‘Square Face’: Gin, Currency, and Colonialism in Africa

7 minute read

By Mark Elliott

A green bottle, see through glass but slightly textured, with 'Trade Mark' embossed around an embossing of a dog with a bird in its mouth. Photographed against a grey studio background.
Image 1: Gin bottle from Nigeria, showing the J.J.W. Peters trade mark of a dog with a bird in its mouth. MAA 1928.714

This is an empty bottle. Square, made of green glass, it is embossed on one side with the name ‘J.J.W. Peters’.

View of one side of the bottle, green in colour, with 'J.J.W. Peters' embossed in large letters taking up the whole side. Photographed against a grey studio background.
Image 2: Detail of the gin bottle from Nigeria, embossed with the name of the Dutch distiller, J. J. W. Peters. MAA 1928.714

On the other side, it is embossed with the words ‘Trade Mark’ and an image of a dog clutching a bird in its mouth.

Close up of the green bottle's side, with the words 'trade' and 'mark' embossed above and below an embossing of a dog clutching a bird in its mouth. Photographed against a studio background.
Image 3: Detail of the other side of the gin bottle, embossed with the words ‘Trade Mark’ and an image of a dog clutching a bird in its mouth. MAA 1928.714

MAA’s records proclaim this bottle to be from Nigeria. How did it come to be there? How and why did it make its way to Cambridge? What stories does it encourage us to tell?

The bottle was made in Germany, some time around 1880, for  Hamburg-based distiller J. J. W. Peters. According to the Jenevermuseum, such bottles, known as ‘kelderfles’ (cellar bottle) in Dutch, were mouth-blown in an iron mould. They were then filled with gin for export to the African market. At some point in this bottle’s history, it was emptied, but it remains sealed with its cork – the vivid red wax is melted and distorted, though traces of a square seal imprint remain. 

The gin with which such bottles were filled acquired the name ‘square-face’ because of the distinctive shape of its container. Merriam-Webster notes that the term originated in South Africa and came to refer to any ‘cheap liquor’. The Oxford English Dictionary cites an 1879 article in Forbes that defined it as a ‘potent fluid’ which despite its ‘endearing name’ was in reality ‘the rankest form of schiedam’ (referring to the town of Schiedam in the Netherlands that was a centre for production of jenever, or gin). The same source notes that imported spirits circulated as ‘square gin’ in the enforced labour networks known as ‘Blackbirding’ in the South Pacific. The name, therefore, speaks to the role of the bottle and its contents as a mediator of trade in the colonial economy: trade in commodities but also in people, their lives, and labour. 

Both the gin and its square-faced containers were exported to the African market. European gin, along with brandy, whisky and rum, is known to have been an important medium of exchange in West Africa from the fifteenth century, through the peak of the transatlantic slave trade and into the twentieth century. Akin Ogundiran has explored the import and circulation of foreign alcohol such as gin as part of the ‘sociality of merchant capital’ which from the 16th century powered the emergence of global modernity and was integrated into daily life of Yoruba people in Nigeria. Chima Korieh, a social and economic historian of West Africa, observes that more than 500,000 gallons of gin were annually imported into Southern Nigeria by 1927. In the coastal areas of Nigeria, a bottle sold for 4 ½ d. (pence). The catalogue description of 1928.714 reads: 

A scanned catalogue card with handwritten writing on it. The number '28.714' is visible, as is the location 'W. Africa' just below a red dot. The contents can be read in this blog post. It is signed 'CRD. Rev. S.R. Smith'
Image 4: Catalogue card for MAA 1928.714

‘“Square Face” Trade Gin. Currency. Each bottle contains about 1 ½ pints of immature spirits & a case contained 2 Gallons. There were two chief brands “Peters” & Van Hoytema” which cost – delivered on the W. Coast (before the days of high duties) 4 ½ per bottle or ⅔ per Gallon. The retail price in the Lower Niger was  9s. to 1/- before the duties were raised. In some areas it was almost impossible to buy produce of any sort without using Gin as currency.’

It was donated by Reverend Sidney Richard Smith, a missionary based in the town of Onitsha in Igboland, southeastern Nigeria, between 1905 and 1925, who was later described by his wife Mabel as ‘the first white man in the district’. Smith’s base in Onitsha was just to the north of the Oil Rivers region, in land that was controlled by the Royal Niger Company from 1836 to 1900. It took its name from the palm oil that was produced in huge quantities for export, continuing the trend of enduring names for large chunks of West Africa deriving from the commodities that were extracted from them: the Gold Coast, the Ivory Coast and, of course, the Slave Coast. During the transatlantic slave trade, palm oil was was exported by British enslavers to the Caribbean as a food source for enslaved people. It was later used as an industrial lubricant, fuelling the mid-nineteenth-century industrial revolution. By the late 19th century chemists had developed hydrogenation processes to convert palm oil to margarine. Up to 500,000 tonnes of palm oil were exported each year from British West Africa by 1930.

Sepia/black and white photograph of palm oil sellers. A group of people including men, women and children are seen in a market setting - small piles of yams and collections of bottles are seen, as are people holding umbrellas or sitting on boxes. The photograph is slightly faded at the edges.
Image 5. ‘Palm oil sellers. Yams.’ Trade Gin bottles, apparently repurposed to contain palm oil, another key commodity in West African and international markets. Benin City, Nigeria. Photograph by Northcote W. Thomas, 6 February 1909. MAA P.28053.NWT.

