Evolution of the Colonial Sterling Exchange Standard

THE EVOLUTION of the monetary and exchange system that has come to be known as the sterling area dates back to a time when almost all the territories outside Great Britain and Ireland in which this system operates were British colonial dependencies.1 For later stages of its history, as the concept of Dominion status crystallized and the number of territories to which it was applied increased, the distinction can be made, for convenience, between the Dominions, which now have complete control of their national currency and exchange policies, and other parts of the British Commonwealth which have not yet attained that status—leaving aside altogether members of the sterling area which are outside the British Commonwealth. The process of growth has been continuous throughout; it is, moreover, not yet complete. A sketch of the earlier stages of its history will contribute to a proper understanding of the sterling area as it operates today and, in particular, of the position in the sterling area of the territories which operate under the Colonial Sterling Exchange Standard.


THE EVOLUTION of the monetary and exchange system that has come to be known as the sterling area dates back to a time when almost all the territories outside Great Britain and Ireland in which this system operates were British colonial dependencies.1 For later stages of its history, as the concept of Dominion status crystallized and the number of territories to which it was applied increased, the distinction can be made, for convenience, between the Dominions, which now have complete control of their national currency and exchange policies, and other parts of the British Commonwealth which have not yet attained that status—leaving aside altogether members of the sterling area which are outside the British Commonwealth. The process of growth has been continuous throughout; it is, moreover, not yet complete. A sketch of the earlier stages of its history will contribute to a proper understanding of the sterling area as it operates today and, in particular, of the position in the sterling area of the territories which operate under the Colonial Sterling Exchange Standard.

THE EVOLUTION of the monetary and exchange system that has come to be known as the sterling area dates back to a time when almost all the territories outside Great Britain and Ireland in which this system operates were British colonial dependencies.1 For later stages of its history, as the concept of Dominion status crystallized and the number of territories to which it was applied increased, the distinction can be made, for convenience, between the Dominions, which now have complete control of their national currency and exchange policies, and other parts of the British Commonwealth which have not yet attained that status—leaving aside altogether members of the sterling area which are outside the British Commonwealth. The process of growth has been continuous throughout; it is, moreover, not yet complete. A sketch of the earlier stages of its history will contribute to a proper understanding of the sterling area as it operates today and, in particular, of the position in the sterling area of the territories which operate under the Colonial Sterling Exchange Standard.

The sterling currency area originated in a Treasury Minute of 1825 concerned with the payment of British troops in the Colonies. Their pay was fixed in sterling, and the Treasury sought to tidy up its administration and its conversion into local currencies. At the same time, the Minute was in part a sequel to the reform of the English monetary system itself after the Napoleonic Wars, particularly the full adoption of gold as the standard and of silver as token money.

Until 1825 Britain had never supplied any of its own currency to its colonies. They had been left to fend for themselves and to pick up and use what other money they could find. The coins used make up a long and picturesque list, ranging through the alphabet from “anchor money” and “black dogs” to “Venetians” and “zequeens.” In origin they were mainly Spanish, Spanish-American, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Danish, Sicilian, Barbary, Knights of St. John, Indian, and Eastern. Their condition was frequently as diverse as their origin: full weight, light weight, cut, clipped, plugged, holed, of true fineness or alloyed, legal or counterfeit, gold or silver, and baser. In the older colonies this heterogeneous collection had been given independent legal ratings by the various colonies themselves in their own £ s. d. “currencies”—£ s. d. units of account which were neither the same as £ s. d. sterling nor the same between different colonies. Far back, in 1704-07, the home government, like a primitive International Monetary Fund, had sought to establish a schedule of par values expressed in terms of English silver as a common denominator of the weight and fineness in effect under the Elizabethan mint indenture of 1601. But it had failed. In the newer colonies, mostly acquired during the Napoleonic Wars, there were added difficulties arising from their linking with the British system or from the change-over from their own currency systems to it—difficulties increased by the existence then in Britain of a wartime paper standard. Moreover, in some of the ex-Dutch colonies, irredeemable paper currency was frequent. Perhaps the most relevant generalized statement on colonial currencies just before 1825 is that most of the West Indies were individually on a kind of gold standard with very poor subsidiary coinage, and that elsewhere the ancient Spanish or Spanish-American silver dollar in one form or other was supreme among their coinages, except in the Dutch paper-using colonies. Even today the colonial currencies cannot be understood except in the light of their complex history.

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars both the home and the colonial currencies were in great need of a systematic overhaul. The immemorial, full-weight, English silver standard had in the course of the 18th century given way, partly by accident and mostly de facto, to the new gold standard based on the guinea, a coin of 21s. not agreeing with the pound sterling unit of account—and the silver coins were in a lamentable state. Gold itself gave way to paper during the Wars and disappeared from circulation.

The first reform, therefore, took place in Britain itself under the influence of Lord Liverpool’s earlier Letter to the King (1805) on the coin of the realm. The gold sovereign of 20s. was established by the Coinage Act of 1816 as the standard coin and, partly by accident, silver was reduced to a token and limited use in a properly articulated system of coinage. The full principles were not immediately or completely understood. Liverpool considered that token silver would be kept in a properly subordinated place merely by limiting its legal tender, and the Act of 1816 authorized the opening of the Mint to silver by proclamation. But it so happened that the market price of silver was then below the mint price, and as a consequence the proclamation was not, and never has been, issued. In fact, the subordinate role of silver is derived from restriction of its quantity rather than by limitation of legal tender. The Treasury had not fully grasped the position when it attempted its colonial reforms in 1825. And by its failure it laid up a store of trouble for itself and the Colonies in the revolution of the bimetallic ratios fifty years later, and some difficulties even today. In immediate relevance here, however, the new token silver shilling was a great and demonstrated success at home.

