Home > Mapping Sarah Sophia Banks's African Coin Collection

Mapping Sarah Sophia Banks's African Coin Collection

Mapping Sarah Sophia Banks's African Coin Collection

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

From 1791 onward, Sarah Sophia kept a detailed list of the coins she collected. This list includes the provenance of more than 8,500 coins, tokens, and medals, acquired from 523 individuals, along with a separate list of coins she gave away or exchanged with 480 other collectors. Held in the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, two of Sarah Sophia’s manuscripts, ‘List of coins etc., Presents to me and of Duplicates that I have bought’, and ‘coins &c which I have given away’ include detailed acquisition lists of the coins she acquired and gifted to individuals.1 In her acquisition lists, she identified some of these individuals, making it easier to trace the contacts she collaborated with when compiling her collection2. Significantly, at least a quarter of the individuals with whom she exchanged coins with were women. These women were from a wide range of social classes that included HRH Princess Elizabeth, women connected by birth or marriage to prominent men of science and members of the Royal Society, young single women of intellectual promise, and even a curious housekeeper. In our forthcoming essay, “Sarah Sophia Banks’s Coin Collection: Female Networks of Exchange,”3 we examine how Sarah Sophia’s exchanges of coins reflect her interests in expanding and developing the numismatic collections of women in the late eighteenth century. Unique as a female collector of coins, a pursuit generally considered to be "for gentlemen and antiquaries"4, Sarah Sophia exchanged coins with many women, while organizing her collection geographically.

During the last few years of her life, she reorganized her coin acquisition lists into eight volumes of catalogues. The volume numbers of the coin catalogues are arranged by country, summarized below5:

  1. England, Scotland, Ireland
  2. Holland, Germany
  3. Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Poland, Prussia, Hungary, Italy
  4. Switzerland, France, Spain, Portugal
  5. Africa, Asia, America, Siege Pieces, Miscellaneous
  6. Tokens
  7. Medals

The geographical arrangement of the coins in Sarah Sophia’s catalogues are subdivided by the rulers of a particular country and include transcriptions of the coin’s obverse and reverse sides with the currency values of each coin listed. Although this arrangement is now considered common in numismatic studies, Catherine Eagleton notes this geographical arrangement of the coins was rather new for its time. The practice “had been for collectors to focus on classical coins and medals, and to arrange them alphabetically”6. Sarah Sophia’s numismatic collections, on the other hand, focused on “contemporary material, and on coins struck for use outside Europe, including the new coinages being struck in the UK for use in the colonies and trading posts of what was to become the British Empire”7. Her arrangement of her coin catalogues positions England, and its growing empire, at the center of the world. The networks of power represented in her coin collections reflect not only the interests of Sarah Sophia in coinage struck for use throughout the growing British empire, but also her own approach to visualizing cultural constructions of political power and global space.

Mapping the Personal onto the Global

Sarah Sophia's collection, as a whole, is international in scope.8. 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."9 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, catalogued by the authority behind the issue of the coin, rather than by country of issue and use. Sarah Sophia's cataloguing 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 country of issue and use, and then subdivided by authority.10 Her collection's "organization upholds nationalistic borders," while at the same time mimics "a larger world within which different national cultures interact and overlap."11

Sarah Sophia's African Currency

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.12 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,13 where the aims of commerce and civilization collided.14 Coins and paper money were made in European style and were introduced into sub-Saharan Africa in the late eighteenth century.15 Catherine Eagleton and Johnathan Williams note that the imagery on these forms of African currency "reflects European interests."16 The form and character of African currency later changed during the consolidation of European rule in the late nineteenth century and the African independence.17 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.18 Collecting African coins took part in a larger history of Europe's fascination with monetary practices in regions that did not use coinage,19 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.

SSB's West African Cowry Shells
Fig 1: Sarah Sophia Banks's four cowry shells gifted to her from Mungo Park, page 9. Sarah Sophia Banks' Catalogue of Coins, Vol. 5, Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum. Copyright: The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0) License.

Within Sarah Sophia’s coin collection are four of West Africa’s cowry shells from the Kingdom of Bambara that were gifted to Sarah Sophia by Mungo Park after his return from his travels to Africa (see Fig. 1). The African coinage in Sarah Sophia's collection 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 resistance20. With the exception of the four cowry shells gifted to Sarah Sophia by Mungo Park, the African coins in Sarah Sophia's collection reflect European interests and design21. Sarah Sophia's African coin collection, therefore, is highly symbolic, not of African monetary practices, but of the European imperial and commercial interest in Africa.

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

In our mapping of Sarah Sophia’s African coinage, we explore these complexities of European and economic interest in Africa, while leaving room for the examination of Sarah Sophia’s unique collecting practice and geographical and categorical organization of coins. Sarah Sophia organized her coinage according to type and, then, geographically "with each register containing a group of geographically and culturally linked countries."21 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[...]."23 Sarah Sophia separates the listing of “Africa” coins and those from “Morocco” and “Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.”24 In our map, we have examined, first, the coins she has listed specifically as “African.”

