 years. The medals were part of a series called “The History of the United States.” Individual medals were minted in both .925 fine silver and bronze. Several of the 44-millimeter diameter medals depict anti-slavery events in our nation’s past, using picture and word. The medal for the year 1808, for instance, reads: IMPORTATION OF SLAVES PROHIBITED.

An unofficial issue that is often sold online as an essay or pattern, an Ivory Coast medal was released in 2007 as part of a multination (Ivory Coast, Benin, Mali, Niger, and Togo) abolition set. It contains a quarter-ounce of silver and a design that derives from the famous “Am I Not A Man” token with a kneeling slave. Others in the series honor famous abolitionists from around the world including Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Victor Schoelcher. 

Josiah Wedgwood, the famous English potter and abolitionist, designed the well-known “Am I Not A Man and A Brother” medallion in 1787 and it has been adapted frequently ever since. 

One of its newest incarnations is a 27-millimeter-diameter token issued in 2004 by the Barnes & Thornburg law firm of South Bend, Ind. Tim Hernly, a partner in the South Bend office, began creating a new token annually as a Thanksgiving tradition in 1998. 

The famous British silver bullion maker, Johnson Matthey, created a series of medals celebrating American Freedoms and Rights. “Freedom From Slavery” is one of the silver medals in this series. This 1-ounce example shows a slave rising from his knees after having broken, with a sledgehammer, the chains that bound him. His family looks on in the background. 

Beginning in 2001, Liberia issued a series of 24 mint-colored $10 coins titled “Moments of Freedom.” 

A 2004 coin from that series celebrates the end of serfdom, a form of slavery in Europe and Russia that was not outlawed until the mid-19th century. Several levels of status were found among serfs, with the lowest caste referred to and treated as slaves. 

Cuba issued an Abolition Centennial 1-peso commemorative coin in 1987. It shows a slave dramatically breaking the chains of slavery that have bound him. In 1992 and 1993, Cuba also issued 10 1-peso coins commemorating five centuries of the African presence in the New World and celebrating the life of Abraham Lincoln. He is depicted as the Great Emancipator, encircled by a chain of bondage that is now broken.

In 1988 Brazil issued a three-coin series honoring their abolition centennial. One features an enslaved child, one a woman, and one a man. The series recognizes that people of both genders and all ages were enslaved and suffered. All three coins bear a 100-cruzado denomination and read BRAZIL, A CENTURY OF ABOLITION, 1888–1988. 

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