The Reforms of 1825 and 1838-44

Meanwhile, by the 1820’s, successful rebellions had broken out in Latin America, and the various Latin American countries had achieved their independence. Supplies of silver and of Spanish-American silver dollars were dwindling. In fact, Spain was passing out of the ranks of great empires, and the long hegemony of the Spanish dollar, dating back three centuries, was passing away. With the expansion of the British Empire overseas and the rising world economic predominance of Britain, the pound sterling—with its representative, the sovereign, and its vehicle, the bill on London—was to take the place of the dollar for the nineteenth century and beyond.

The Treasury turned to its nonmetropolitan task in 1825. In an elaborate minute of many pages, it surveyed the untidy colonial scene in 1825 2 and decided that the time had come to clear it up.3 It sought to introduce the new and successful home shilling into general circulation as a standard coin of the Empire, concurrent with the numerous other coins already in use, the sovereign of course being of too high a value for general circulation. And, more important, it sought to establish fixed rates of exchange throughout the very diversified colonial systems. This it attempted to do by offering bills on London against the local delivery of shillings as needed for payment of the troops and for other local imperial expenditure. In effect, its proposals amounted to the establishment of an official sterling exchange standard. At that date the Treasury would, in many respects, have been the largest exchange dealer in colonial markets, especially outside the wealthier islands in the West Indies. Its rate of exchange would have tended to dominate the exchanges.

The idea was simple. The shilling was legally to be given concurrent circulation with the heterogeneous collection of foreign coins already circulating in the Colonies. The Treasury was to ship out an initial stock, the troops were to spend it, the local merchants were to gather it in and turn it over to the local Army Command against bills on London, the Command was to pay the troops with it by re-issue, and so on indefinitely. The Treasury, by one shipment from home, plus supplementary ones as needed by the forces, was to have a permanent circulating stock in each colony and was to be saved the expense and bother of hunting up full-weight Spanish dollars and sending out a continuous flow of specie. The rate of exchange was to be fixed and military administration simplified. The Colonies were to have a good coin convertible into gold and their anomalous systems cleared up, over a period of time, as the shilling more and more established itself. After some two centuries of colonial history, the home country was to supply its own currency to its colonies instead of leaving them to shift for themselves as best they could. The mother country of course would pocket the seigniorage—a point not mentioned but, no doubt, in mind.

Nevertheless, it was no part of the Treasury’s intentions, either in 1825 or under the amendments of 1838-44, to make the shilling the sole or main unit of coinage in the Colonies. The idea was simply to give it concurrent circulation with whatever other coins there were and so to simplify and improve the system of sterling expenditure for the public services in the Colonies.4 Hence, in legal tender matters, the Order in Council of 1825 which implemented the Minute went no further than to declare that where the Spanish dollar was a legal or customary tender, the tender of 4s. 4d. British silver money “should be deemed an equivalent tender,” and correspondingly for the Dutch rix-dollar, etc. The Treasury, still inexpert in currency theory, missed the point that this would confer the right of unlimited tender on the token shilling, where the Spanish dollar was unlimited tender. The ensuing troubles are discussed below.

Though the principles were excellent, their execution was faulty and the 1825 scheme was a failure at first. There were three main reasons for this failure, which persisted on the whole until the later reforms of 1838-44.

First, the rough-and-ready idea of the Minute that its uniform world-wide charge of a 3 per cent commission on a London bill would suffice was soon knocked on the head. At various times and in various colonies, merchants found cheaper ways of transmitting funds to London, and then there was no circular flow of shillings into and out of military chests. British specie had to be shipped where once Spanish dollars had been shipped. The 3 per cent commission was later cut to 1½ per cent. Even so, the centralized and dilatory Treasury changes did not and could not keep pace with the nimble agility of exchange dealers in the expert markets of, say, the West Indies. But this was perhaps only a minor and remediable defect which would not have wrecked the whole scheme. In principle and subject to the size of the military expenditure, the Treasury commission set a limit to the exchange fluctuations. Once stabilized, the rates would tend to remain so and the new basis tend to be permanent.

The main defect was that the Treasury’s sterling parity with the Spanish dollar was a wrong parity. As a third defect, there was a consequential error in rating gold doubloons, which wrecked the local West Indies gold standard.

Legally but naively the Treasury had used the old Elizabethan mint indenture of 1601 as the basis of its 1825 calculations.5 But in the circumstances of the 1820’s this mint price was 2d. per ounce above the market price. Had the Treasury departments (and files) been properly coordinated, the significance of this difference would have been appreciated, for it was this that caused the nonissue of a proclamation under the Act of 1816 (see discussion, p. 336). Moreover, the Treasury took the silver content of the Spanish dollar not from mint assays, such as Sir Isaac Newton had made for Queen Anne, but from a commercial reference book. These facts seem to indicate that the Treasury thought it was dealing merely with a small matter of military administration and tidiness. As a consequence, the Spanish dollar at the Minute rating of 4s. 4d. was over-valued as against the shilling by about 3 per cent, and the shilling failed to become current. Moreover, in the gold-using West Indies the doubloon, then worth 64s. sterling in intrinsic gold value, had long passed for 16 Spanish dollars. This was also true elsewhere, e.g., in Gibraltar. Thus, through the doubloon, there were local over-valuations of the Spanish dollar by some 9 per cent.

Hence, in many colonies, merchants and army paymasters quickly found it profitable to deal in the Treasury silver chests. These soon began to return to England “unopened and with seals intact.” For a doubloon worth 64s. bought 69s. 4d. worth of military silver, the deal giving a gross profit of 5s. 4d. per doubloon to the parties involved. When the paymasters, on revised orders from a scandalized Treasury, actually paid the troops in silver, the merchants achieved much the same result by collecting the King’s shillings and shipping them back.6 It took the Treasury ten years to get at one root of the trouble, and in 1835 the doubloon was reduced for Army purposes to about 15¼ Spanish dollars. The West Indies were driven off gold in the process. As the Spanish dollar itself was still rated at 4s. 4d., it continued to hamper the use or adoption of the shilling.