Screen capture of GIS map of SSB's African Coins
Fig 2: Mapping Sarah Sophia Banks's African Coins

Using Neatline to map Sarah Sophia’s African coins (see Fig. 2), we have mapped a sample of her African coins in the anticlockwise ordering of the coins reflected in Sarah Sophia’s catalogue, with lines drawn between the coins’ location of authority (whether that authority was found in the monarchy or in the ascribed mint) to their place of issue and use. By displaying these connections on the map in the order of Sarah Sophia’s coin collection, we can visualize the structure and clustering of global power Sarah Sophia saw emerging during the latter portion of her life as she collected these coins during the growth of the British Empire.25

Screen capture of S. Boulton's 1787 map of Africa, David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
Fig 3: Samuel Boulton's 1787 Map of Africa

In our map, we’ve included annotations from Sarah Sophia’s coin catalogue, digital images of the coins, and two layers of georeferenced historical maps of Africa from the 18th century. The first georeferenced historical map we’ve included is Samuel Boulton’s 1787 map of Africa from the David Rumsey Historical Map collection (see Fig. 1). This map illustrates all of the states, republics, kingdoms, and regions of Africa, as they were understood to be located in the late eighteenth-century, including the Kingdom of Bambara, where Mungo Park acquired the four cowry shells he gifted to Sarah Sophia. Although the exact location of the Kingdom of Bambara is difficult to determine, the georeferenced version of Samuel Bolton’s 1787 Map of Africa26 indicates it was located within the Tombouctou Region not far from the capital, Timbuktu. The georeferenced map and the contemporary GIS map of Africa today offers us a lens through which to examine the possibilities of the Kingdom of Bambara’s location.27

The second georeferenced historical map we’ve included showcases a 1799 map of Africa by the map publisher, Clement Cruttwell28 (see Fig. 3). Covering the entire continent of Africa, the map includes boundary lines between regions that were still being established and illustrated in maps at this time. Since the interior of the African continent was still very much unknown to Europeans, this map was used to examine and assess spaces that have changed over time within Sarah Sophia’s catalogues. For example, the Angola coins in Sarah Sophia’s coin catalogue are categorized under “Angola and other parts of Africa belonging to Portugal.”29 The metadata available in the British Museum’s online catalogue, along with Sarah Sophia’s coin catalogues attributes the place of issue for the Angola coins to Guinea. Not only were both Angola and Guinea colonies of Portugal, but in a number of maps from the period these coins were struck, Angola was included in the portion of the continent identified as “Low Guinea.”30 This can be seen in Cruttwell’s 1799 map of Africa, which labels the region of Angola as part of the “Congo or Low Guinea” (see Fig. 4).

Screen capture of Clement Cruttwell's map of Africa, Geographicus Rare Antique Maps
Fig 4: Clement Cruttwell's 1799 Map of Africa

Sarah Sophia built her collection of African coins amid the larger historical context of global interest and colonial development in Africa, and her taxonomies within her coin catalogues transcribe for us these changes over time. Katy Barrett describes coins as "objects on which histories are written."31 She notes that coins were initially seen and classified as written documents32 and states that Banks "annotated her [catalogue] entries with comments about find sites, provenance, and related anecdotes."33 A number of her entries for the African coins, for instance, cite authors and page numbers for reference books, through which she built her knowledge of the inscriptions on and values of the coins. These references are in addition to volumes of loose notes, newspaper clippings, and other miscellany, which tell stories, provide illustrations, and give information about the provenance of various coins in her collections. Sarah Sophia’s catalogue is more than a taxonomical document; it is also a space where she created a working bibliography of reference books on coin collecting.

Her taxonomies transcribe for us a history that indicates 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 people.”34 According to Barrett, Sarah Sophia's categorical strategies are in contrast to those of George III, another significant coin collector of the period; Sarah Sophia 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."35

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 can visualize the way that she comprehended and organized the shifting geopolitical landscape of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By mapping the coins in such a way that demonstrates her method of cataloguing and connecting the coins geographically to their authority and place of issue and use, we can highlight 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 collections shape the geographical understanding of the unfamiliar.

Through 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. Barrett, in her discussion of Sarah Sophia Banks's coin collection, brings us to the conversation of how modern databases and metadata might provide us with means for exploring and visualizing collections in new ways. With this map, we hope to open the door for further analysis of women’s numismatic collecting, the relationship of numismatics to the expanding British Empire, and the role of women in curating and collecting objects on a global scale.36


 

1. SSB I.21 MS, Sarah Sophia Banks, ‘List of coins etc Presents to me and of Duplicates that I have bought’; SSB I.22 MS, ‘coins &c which I have given away’,1796, British Museum, Department of Coins and Medals.

 

2. Eagleton, Catherine, “Collecting African Money in Georgian London: Sarah Sophia Banks and Her Collection of Coins,” Museum History Journal vol. 6 num. 1 (2013): p.26.

 

3. Hayes, Erica Y., Wills, Kacie L. "Sarah Sophia Banks's Coin Collection: Female Networks of Exchange." Women and the Art and Science of Collecting in the Long Eighteenth Century, ed. Arlene Leis, Kacie L. Wills. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, September 2020.

