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Coins Struck for Colonial Cities in Asia
By Mark Benvenuto, World Coin News
July 29, 2013

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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Two of the most amazing cities of the modern world have to be Hong Kong and Singapore. Both were nothing more than backwater ports until leaders in an expanding British Empire decided they needed port cities of influence for them and for Britain. From those beginnings two of the world’s busiest cities have come into being. Collecting the coins of either one can be both a challenge and a lot of fun.

But Britain was not alone in stretching out and making claims far from home and in staking out city colonies for an empire. France did it. Portugal did the same, and believe it or not, so did Germany.

Portuguese India
Many collectors know about the Portuguese city of Macao, located on the south coast of China, and of the rather extensive series of coins that have been issued for it. But fewer of us know much about what is collectively called Portuguese India.

It took Great Britain lifetimes to pull most of modern day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka into its empire. As all that was going on, Portugal managed to keep three small footholds right on the western shores of India proper. This actually reflects something of a very long-term turn of events. You see, in the late 1400s and early 1500s, the Portuguese crown had put quite the effort into logically and systematically getting ships around Africa to India to open a trade route by sea. But the British had been building ships of their own, and with them won the long-haul battle for the land and the wealth of India.

So, while the coins of British India are really pretty easy to collect, and sport a lot of history, they eclipse the Portuguese Indian coins of Damao, Diu and Goa.

The easiest way to dig into the coins of Portuguese India is to start at 1959. Yes, hard though it may be to believe of colonial cities that started in the days of wooden sailing ships, these three cities were still Portuguese in the late 1950s. In a system where 100 centavos were equal to one escudo, there are plenty of denominations, as well as relatively large mintages, from which to choose. The little 10-centavos pieces are even something that can still be found in dealer bargain bins. All are bronze or a copper-nickel alloy, which means they are rather inexpensive today. Even the large 6-escudo pieces don’t cost an arm and a leg. About the only thing a collector will really need in abundance is patience. None of these appear too often, even at large shows.

Stepping back a bit, to the decades from the late 1800s until the early 1950s, Portuguese Indian coins were made in a series that spans from the tiny copper 3 reis coins up to the big, silver uma pieces, also called rupia. Unlike their more modern counterparts, this series has one of those wonderfully non-decimal systems: 1 rupia was equal to 960 reis. It was also equal to 16 tanga. That means 60 reis were also equal to one tanga. Add to all this coins titled “oitavo” (1/8th of a tanga), “oitavo de rupia” (1/8th of a rupia, or 120 reis), and “meia rupia” (half of a rupia), and you get, well, a monetary system that may appear to us as complex as a Rubik’s Cube. But who knows, in a century or so, folks might wonder just what the terms “nickel,” and “dime,” and “quarter” all meant in the United States series.

One great aspect of collecting the coins of Portuguese India for this particular time frame is that the rupias and half rupias were silver. These coins were certainly not issued each year, but from 1881 until the issues of 1935 and 1936, they were still real silver coins. And because so few folks collect them now, they are often priced not too much higher than the price of silver metal on the market.

Collecting these late 19th and early 20th century coins of Portuguese India is not a particularly tough endeavor today. Once again, prices aren’t too high simply because the collector base isn’t too broad. Once more, it’s patience that you’ll need for this hunt.

French Pondichery
With the British and the Portuguese apparently gobbling up all of India, it may be a surprise that France was able to get a toehold in there as well. But at the time these colonial cities were being established, almost all of the European powers had some form of trading company that exercised almost sovereign powers – such as the Compagnie des Indes Orientales (loosely translated: the French East India Company). This particular company acquired several cities on the east coast of present-day India in the late 1600s, and actually held the city of Pondichery until after the Second World War.

Some of the earliest coins of French India have no dates, and sport an interesting mix of the three fleur de lis on one side, and either local script or a crown on the other. Issued in copper, silver and gold, they are denominated in doudou, fanon, and for the gold, pagodas. The bad news for this series might be that with no western writing on them, and no dates written on many of them, they can be a bit difficult to collect. The good news is that even the gold pieces aren’t all that expensive, simply because the collector base for them tends to run more towards academics and museum curators, and not as much to us casual collectors.

German Kiau Chau
If all that isn’t enough to slake your thirst for knowledge of remote outposts of European empires, try looking to Kiao Chau (also spelled Kiau Chow), a German city-colony in China administered not by some colonial board, but by the German Imperial Admiralty. Germany got into the colonizing game late, mostly because there really wasn’t a Germany until late. The unification of 1871 changed the center of Europe from a loose collection of kingdoms, duchies, and states into one big nation. And the leaders of this newly forged Germany saw that Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal were all way ahead when it came to colonies.

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Now, between 1871 and the 1890s, Germany claimed far more lands than just the city of Kiao Chau. But this city was located in what was considered a strategically important place. It was a spot in Asia that gave the German Navy a coaling station right where it could refuel ships for a run all the way across the Pacific, and thus around the world.

With a new German colony came all the trappings of government – and in the case of Germany, a brewery as well. Curiously, the monetary system for Kiao Chau was 100 cents being equal to one dollar. That isn’t really any nod to the United States; rather, what were then called “dollars Mex” circulated widely on the Chinese coast. These were Mexican 8 reales and the older Spanish colonial pieces as well. Germany was simply doing the wise thing, and jumping on that particular bandwagon. After all, it made trade and commerce a lot easier.

We just commented that it takes some patience to find the coins of Portuguese India and of French Pondichery. When it comes to German Kiao Chau, you might get lucky and land them all at one time. The reason is that there are exactly two coin denominations issued for this colony: a 5-cent coin and a 10-cent coin. One side sports the German imperial eagle, and an inscription in German, as might well be expected. The reverse of that is written in Chinese characters and translates to: “Great German national treasure” in the center, surrounded by “Green island, five cents, twenty make one dollar,” or by the ten cent version of that. Both coins are dated 1909, and both were made in fairly large quantities. But the prices for each can be high today, because there just don’t seem to be many of them left.

Kiao Chau fell at the beginning of the First World War, to a combined Japanese – British force, and never was returned to Germany. Eventually, it was reunited with China. Interestingly, when the Cultural Revolution swept through China in the 1960s, erasing everything that was not properly Communist, even the cemetery for the war dead of German Kiao Chau was razed. But somehow the brewery survived this often brutal revolution, and still makes and markets Tsingtao beer. Apparently beer is properly Communist.

Looking at the colonial cities of Portugal, France and Germany gives a person a bit of time to expand their worldview in regards to a time that is now gone. Cities like Hong Kong, Macao and Singapore are the well-known results of that age, because of the twists and turns of history that have helped them grow. Cities like Damao, Diu, Goa, Pondichery, and Kiao Chao have faded into history as events and governments have passed them by. Still, there are some fascinating coins here for the person who wants to know more.



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