The major error—taking the value of silver from the Elizabethan indenture of 1601 instead of taking it from the market—was rectified in the West Indies in 1838 and, because of the success demonstrated there, the correction was copied elsewhere in 1838-44. The silver dollar was correctly rated at 4s. 2d., and the gold doubloon at 64s., in accordance with their bullion value at the then bimetallic ratios and equivalently with other foreign coins in use. This was not a lasting solution. Nevertheless, there was fair and open competition between all coins for concurrent circulation, and the shilling slowly made headway.7 The gold discoveries of 1850 assisted its progress. The rising gold price of silver helped to drive the full-weight silver dollar out of circulation until the wheel, turned in the 1870’s.

Since the ancient colonial £ s. d. currencies often had no simple arithmetic relation to sterling, the shilling had in many cases a most awkward fractional value in local terms, and similarly with other local systems. The wide and quick adoption of British coins was delayed in part by the fact that they were often incommensurable with the ancient local units of account. Hence another step was needed: the adoption of sterling units of account in place of the ancient colonial £ s. d. “currencies” or other non-sterling units. But the adoption of this reform was, naturally enough in 19th century British colonial practice, left to the local legislatures to settle.8 In the end, it was not universally adopted and today some colonial territories use different units and still differing coins. Indeed at present the movement is the other way: some territories in the West Indies are dropping £ s. d. units and coins in favor of the British West Indian dollar units and coins—the BWI dollar being a lineal descendant of the Spanish dollar of the 17th and 18th centuries. In this way they will bring their coins and customary units of account into line at last, after two centuries of discrepancies. Another present-day anomaly—the use of the Indian rupee by Aden—may be rectified in the future by the adoption of the current East African shilling as the unit.

Gold and Silver Problems

However the colonial currencies might have settled after these changes, they were to run into new difficulties, first, from the gold discoveries around 1850 and then, as these were being cleared up, by the gold shortages of the 1870’s and 1880’s. These world changes upset the bimetallic ratios which hitherto had had considerable stability. In particular, the dormant question of unlimited legal tender for the shilling was to become active. So too the legal position of the full-weight Spanish dollar had to be re-examined and changed. Further, a half attempt was made to set up a gold and sterling standard for the immemorial silver standard of the Eastern colonies. Banking and bank notes were also more or less new and emerging factors, and just as the Coinage Act of 1816 had colored British views on colonial coinage, so the Bank Charter Act of 1844 was to have, in theory and practice, its influence in the new field.

In 1852 the Treasury, affected by the new gold discoveries as well as the “general impolicy of a practice which is in opposition to sound principles of currency,” took up its colonial task again. It sought the opinion of the West Indian colonies on the question of unlimited silver tender, but it found such a diversity in the official replies—so many difficulties, so many local laws, so many differences in local trading links and positions—that it postponed any further action in this respect. The process began again in 1888 when St. Lucia sought, unsuccessfully, to place a 40s. limit on the legal tender of British silver coins, and a Is. limit on bronze coins. In fact, only in the 1930’s was real headway made here, but British silver coins are unlimited legal tender in some of the West Indies even today. British silver remained unlimited tender in British West Africa until 1912. The law was different in the various Canadian provinces until after the establishment of the Dominion of Canada in 1871. In the Cape, silver remained unlimited tender until 1881.

In gold-producing Australia, however, the Treasury found a natural willingness to reduce the use and importance of silver. Therefore, in 1852, it was decreed that in Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon, Mauritius, and Hong Kong, British silver coins were to be legal tender only up to 40s., as in Britain itself. British gold coins were also made legal tender, and from 1856 this was extended to Australian gold coins. But Ceylon, Mauritius, and Hong Kong had been natural silver users from time more or less immemorial. Moreover, Pennington’s principle (see footnote 8) and the principles of contiguity and commercial relations demanded that they remain on full-weight silver with unlimited tender in accordance with their trade with, e.g., India and China, just as Canada’s contiguity and commercial relations with the United States were bringing it about this time into the currency area of the American dollar and just as the position of some of the West Indies vis-à-vis Latin America had kept them off the sterling £ s. d. units. Had “sound principles of currency” and the interests of Australian gold producers been allowed finally to dictate policy, these ancient Eastern silver systems might have been wrecked. In the end a wider wisdom was to prevail.

The whole question of silver arose again in the 1870’s. The world supply of gold was falling off, the supply of silver was increasing, the bimetallic ratio had started on its headlong plunge, silver was being demonetized in Europe, the Latin Monetary Union was formed, the “crime of 1873” perpetrated, and so on. But the Spanish, now Mexican, silver dollar still remained unlimited legal tender in most, or all, colonies. By around 1880 a full-weight silver dollar could be produced at 3s. 10d. and sold to the colonies for 4s. 2d., as fixed in 1838-44. The colonies were threatened by a return to a pure silver standard in a world changing over to gold monometallism. A Liverpool merchant dumped over 200,000 silver dollars into British Guiana in mid-1876 at a considerable profit, and promised more. There was similar dumping in West Africa by Hamburg merchants.9 Faced with this threat, the local legislatures in the West Indies (except British Honduras) demonetized the silver dollar around 1880 and the central authorities did likewise in other places. One long chapter in colonial history was closed.10 But the colonies still retained many non-British coins as legal tender and in circulation.

Even by the 20th century the position of silver in the colonial currency systems remained highly unsatisfactory in at least three important respects. First, the seigniorage still accrued to the British Government or other metropolitan issuer and not to the colonial territories. Second, as silver in Britain was limited to 40s. in its legal tender (and similarly with foreign issues), the colonial territories had no way of getting rid of redundant silver or of converting it into gold or sterling except at its bullion value. They bought coin above its value and had no way of getting their money’s worth back, if they wanted to. From the 1880’s the British Government agreed to accept, at face value, worn coin withdrawn from circulation, but that was all.

