The Democratic Republic of Congo recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence, giving us a good opportunity to bring up a very unusual object hailing from one of the country’s southern provinces, Katanga. It is the copper cross.
The province of Katanga has always had a rather special aura thanks to its wealth of ore deposits, and it has always been particularly renowned for its copper mines. These mines have been exploited for a very, very long time in Katanga. As early as the 16th century, the copper was being exported as far as the coast of Angola and from there right up to Europe. In the past, copper extraction and casting was the prerogative of a mysterious guild called “the copper eaters”, members of a sort of secret society, a “bwanga”. They were the only ones who were able to remove the copper ore and work it. Production of this precious metal was surrounded by rituals, professional secrets, traditions and magic. The trade of foundry working bore a stamp of prestige and sacredness. One first had to be accepted into the guild and then initiated to the craft before being able to work the copper.
The copper ore was mined during the drought season, around the middle of May. “Les Anciens” (The Elders), who were the group leaders, announced the start of the ore gathering by saying: “let’s go and eat the copper”. It was these same people who controlled production and distribution of the copper cross currencies. Women and children extracted the malachite (natural copper-carbohydrate appears in the form of undulating greenish crusts) close to the ground, while the men dug out deep wells, sometimes as deep as 35 metres, to extract the precious ore. The extraction process lasted for three months. The ore was then burnt and molten down in temporary or permanent high furnaces made out of the clay found in Katanga’s many termitaria. The high furnaces were fuelled with charcoal or small logs and ventilated with the help of bellows made from antilope skins. The copper was refined and cast in another oven. The melting metal was brought in via a furrow in a mould traced by finger in the sand in order to make lingots. These took the form of the Saint Andrew’s Cross, more commonly referred to as croisettes. Copper mining by “copper eaters” continued until 1903. After that, it was the Union Minière du Haut Katanga – which was later to become Gécamines, the Générale des Carrières et des Mines – which took over the copper production. But, even today, there are still some traditional copper diggers.
Over several centuries, the crosses served in their own right as a means of payment and exchange in many Central African societies. They were almost as valuable as ivory. However, the crosses have always had several different functions, and various symbolic meanings. Besides their use as a currency, the crosses served as lingots, a reserve commodity, and also as a symbol of dignity and power. They also appeared in different shapes and forms of craftmanship depending on the areas, kingdoms, chieftainships in which they were made. These differences made it possible to determine precisely how far the authority of the different kingdoms extended. The first copper crosses appeared in the 13th century in the tombs of what is now southern Katanga at the same time as cowries and beads made from molten glass, which were also used as a means of payment. A large cross was actually laid on the chest of the deceased. From the 14th century onwards, the crosses found in the tombs were no more than a few centimetres in size until they disappeared altogether in the 18th century. They were replaced by glass paste beads and cowries. And it was during the 18th and 19th centuries that the crosses were used for paying the levy that the copper-producing regions had to hand over to the Lunda Empire, an African empire occupying a vast territory spanning the present-day Katanga, northern Zambia and eastern Angola. At the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, the crosses started to be used in every-day trading. They also served as a means for paying matrimonial compensation. A woman’s marriage effectively implied a loss of labour for the bride’s family, which is why crosses were offered as compensation. A woman was worth a large cross, but a small cross could be added too if she had really remarkable qualities! During the 20th century, the crosses were used as medicine and as indications of dignity. Shortly after the Democratic Republic of Congo’s declaration of independence on 30 June 1960 – in those days it was called the Republic of The Congo and then Zaire – the province of Katanga wanted to gain its own autonomy, too. So, the province split away from the rest of the country following a coup d’état. During its brief spell of independence (1960-1963), Katanga chose the crosses as its official emblem. The National Bank of Katanga also issued coins that pictured small crosses.
Some local currencies like the copper crosses were of great interest to foreigners (settlers or merchants). Anxious to have control over the local currency, they tried to take it back for their own profit. The crosses were mainly used during the 19th century by the big Arab merchants on the trade channels right over to Kenya, on the east coast of Africa.
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