 

4. Chambers, Neil, Joseph Banks and the British Museum, p. 117. Routledge, 2016.

 

5. Eagleton, Catherine, “Collecting African Money in Georgian London: Sarah Sophia Banks and Her Collection of Coins,” Museum History Journal vol. 6 num. 1 (2013): p.26-29.

 

6. Eagleton, Catherine, “Collecting African Money in Georgian London: Sarah Sophia Banks and Her Collection of Coins,” Museum History Journal vol. 6 num. 1 (2013): p.29.

 

7. Eagleton, Catherine, “Collecting African Money in Georgian London: Sarah Sophia Banks and Her Collection of Coins,” Museum History Journal vol. 6 num. 1 (2013): p.29.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

12. Coleman, Deirdre, Romantic Colonization and British Anti-Slavery, Cambridge UP, 2015, p.13.

 

13. Coleman, Deirdre, Romantic Colonization and British Anti-Slavery, Cambridge UP, 2015, p.15.

 

14. Coleman, Deirdre, Romantic Colonization and British Anti-Slavery, Cambridge UP, 2015, p.16.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

18. Eagleton, Catherine, Williams, Johnathan. Money: A History, NY: Firefly, 2007, p.207.

 

19. Eagleton, Catherine, Williams, Johnathan. Money: A History, NY: Firefly, 2007, p.196-7.

 

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

 

21. Eagleton, Catherine, Williams, Johnathan. Money: A History, NY: Firefly, 2007, p.196-7.

 

22. Barrett, Katy. "Writing On, Around, and About Coins: From the Eighteenth-Century Cabinet to the Twenty-First-Century Database" Journal of Museum Ethnography, No. 25, 2012, p. 64-80.

 

23. Eagleton, Catherine, “Collecting African Money in Georgian London: Sarah Sophia Banks and Her Collection of Coins,” Museum History Journal vol. 6 num. 1 (2013): 29-30.

 

24. Eagleton, Catherine, “Collecting African Money in Georgian London: Sarah Sophia Banks and Her Collection of Coins,” Museum History Journal vol. 6 num. 1 (2013): 29-30.

 

25. Erica Y. Hayes, Kacie L. Wills, 'Visualizing Sarah Sophia Banks’ African Coins', Interdisciplinary Digital Engagement & Humanities, vol. 1, issue, 1 (2020).

 

26. Boulton, S. “Composite: Africa,” David Ramsey Historical Map Collection, 1787, Robert Sayer: London.

 

27. Erica Y. Hayes, Kacie L. Wills, 'Visualizing Sarah Sophia Banks’ African Coins', Interdisciplinary Digital Engagement & Humanities, vol. 1, issue, 1 (2020).

 

28. Cruttwell, Clement, "1799 map of Africa," 1799, Atlas to Crutwell's Gazetteer, Geographicus Rare Antique Maps: New York.

29. Sarah Sophia Banks, Catalogue of Coins , vol. 5, The British Museum Department of Coins and Medals.

 

30. SSB,154.88. Maria I, Queen of Portugal and Brazil, 1818, Production place Issued in: Guinea (example coin). The British Museum Department of Coins and Medals.

 

31. Barrett, Katy. "Writing On, Around, and About Coins: From the Eighteenth-Century Cabinet to the Twenty-First-Century Database" Journal of Museum Ethnography, No. 25, 2012, p. 64.

 

32. Barrett, Katy. "Writing On, Around, and About Coins: From the Eighteenth-Century Cabinet to the Twenty-First-Century Database" Journal of Museum Ethnography, No. 25, 2012, p. 65.

 

32. Barrett, Katy. "Writing On, Around, and About Coins: From the Eighteenth-Century Cabinet to the Twenty-First-Century Database" Journal of Museum Ethnography, No. 25, 2012, p. 72.

 

34. Eagleton, Catherine, “Collecting African Money in Georgian London: Sarah Sophia Banks and Her Collection of Coins,” Museum History Journal vol. 6 num. 1 (2013): p. 29.

 

35. Barrett, Katy. "Writing On, Around, and About Coins: From the Eighteenth-Century Cabinet to the Twenty-First-Century Database" Journal of Museum Ethnography, No. 25, 2012, p. 72.

 

36. Erica Y. Hayes, Kacie L. Wills, 'Visualizing Sarah Sophia Banks’ African Coins', Interdisciplinary Digital Engagement & Humanities, vol. 1, issue, 1 (2020).


 

 

Fig1. Sarah Sophia Banks's four cowry shells gifted to her from Mungo Park, page 9. Sarah Sophia Banks' Catalogue of Coins, Vol. 5, Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum. Copyright: The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0) License. Museum Number: SSB 155.5.

 

Fig2. Hayes, Erica Y. and Wills, Kacie L., Mapping Sarah Sophia Banks's African Coins. Created with Neatline.

 

Fig3.Samuel Boulton's 1787 Map of Africa, David Rumsey Historcial Map Collection.

 

Fig 4: Clement Cruttwell's 1799 Map of Africa, Geographicus Rare Antique Maps.