In due course, but all relatively recently, these defects were remedied as the modern Colonial Sterling Exchange Standard was adopted. Their removal may be said to have begun with the establishment of the West African Currency Board in 1912 when the home government agreed to repatriate British silver coin at its face value and to let the seigniorage on local coins accrue to the local governments. The principles are now well established. Perhaps their most important future application will be in the British Caribbean West Indies under the changes currently proposed there.11 On the other hand, when the East African Currency Board was established in 1919 on a shilling basis instead of a rupee basis, no equivalent arrangement was effected with the Government of India in respect of Indian rupees or with Germany in respect of its rupee issues in Tanganyika. The Board lost £1½ million in consequence.

The third factor contributing to the unsatisfactory position of silver arose in connection with its relation to gold. The tidying-up attempt in the Eastern colonies, mentioned above, which would have limited silver tender and even put those colonies on gold, was abandoned by the 1870’s. The Bank Charter Act of 1844 with its emphasis on gold, and the early belief of the 1850’s that the East would abandon silver, had lost ground in theory and in fact. It was recognized that Ceylon, Mauritius, and Hong Kong were in a silver currency area and not in a sterling currency area. Canada’s adoption of American gold coins for concurrent circulation with British gold coins further established the principles of contiguity and of natural currency areas. In 1869 Ceylon formally adopted the Indian silver rupee as sole unlimited tender, and added the Portuguese rupee later. Mauritius, which is a very complex case, finally established the rupee in 1876. In Hong Kong, however, which was closely linked with China where the Spanish (now mostly Mexican) dollar held very considerable sway, this dollar and its equivalents were recognized as sole unlimited tender in 1863. An attempt to circulate a British equivalent failed in the face of Chinese conservatism which indeed preferred a true Spanish dollar of 1808 even to its Mexican and other successors.12 In the end, bank notes were to win. In the Straits Settlements, the East India Company and, later, the Government of India had tried to enforce its rupee against the natural use of the silver dollar. When the Straits Settlements passed over to the British Government in 1867, however, the Government immediately legalized the silver dollars “of Spain, Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia”—even the short-lived British Hong Kong dollar—and added in 1874 the American trade dollar and Japanese yen. But the subsequent history of these dollars in the East differs from the history of the West Indies dollar despite their common ancestry. These Eastern examples merely illustrate still further British empiricism and Pennington’s principle.

The use of gold in the colonial system also has its own variegated, but shorter, history, and, like silver, an understanding of this history is necessary for understanding the modern Colonial Sterling Exchange Standard. It, too, is linked up with the development of colonial banking and bank notes.

First, the position of silver as having unlimited legal tender frequently blocked the advance of gold in actual circulation, even though an extra commission was payable on a London bill when the local payment was in silver. This was true particularly in the West Indies. When the West Indies went partially over to sterling units, the currency of the United Kingdom in some cases also became their currency. This covered the sovereign. It possibly was of too high a value for wide circulation in the mid-19th century, but its chances of circulation were reduced by the predominating position of silver. Again, after American gold coins were rated and made legal tender in the West Indies “in the same manner as if such tender had been made in the current coin of [the] United Kingdom,” they too failed to circulate.13 The Australian gold discoveries and, later, the setting up of Australian mints gave an impetus to the use of gold and to placing colonial currencies “on a sound basis,” as a contemporary Treasury minute put it. By 1866, British and Australian gold coins had a wide legal tender throughout the Empire except in the East. Nevertheless, even by 1900, gold circulation was little effective in present-day colonies, although gold had of course established itself in what are now Dominions. The main exceptions might be Malta, which as a naval station had a considerable gold circulation, and Cyprus, which had been used to gold under Turkey.

The adoption of British copper and other subsidiary coins also has its own chequered history and incidents—such as a dislike of their taste by less developed peoples who, having little clothes and no pockets, carried them in their mouths. But it has no points of major interest and importance.

Banking and the Colonial Sterling Exchange Standard

Banking in the Colonies has, on the whole, an excellent history, with few failures of importance. All the early banks had to be specially chartered, since general incorporation laws were then unknown, and quite early—by the 1830’s—general instructions based on English experience in company matters were drawn up to guide colonial authorities in issuing banking charters. After the passage of the Bank Charter Act of 1844, they were amended to reflect its philosophy and monetary doctrine, and thereafter remained more or less unchanged for the rest of the century.14 It was taken for granted in those days that there would be no State banking or note issues. Banking, including note issues, was to be left to private enterprise. The original instructions were good ones, for their time, both in the way of general corporation practice and of banking practices. There was effective legislation governing the subscription and payment of capital, the powers of the company and of the directors, payment of dividends, publicity, and balance sheets. When all these had been properly looked after, the instructions took up the narrower questions of proper banking safeguards. For example, on the banking side, the company had to confine itself to discounting commercial paper and negotiable instruments; it could not make advances on, e.g., land, houses, ships, or pledges of merchandise, and so on. On the issue side, only bank notes payable in specie on demand and not under £1 sterling in value, or equivalent in the local colonial currency, could be issued; the total of notes issued and in circulation could not exceed the paid-up capital; and a reserve of specie equal to one third of the notes in circulation was always to be maintained as part of the general assets of the bank. Moreover, shareholders were liable for twice the amount of their subscribed capital; the company was to publish a half-yearly balance sheet which gave particulars of the issues, and to verify it by confidential documents if called on, etc. Thus, considerable cover and safeguards were given to the notes: the holders, as creditors, had their proportionate share of the specie in the general assets, and their claims against double liability on shares. The instructions were not perfect but they gave more protection than the laws—contemporary and later—of most countries elsewhere. The notes, in short, were of the private promise-to-pay variety secured by general assets which had to include some specie. The promise was in local legal tender, usually token silver.

