The Strachan and Co coins, South Africa's equivalent of the Widow's Mite?

In recent weeks I have been discussing various examples of the Strachan and Co coins wide acceptance as currency from 1874 to 1932 with a couple of prominent South African numismatists. The discussion with Milner Snell (ex-Chair of the Kokstad Museum) and Allyn Jacobs (who holds the finest collection of South African token coins in the world) has raised some interesting new insights. It follows my article last month on the possible origins of the cache of 2/- Strachan and Co coins.

In an email on the 21st September 2009 Milner says,
Your theory about the Strachan & Co. 2/- is very interesting. Is there not a way of finding out exactly where the policeman got his stock from as this would prove or disprove the theory. What I find interesting (if your theory is correct) is that so many Griqua were still making use of Strachan tokens at such a late date. By then there would not have been a shortage of currency or small change. Had Kence become the currency of the rural poor or were they getting rid of their tokens for other reasons? What are your thoughts on the issue?

The Strachan and Co, currency of the rural poor

While there is no question that the Strachan and Co coins were the currency of East Griqualand from 1874 to the late 1800s used by the entire population, white, Griqua and African; the debate following this time has centered on their role once Imperial coinage became more common following the opening of the gold mines in the Witwatersrand. It is clear that once this happened in East Griqualand the white population moved to embrace the coin of the realm, but what about the poorer indigenous people, the Griqua and the African tribes? And why did Strachan and Co mint thousands of new (set four) "In Goods" tokens in the early 1900s long after Imperial coinage became commonplace?

The Strachan coins were still legal tender (only being outlawed in 1932) and had one major advantage over the Imperial coinage. They were holed. Most of the token coins issued by the major traders in this region following the success of the Strachan coins (eg James Cole) were holed because this facilitated a simple method of storage for the indigenous carrier - ie with their beads around their neck. It is a fact that the African name for the Strachan and Co coins was "kence" which was the Zulu's onomatopoeic term for a "small tinkling bell". This is the sound that they heard when two or more of the Strachan coins made when they knocked together while around their necks.

In an email on the 23rd September, Milner goes on to say,
The more I think about your new token theory, the more excited I get about it. I believe that Kence was the currency of East Griqualand from the mid-1870s to the early 1890s. By then the imperial currency was on a firm footing in East Griqualand, mainly brought in by migrant labourers. After that date the tokens take on, in my view, the more traditional role of paying for mealies and it would seem becomes the currency of the rural poor. I think this is a fascinating road to go down - the idea of an alternate currency for the poor. This idea is filled with all sorts of social and economic implications. The idea has to be developed!

The most recent written correspondence on the Strachan and Co was a July 1907 letter addressed to F L Thring (lawyers in Ixopo) in which the company confirms that they may accept their token coins in payment for their accounts. This is many years after the imperial coinage started circulating in the region. It was about this time that the set four S&Co "In Goods" was issued. As mentioned before this final set was by far the largest mint of the four known sets of coins. Why would the firm mint such large numbers of the coins if the demand for them was falling?

It is clear that even after 1907 the Strachan coins circulated as currency, but how widely were they accepted?

Perhaps a clue is given in a letter written to Scott Balson by the late Tom Mullins who was the Magistrate at Umzimkulu in the mid to late 1940s. When selling his collection of about 40 Strachan and Co coins to Scott he noted that the coins probably originated from the Magistrates Court at Umzimkulu. He notes that in the 1940s the coins were no longer used at Strachan stores. See page one; See page two

When one considers the reputation of the patriarch Donald Strachan, who was made a white Chief of an African tribe and who established and led the 500-strong native Abalandalosi army made up of African tribesman, there is no doubt that he was held in high esteem by the indigenous people. Furthermore, he was Magistrate at Umzimkulu under the Griqua and later British Colonial Government. He was also appointed the region's Secretary for Native Affairs. It is highly likely that this Magistrates Court at Umzimkhulu accepted Strachan and Co's coinage from the indigenous peoples in payment of fines. The coins that Mullins acquired could well have been the residue of these coins received in payment from Africans post-1932.

I make it clear that this specific point is speculation as we do not know the facts. But what we do know is that the coins continued to be used right up until 1932. It is known that James Cole was threatened with court action when he continued to trade his tokens after they were outlawed in 1932.

So why would the indigenous peoples, both African and Griqua, continue to exchange goods for Strachan coins and not imperial coinage up to 1932? The reasons are quite simple. The key is in the physical design of the Strachan coins with the hole allowing for them to be strung with beads that all Africans and many Griqua wore around their necks; a simple and practical solution to the problem of both security and carrying their money. The Imperial coinage had no hole so could not be safely stored by individuals who were often nomadic and who had no pockets in which to place them. The indigenous people knew that the Strachan coins had a set value making them easy to trade even between themselves. They knew that they could go to any Strachan store located all over the region and either get goods to that value or, if they desired, Imperial coinage of equal value.

So, if one looks at the circulation of the Strachan coins from 1874 to 1932 there is clearly a trend from use across the entire population to, post 1900, the coin of choice used by the rural poor. This transition would have happened at the time the Imperial coinage started circulating freely in the region. The Strachan coins were a great facilitator of trade with Africans bringing in their mielies, Griqua their livestock and getting paid in the "In Goods" token coins (set three and four). The recipients of the coins could then trade them in their own village at a known value or later purchase other goods at a Strachan store. With the comments by Tom Mullins it is quite probable that the Strachan coins were even accepted in payment for government accounts in the 1900s - including the Magistrates Court at Umzimkulu. The coins could then be redeemed at a Strachan store.

In many ways the Strachan coins had followed a similar and historic path as the ancient "Widow's Mite"!

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