What Is a Guinea?

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I was reading Walter Rodney's essay "The Historical Roots of African Underdevelopment" in Decolonial Marxism when I came across this passage:

"Central and South American gold and silver played a crucial role in meeting the need for coin in the expanding capitalist money economy, while African gold was also significant in this respect. African gold helped the Portuguese to finance further navigations around the Cape of Good Hope and into Asia; it was the main source for the Dutch mint in the seventeenth century (which helped to secure Amsterdam as the financial capital of Europe in that period); and it is no coincidence that when the English struck a new gold coin in 1663 they called it the 'guinea'." 

"What is a guinea?" a student in my seventh-grade English class asked recently. We had just read that the rich old lady Miss Havisham was giving the young Pip twenty-five guineas as a premium for apprenticing him to a blacksmith in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. I explained that a guinea was one pound and one shilling. There was much more that could have been said, but I did not know then that the name of the coin was directly derived from Europe's economic exploitation of Africa, in particular West Africa, through extractive capitalism. 

And even if I did know, would I have paused our study of this great Bildungsroman to take my students down this sidetrack of European colonialism? There are so many wonderful details, of plot, character, and language, in Great Expectations to lavish our attention on, and there is so little time to look at them all. The guinea is not an unimportant detail if we remember that Miss Havisham's fortune came from not only landed property but also the family brewery, the same business that kept the English working class sloshed and servile. Indeed, Pip grows up and redeems his sin of ambition by working in ship insurance in Cairo to lubricate the sea-lanes of the British empire. Class oppression is joined with imperial domination in the guinea.

This is a constant dilemma when teaching an Eurocentric text: because it transposes an important history into minor details, a teacher seems to need special justification or to pursue a special agenda if they dwell on the margins of the text, whereas the main "story," of bourgeois personal development, appears to be free of ideology. By not spending a minute on the guinea, I have missed the opportunity of teaching my students to read more critically. More, I have missed the opportunity of showing my students the importance of reading texts that do not center Europe.

Jee Leong Koh
January 19, 2023

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