The home government was, in theory and in practice, against the issue of government notes of any kind, and it slowly effected the withdrawal of those in existence, mainly as an inheritance from previous Dutch governments, as in British Guiana, the Cape, and Ceylon. But a bank failure in Mauritius in 1847 forced the sanction of a local government issue for a time. When, late in the 1850’s, the home government sought to restore the issue to private enterprise, local opinion defeated it. In seeking to put the government issue on a secure footing, it established, mostly unawares, a new principle for which, however, there was a great future as the Colonial Sterling Exchange Standard gradually developed. It ordered the Currency Commissioner in 1864 to hold a specie backing of one third as minimum or one half as maximum and Imperial or Mauritius securities against half the issue. In short, it had struck upon the principle of a formal sterling reserve for colonial notes. It also struck upon the principle of direct specie cover for notes, as distinct from some specie in the general assets of the issuer. In 1884 its hand was forced again. The Oriental Bank Corporation failed and the Government of Ceylon, to allay local panic, guaranteed the notes circulating in Ceylon, although the Straits Settlements Government refused to act similarly there. This incident demonstrated a new principle, viz., the principle of ultimate State liability for private issues where failure might wreck the local community. The home government, now forced to give up its more laissez-faire views, had to sanction a slow growth in some local colonial practices which tended to require that any new private issues be fully covered, partly by specie and partly by approved securities, including of course British Government securities, all to be held by independent trustees. Again, the principle of sterling reserves for colonial notes was followed, and again, mostly by accident and as a result of the pressure of circumstances. This new type of note was in due course to replace the fully private note of the old “promise to pay” kind, vaguely backed by specie and general assets. Here is the origin of government fiduciary currency notes backed by sterling securities 110 per cent. The trustees could easily evolve into or be superseded by public currency commissioners. The issue of government notes had begun by 1900, though full development occurred only in the 1930’s and in World War II.

The first government currency note issue fully set up by the home authorities as distinct from local legislatures seems to have been in 1899 in the Falkland Islands. Issued under a Board of Commissioners of Currency, the currency note was legal tender (except by the Board) and was a promise to pay on the part of the Government of the Falklands, charged “on the moneys and securities in the hands of the Commissioners and on the general revenue of the Colony,” the payment to be “in current coin.” In the Falkland case this was British coin. There was a note guarantee fund of which two thirds was coin (or, with special permission from the Colonial Office, one half, depending on the “hard core” of notes in circulation) and the balance was “in such securities of the Government of any part of Her Majesty’s dominions other than the Colony, or in such other securities as a Secretary of State may approve.” The proviso, “other than the Colony,” is important; it shows a change from Mauritius, and it became a standard clause. The Southern Rhodesia Board, formed in 1940, is exceptional in this respect; it has power to invest in local government securities. It would seem that this wider choice may in future become a new standard rule. In 1948 it was given to the West African Board, but it has not been conceded to the proposed British Caribbean Board. Also, in modern forms, the proportions of the reserve to be kept in cash and in securities are not rigidly laid down. As the Falkland case shows, the securities need not all be government securities; they can include such other issues, e.g., sterling municipal issues, as the Secretary of State for the Colonies may approve.

The absence of an effective gold circulation of high value gave an advantage to bank notes for larger payments; and the wide use of silver, not easily redeemable in gold or sterling in quantity, left the control of the exchanges and exchange profits in the hands of the banks. In at least one case—Newfoundland in 1856—the banks fought against, and merchants supported, the local introduction of the sovereign for these reasons. Today private bank notes flourish only in the ex-silver territories in the Far East; elsewhere the government currency note easily predominates.

Final Evolution of the Colonial Sterling Exchange Standard

By the 1890’s the changing bimetallic ratios and fluctuating exchange rates had moved India toward the gold exchange standard to which in the end it drifted safely. The Straits Settlements, centered around the great entrepôt of Singapore, had had similar troubles, and, starting in 1903, the logic of events forced them, also mostly without prevision, to a similar standard, though with some variants.15 Gold and sterling were to them synonymous, and it was a sterling exchange in the guise of gold that was started. The Straits idea was to demonetize all existing silver coins, replace them by a new Straits silver dollar, and then, by a strict control of the quantity of dollars, first to raise and next to stabilize the exchange rate, with the new coins in the end to become mere token coins exchangeable with gold. However, there was a real “token” already in existence, the popular government currency note issued since 1899, and ultimately it was through the note issue and its cover that the new system evolved. In 1906, and after some muddling, it was decreed that the Currency Commissioners were to issue notes in exchange for gold delivered in Singapore at notified rates of exchange, and might invite tenders for their issue in Singapore against sterling in London. This latter provision was intended as temporary, but it became permanent. Soon there was a two-way traffic on the Note Fund, Singapore on London and London on Singapore, and the exchange rate on London was kept within narrow fluctuations. An ultimate obligation to redeem in gold in Singapore was suspended in World War I and rescinded in 1923. The full sterling exchange standard was therefore formally recognized after 17 years of evolution and practice.

Meanwhile, West Africa’s system had also evolved into the sterling exchange standard. By the early 1900’s the area had passed the barter stage, but its monetary system carried many historical relics and vestiges and it was perhaps the prime example of the defects of the older silver system of the 19th century. Gambia was contiguous to French territory; the French franc had been legalized in 1843 and, later but consequentially, the coins of the Latin Monetary Union were also legalized.16 American gold coins were recognized in 1852. And so the system developed, though differently, in each of the four colonies. The bulk of the coinage was British silver, with some British gold. For many years the steadily rising trade of the area had drawn into it vast quantities of British silver. Indeed, in 1901-10, the Royal Mint turned out for West Africa alone some nine tenths of what it turned out for the United Kingdom itself. But the rise in trade could not be presumed to last indefinitely, and by 1910 the ugly problem of a redundancy of silver—current and hoarded—began to raise its head. The supply was profitable to Britain, but what of a return obligation? The area, too, needed a more convenient medium of higher value than silver. It had no bank notes. Silver in quantity was too heavy.17 Accordingly a Committee in 1912 recommended a local coin and a local government note issue, both to be issued and redeemed by a Currency Board at face value in sterling and the seigniorage and profit to accrue to the local governments. Further, the British Government was asked to redeem at face value British silver (and copper) coins by instalments as they were replaced by local issues. The recommendations were accepted and the new system launched in 1912. The principles of the Colonial Sterling Exchange Standard had been worked out with, as usual, some hesitancy in tone but ultimately with great success in practice. Minor tidying up remained in West Africa until 1949 when, at long last, native “manillas”—tokens introduced by the Portuguese in the 17th century—were successfully redeemed.