A near-contemporary account by the well-known English traveller Mary H. Kingsley offers some context on gin’s use as ‘currency’ in the Oil Rivers and the ‘high duties’ to which the catalogue card refers:

‘They prefer to use spirits as a buying medium because they get the highest percentage of profit from it, and the lower percentage of loss by damage when dealing with it. It does not get spoilt by damp, like tobacco and cloth do.’

 As well as its durability, the effectiveness of trade gin was as a unit of currency with denominations: a case had an acknowledged value, but could be split into individual bottles. 

While the durability of bottled alcohol as a currency obviously suited the West African traders, its ubiquity was clearly accepted, indeed encouraged, by colonial authorities. Beyond its use in what might be called ‘informal’ economies, there are numerous accounts of gin being offered and accepted as a standard payment of fines to the government. 

Smith gave the bottle to MAA in 1928 along with specimens of cowrie shells (1928.715). We don’t know how Smith obtained the bottle. The Museum’s documentation records him as the ‘collector’, meaning that he was the person who acquired it. But no correspondence relating to the gift or acquisition has been found. He may have collected it as a potential museum piece: a specimen of currency. But it is more likely that he, like most people in the region at the time, used bottles like this as currency. So, rather than a special artefact, sought or stumbled upon as an item of interest or particular value, it was probably a quotidian thing which he thought would interest the Museum.

Missionaries in West Africa had a complicated relationship with gin. Kingsley notes that gin and foreign-made liquor was presented as one of the barriers to successful conversion to Christianity. Christian missionaries allied with Temperance societies in Britain to campaign against the damaging effects on Africans of the alcohol trade: translating arguments that had long been made in opposition of the dangers of drink to the English working classes. Simon Heap points out that some, such as Bishop Herbert Tugwell of the CMS, wrote of their frustration and discomfort with having to use gin as a medium of exchange when they were so morally opposed to its physical and spiritual danger to African people.

Kingsley was suspicious of what she saw as Missionaries’ excuses for their own failure to relate to local people and to understand spiritual and cultural traditions. Claims that the liquor trade was damaging to West African people’s health were dishonest: ‘Trade Gin’ was so called in part because it was mostly traded, not drunk.

‘As regards the drink traffic – no one seems inclined to speak the truth about it… The missionary party on the whole have gravely exaggerated both the evil and the extent of the liquor trade in West Africa.’

European alcohol, which Kingsley said was known in Calabar as min makara or White Man’s spirit (though this doesn’t seem to be a name recognised today), was consumed in relatively small quantities. It was much more valuable as a ‘trade good’ in part because it was durable – it was not damaged by humidity as cloth or tobacco was. If durability is one key aspect of currency, one can appreciate how it was interpreted as such by scholars studying alternatives to, or indeed the origins of, ‘modern’ money. Gin circulated but was not drunk.

But this bottle is empty. Contemporary sources generally agree that bottles were opened and their contents watered down as they passed through different hands, becoming weaker and weaker as they reached inland communities. Kingsley might have been generalising too much when she said it wasn’t for drinking.  But even empty bottles had a value and importance. According to Heap, stacks of empty bottles piled outside a chief’s house, for example, were part of what proclaimed him to be a man of high status. 

One aspect of its use, though, might seem particularly alarming to clergy attempting to gather local people into their flock. Kingsley and other commentators, and indeed anthropologists writing at the time and later, observed that an important use of Trade Gin was in rituals and ceremonies that formed part of what we today call Traditional African Religions. Gin and other alcohols were poured on the earth for the spirits and placed in shrines and ritual complexes, as shown in photographs taken by Cambridge anthropologist Gwylim Iwan Jones in Igboland in the 1930s.

Black and white photograph of a gin or 'schnapps' bottle in the middle of a shrine. The shrine has been built up on a beach around a central tree, with bowls full of offerings, reeds and mats, and other foliage carefully strewn around the place. No people are visible.
Image 6. A gin or ‘schnapps’ bottle in the centre of an Alose shrine. Cross River area, Nigeria. Photograph by G.I. Jones. MAA N.61283.GIJ

While keepers of some shrines rejected (and continue to reject) offerings of gin as an act of resistance to colonial and European interference, gin thus presented something of a double threat to CMS missionaries in southern Nigeria in Smith’s time: damaging to the health of their potential converts and maintaining and strengthening the traditional spiritual beliefs and practices to which missionaries were opposed.

Viewed through the tangle of complex beliefs, prejudices, uses and associations of gin and the gin trade in West Africa in the first decades of the twentieth century, this bottle becomes even more intriguing, even more complicated, and raises more questions that help us think through processes of Christian missionizing, commercial exploitation, attempts at ‘civilising’ populations in Africa and other colonial territories. Can a bottle of gin be seen as currency or as a trade good? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. It circulated in commerce, politics and multiple religious contexts in Igboland and beyond, and this bottle brings all these associations with it to the collections in Cambridge.

Author bio

Mark Elliott is the Senior Curator in Anthropology at MAA, responsible for collections from Africa, Asia, and Europe. His research interests focus on Asia, particularly south Asia, and histories of museum collections and museum practice.

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