The West African system proved a great success and, with local modifications according to circumstances and local historical evolution, it was gradually applied or adopted elsewhere. The major example is the East African Currency Board, formed in 1919. This Board ran into many difficulties in its early days and finally reached solvency, in the sense of a 100 per cent cover of its own, only in 1946—its earlier balance-sheet deficits, however, having had local government guarantees. The Straits Settlements, as mentioned earlier, came over fully in 1923. Hong Kong, abandoning its silver standard when China did in 1935, adopted a special form of the Sterling Exchange Standard which, in substance, works the same as the others. When the Straits Settlements arrangements were widened in 1938 to include the Federated Malay States, they were further modernized. More generally, the Colonial Office in the 1930’s developed a model currency ordinance,18 based on West African experience, and its main lines were followed in new laws in Cyprus, Mauritius, and some of the West Indies. In the last case, the old problem of unlimited silver tender had remained generally unsolved by the 1920’s. The separate islands and their legislatures mainly persisted in their ancient ways and somewhat ignored the center, as they had done more plainly two centuries earlier. Their basic and effective coinage in the 1920’s was still token silver and was without an assured international value. In 1923 they rejected a proposal for a common West Indian currency on a sterling exchange basis. Some minor reforms were effected in the 1930’s, e.g., the Bahamas in 1936 limited silver to 40s. legal tender. The war, particularly with the rapid expansion of government note issues, brought about changes. Shortly, a regional currency board, with the title of “Board of Commissioners of Currency, British Caribbean Territories (Eastern Group),” is to be created to cover Barbados, British Guiana, Leeward Islands, Trinidad, Tobago, and the Windward Islands and to set up a unified currency for them all on a full modern Sterling Exchange Standard. But—perhaps characteristically—the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Jamaica are not joining; being a northerly and westerly group, their interests and history are different, though they are sterling countries. British Honduras has for centuries been a persistent nonconformist in these matters. It became one of the sterling group only late in 1949.

The outcome of this long complex history is today quite simple. The Colonial Sterling Exchange Standard 19 has been adopted throughout the colonial territories,20 except in Aden, which uses the rupee, in Basutoland, Bechuanaland, and Swaziland, which use South African currency, in British Solomon Islands, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Tonga, and, with French complications, the condominium of New Hebrides, which use Australian currency or are linked with it, and, finally, in St. Helena, which from 1949 is directly sterling (including Bank of England notes). Under that Standard, their currencies are convertible into sterling and sterling into them at par either for a small commission or within narrowly limited rates of exchange.21 Coin is now relatively unimportant, except in West Africa, where paper money would suffer from termites; private bank notes are also now relatively unimportant except in the Eastern territories, such as Hong Kong. The predominating paper money is the local government currency note, backed 110 per cent22 in sterling (cash in London and sterling securities). The importance of bank deposits and advances varies greatly from territory to territory, according to local circumstances and stages of economic development. Bank reserves are, of course, in sterling in one form or another, sterling being the form in which their liabilities are ultimately to be discharged. Except in Hong Kong, exchange transactions, other than in sterling area currencies, are very rare. In 1948 the total of coins in the colonial territories under the system was probably about £50 million, half being in Africa, and the total of notes was about £180 million, of which perhaps £50 million were private bank notes in Hong Kong. The volume of bank deposits is not known. Under the Colonial Sterling Exchange Standard are some 70 million people and a total international trade of some £1,250 million—about 4 per cent of world trade, much of it vital to world progress.


Treasury Minute, dated 11th February 1825

My Lords have under their consideration the State of the Currencies in the several British Colonies and Possessions abroad, as they affect the expenditure for the Public Service, both military and civil.

They consider it as being highly expedient that they should avail themselves of the present period of peace, and of the means which appear to be now at their disposal, for introducing a fixed and uniform medium of exchange for all transactions connected with the public service, in the place of the various, fluctuating, and anomalous currencies which have been created under the pressure of temporary emergency, or with views of local and peculiar expediency, in many of these Colonies and Possessions during the war, and which have been productive of much private and public inconvenience.

.... [the Spanish dollar] has been the medium of payment to the troops on Foreign Stations generally; but the rate in sterling money at which it has been issued to the Army has not been the same at all of those stations, nor has that rate in any case been fixed in conformity with the intrinsic value of the coin.

.... the prices at which dollars are now issued to the British troops abroad are considerably higher than the real value of the coin, or its value in British money at the Mint price of silver; and the Army would have cause to complain if they had not antecedently, during a great length of time, enjoyed the advantage of receiving that coin at a rate much below the value into which it was convertible in British currency through the medium of the exchanges.

Remonstrances have, however, proceeded from several of the Foreign Stations, on behalf of the Army, on account of the rates at which the dollar is now issued; and although the change by which a more correct issue of the pay of the troops abroad must be introduced, will unavoidably be attended with a considerable increase of expense, my Lords deem it just and necessary to adopt measures for that purpose.

.... In considering this subject, with a view to the introduction of a better mode of paying the Army abroad, my Lords advert to the circumstances which affect the supply of the Spanish dollar at the present time. Some difficulties in procuring it in sufficient quantities are occasioned by the diminished produce of the mines; while, on the other hand, the established character of that coin, on account of its formerly well-known uniformity of weight and fineness, has been materially affected by diversities lately introduced in the coinage in America, whereby it has been rendered less fit for the payments which are now under consideration.

Under these circumstances, it appears to my Lords that the fittest medium for the payment of the forces, and the best standard of circulation for the British colonies and possessions where these anomalies have hitherto prevailed, will be the silver and copper currencies now in circulation in this country, provided the same be made convertible, at the will of the holder, into the standard gold currency of the United Kingdom, by means of bills of exchange, to be given at a rate to be fixed for each station by the officer in charge of the military chest, or some other public authority.

Owing to the rate at which silver is by the Act, 56 Geo. 3, c. 68, converted into coin at the Mint (which is considerably above its general market value, as well as its former Mint price), this currency would not be liable to be withdrawn by private speculation, from the colonies; while, on the other hand, its ready convertibility, by the means above mentioned, into that money which is the legal tender for large payments in this country, would secure its circulation at the same value in the colonies.

As there would exist no inducement to export a currency of this description to foreign countries, so, on the other hand, if the rate at which bills would be obtainable for it upon England, be fixed in such manner as to be about equal to the expense and risk of bringing it to England, the danger of any inconvenience from its re-importation into this country, would in like manner be avoided.

This rate my Lords conceive to be about 3 per cent from almost all of the stations to which these measures would be applicable; and they would therefore direct, in the first instance generally, that the officer in charge of the commissariat should give a bill for £100 on this Board for every £103 in British silver currency; such rate being subject to future regulation in any case in which it may, on experience, be found to be too high, or too low, for the purpose which it is intended to secure.

Upon these grounds, therefore, my Lords will direct supplies of silver coin to be prepared for remittance to the several stations abroad, so as to furnish a sufficiency for the probable wants of each as speedily as possible. They desire that the agent for commissariat supplies will take the necessary steps for that purpose.

But as the substitution of this currency for the Spanish dollar, even in the payments from the military chest to the troops, can only be gradually effected, and as it may, in many cases, be still expedient to employ that coin as a medium of payment, at a fixed rate as compared with British currency, my Lords are of opinion that it should (when necessary) be issued at the rate of 4s. 4d. the dollar, being a fraction of a farthing only above its intrinsic value at the rate of 5s. 2d. the ounce of standard silver; and also, that all other coins in use in the colonies should, if used under any special expediency for making payments from the military chest, be issued at the same rate, as nearly as may be, with reference to their intrinsic value as compared with that of the Spanish dollar.

Their Lordships desire that letters be written to the commanders of the forces, and to the officers in charge of the commissariat, on each station abroad, conveying to them the necessary instructions for carrying this measure into execution, and directing that the rate at which the Spanish dollar and other coins are hereafter to be issued for the pay of the troops be adopted from the 24th of the month next succeeding the receipt of the instructions.

.... Let the officer in charge of the commissariat be also instructed that all unliquidated engagements with contractors or other persons are to be completed according to the terms of those engagements; but that in all future contracts the commissariat should reserve to itself the option of paying the contractor either in British silver or in bills upon this board, at the rate above stated of £100 in such bills for every £103 in money; and, further, my Lords desire that the commissaries be directed not to grant bills on any occasion for British money at any other rate.

If at any time there should not be a sufficiency of British silver at the disposal of any commissary, for carrying on the service at his station, he is then to advertise for Spanish dollars or other coins, by public competition, for his bills on this board, and is to accept the lowest tender; the dollars or coins so purchased to be issued invariably to the troops at the rate of 4s. 4d. for the Spanish dollar, and at proportionate rates for other coins, according to their intrinsic values as compared with the Spanish dollar valued at that rate ....

Order in Council of 23rd March 1825

Whereas it has been represented to His Majesty at this Board, by the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury, that they have given directions that His Majesty’s troops serving in the several British colonies and possessions abroad should, in certain cases, be paid in British silver and copper money; and that, with a view of securing the circulation of such money in those colonies, it would be expedient that an Order in Council should be issued declaring that in all those colonies where the Spanish dollar is now, either by law, fact, or practice, considered as a legal tender for the discharge of debts, or where the duties to the Government are rated or collected, or the individuals have a right to pay, in that description of coin, that a tender and payment of British silver money to the amount of 4s. 4d. should be considered as equivalent to the tender or payment of one Spanish dollar, and so in proportion for any greater or less amount of debt: And whereas it has been further represented by the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury that, with respect to the Cape of Good Hope, where there are not any Spanish dollars in circulation, but where the circulation consists entirely of paper rix dollars and its proportions, and with respect to Ceylon, where the circulation consists of silver and paper rix dollars, as well as of a variety of other coins which are generally received and paid with relation to their value as compared with rix dollars, it would be expedient that a tender and payment of Is. 6d. in British silver money should be considered as equivalent to a tender and payment of one such rix dollar so current at the Cape of Good Hope and Ceylon respectively, and so in proportion for any greater or less sum; and also that British copper should be made a legal tender in all the British colonies, for its due and proper proportions of British silver money, as by law established in Great Britain, but that no person should be compelled to take more than 12d. in copper money at any one payment: His Majesty, having taken the said representation into consideration, is pleased, by and with the advice of His Privy Council, to approve of what is therein proposed; and the Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury, and the Right Honourable Earl Bathurst, one of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, are to give the necessary directions herein, as to them may respectively appertain.


Mr. Shannon, Assistant Chief of the British Commonwealth Division, is a graduate of the University of Belfast and the London School of Economics. He was formerly Senior Lecturer in the University of the Witwatersrand and in the University of Bristol and Assistant Secretary, the British Board of Trade. He is the author of articles in various economic journals.


For further details, see James Pennington, Currency of the British Colonies (London, 1848); Robert (Lord) Chalmers, History of Currency in the British Colonies (London, 1893); Sir Gerard Clauson, “British Colonial Currency System,” Economic Journal (1944); “Monetary Systems of the Colonies,” Banker (1948-49); Statutory Rules and Orders (Revised, 1904 and 1950), s.v. “Coin” and “Coin, Colonies”; Colonial Office List and Annual Reports on the various Colonial Territories (H.M.S.O.).


The full text is given in Pennington, op. cit., pp. 182-99, and in Chalmers, op. cit., pp. 417-24. Extracts from the minute are given in the Appendix below. The next official survey is Goschen’s brief account to the International Monetary Conference of 1878, printed as U.S. Senate Document 58, 45th Congress, 3rd Session.


Chalmers, op. cit., would have us believe that the Treasury was actuated by imperialistic motives unconsciously (p. 24) or consciously (p. 23: “The shilling was to circulate wherever the British drum was heard”). But this seems reading history backward. The Colonies were not so esteemed in the days of Huskisson as in the time of Joseph Chamberlain. They were a drain on the Mother Country and their military defense and its expense were resented and under constant criticism. It seems clear that the Treasury was here concerned with justice to the troops and with tidiness of administration. Cf. its plaintive statement: “[Some military dollar] rates are of long standing and many of them founded upon authorities of the origin of which there are no distinct records in this office.”


This seems clear for the reforms of 1825; motives may have been more mixed in 1838-44. But even then, Pennington—author of the later reforms—was no advocate of only British coins. Quite the contrary: he declared, “To this [mixed coinage] no reasonable objection could be made .... England and Prance have maintained the exclusive system; but Holland, Hamburg, Genoa, and the United States have, with greater or less freedom, received and permitted the circulation of the coins of mints of established reputation at rates corresponding to their intrinsic values without suffering from this practice any detriment or inconvenience” (op. cit., p. 2). The same tolerance was shown later in the 1850’s when U.S. gold coins were made legal tender in some colonies and so remained until 1912 in British West Africa and until 1935 in the West Indies. The United States withdrew legal tender from British gold coins (and the Spanish dollar) and went over to the exclusive system only in 1857.


The same mint indenture price of 1601 persisted as the basis for the New York commercial quotations of sterling until 1873 with, however, the appropriate premiums and discounts.


Those with experience in World War II of the issue of military currencies and their rate-fixing may have some sympathy with the inexpert British Treasury in its post-Napoleonic bimetallic attempt. In Europe after World War II, British personnel are said to have made £60 million illicitly out of the British Treasury (see H.C. 115 of 1946-47; Hansard, July 21, 1947).


It partly depended on the presence of troops. In the Virgin Islands there were no troops and the Islands, linked in trade with the adjacent Danish island of St. Thomas, mainly used Danish coins to the end of the 19th century. With the same trade link, but with St. Thomas now owned by the United States, the Virgin Islands frequently use dollars today. Cf. the use of dollars in Canton Island (in the Gilbert Islands) arising out of present-day air traffic.


Although the adoption of sterling units was part of the intent of Pennington’s reforms in 1838, he expressly states: “It is certainly desirable when a change is made in the currency of any country to consult, as much as possible, the accustomed habits and even the prejudices of the people when that can be done without the neglect or violation of any important principle” (op. cit., p. 48). In fact there seem to be only two instances where central action has overriden local views: St. Lucia (1841) and British Honduras (1949).


The art is not lost. When Italy increased the value of the Maria Theresa dollar in Ethiopia in the mid-1930’s, enterprising British merchants made a profit by shipping an equivalent there (Arthur Nussbaum, Money in the Law, National and International, New York, 1950, p. 315).


The gold doubloon was demonetized in Bermuda by local Act in 1882, in Jamaica by proclamation in 1901 and, more widely, in 1907-08. Its various subdivisions were finally demonetized only in 1935.


See Report on Closer Association of the British West Indian Colonies, 1947 (Cmd. 7291), p. 26: “It was recognized by delegates that the issue of any new West Indian coinage would necessarily depend on the repatriation of British coinage in this area. It was therefore assumed that it would be possible for the new (Currency) Board to come to an equitable agreement with the Colonial Office and British Treasury authorities in this matter.”


The U.S. trade dollar was also a failure.


Legal tender privileges were frequently extended in the 19th century to foreign gold and even token silver coins in the Empire as additions to the ancient doubloon and silver dollars and their derivatives. West Africa is a complicated case, with foreign additions being made as late as 1875.


For the full text, see Chalmers, op. cit., pp. 429-34. But chartering ceased to be so important when general incorporation became easier.


For India’s “drift” to a proper solution, see J. M. Keynes, Indian Currency and Finance (London, 1913, p. 4); for “the logic of events” in Singapore, see E. W. Kemmerer, Modern Currency Reforms (New York, 1916), p. 450.


Perhaps the quaintest examples of this kind of thing are found in the West Indies. Some of the salt-producing islands in the Bahamas sold mainly to French islands; to protect their trade, French coins were given legal tender in part of the Bahamas (1850). About 1820, St. Vincent’s currency was partly determined by the trade winds and the ability of open boats to tack and veer.


In Ethiopia in World War II the heavy weight of Maria Theresa dollars hampered the war effort. A ton was worth only £3,000 and there were difficulties in dropping supplies to partisans behind the Italian lines. This was one reason for introducing the East African bank note. See Lord Rennell, British Military Administration in Africa (London, 1947), pp. 366-71.


Perhaps the research needed for this, and Britain’s departure from gold, were what led to some minor tidying up in the 1930’s and the repeal or other annulment of some old laws. Although Bermuda had demonetized the doubloon in 1882 and Jamaica in 1901, the general demonetization of the old doubloon and of U.S. and other foreign gold coins took place only in 1935. Perhaps, too, the same research showed that Fiji’s special legal problems had been missed in the 1920’s. See Clauson, op. cit.


This is the expression used in the Report on Closer Association of the British West Indian Colonies, 1947 (Cmd. 7291), p. 27.


The expression, “colonial territories,” is more and more officially displacing older ones, like “the Colonial Empire” or “the Colonies.”


Fiji and Hong Kong still have some anomalies in these matters.


The 110 per cent cover does not appear, as yet, to have been reached in Malta, and, owing to the war, it has been disturbed in Hong Kong.