British Museum blog

Digging for tales of money in Kenya

Moi Avenue, NairobiKarin Pallaver, University of Bologna

As part of my work on the Money in Africa project I was in Nairobi, Kenya earlier this year to carry out archival research.

The aim of the project is to study the adoption, use and adaptation of coins and banknotes in Africa. As a historian my role is to study the transition from the pre-colonial to the colonial period. Which were the currencies used before colonisation? How did Africans react to the introduction of colonial coins? And how did they appropriate and sometimes remake colonial coins and notes? After a three-month research period in the National Archives in London, I hoped that studying the papers in the Kenya National Archives (KNA) would help find answers to these questions.

Moi Avenue, Nairobi.

Moi Avenue, Nairobi.

The archives are situated in the busy and crowded Moi Avenue in Nairobi city centre. Every day I walked there crossing Uhuru Park, the famous venue for political gatherings and a favourite destination for families at the weekend. The KNA has a detailed paper catalogue and computer database, but nonetheless, it took several days to master the intricacies of the cataloguing. The help of Mr. Richard Ambani was invaluable. He worked for many years as archivist at KNA and is now retired, but still comes everyday to the archives to help researchers. He is a sort of living catalogue; he knows the files by heart, their content and their location and helped find the documents I was looking for.

I decided to start my research with the annual and quarterly reports coming from the various districts of the East Africa Protectorate, starting from about 1900. What emerged from these reports is that money, in the sense of physical coins and notes, really mattered to colonial administrators. They wrote to Mombasa, the headquarters of the administration, reporting on the monetary practices of their subjects and suggesting strategies to induce them to use colonial coins and abandon cloth and beads.

What is more fascinating is that for a long period pre-colonial and colonial currencies co-existed, both for payments and for paying taxes. I found one report in which the author is talking about crocodile eggs accepted in payment for taxes. He gives the exact amount of crocodile eggs corresponding to the Hut Tax: 150.

The perspective I can get from these documents is rather different from that obtainable from those collected at the National Archives in London. Local administrators sent regular reports to Mombasa on what was happening in their districts, and these were then used to write general reports on the Protectorate which were sent to London. Local reports at KNA give therefore much more in depth information on what was going on locally and precious details on how Africans used colonial coins and notes. In Kikuyu district, for instance, the local administrator noted that in 1911 “nickel cents are occasionally used in place of washers for putting on corrugated iron roofing, being cheaper than zinc washers.”

These sorts of small details are essential in building up a broader picture of the role of money in colonial Africa and gave us plenty to work with back in London.

Find out more about the Money in Africa research project

Filed under: Money in Africa, Research

4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. beeseeker says:

    Love the “cents occassionally used as washers” quote – how practical, wonder how much washers cost at the time: more or less than a cent each ?

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  2. karin.pallaver says:

    Yes, nickel (cent) washers were actually cheaper than zinc washers! 1 cent coins were particularly suitable for being used as washers, as they had a hole in the middle. When the new coins for East Africa were designed at the beginning of the 20th century, it was proposed -and later approved- to have the smallest denominations with a hole in the middle, because, as the sources point out, “It was the custom to carry the cowries about strung together […] it might be worthy of consideration whether it would be not convenient to have the cent pieces struck with a hole through the middle [...] -to enable the natives to carry them about in the same manner as they were accustomed to do with the cowries”.
    It’s fascinating to see how -quite often- colonial coins were designed according to local already-existing monetary practices.

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    • Satvinder says:

      Karin, yes you are right, I have seen the old cents used as washers, however, I was of the opinion and perhaps incorrectly, coins with holes in them didn’t start from Africa. Certainly I have seen Chinese coins with holes that are said to be older then the British Empire. And I am convinced regardless the reason is the same and that is for easier carrying / storage……

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  3. Satvinder says:

    When I was young in the sixties, I clearly remember the Masai guards employed from time to time would refuse to accept bank notes for payment, this was because they had no trust in banks and would usually bury the money they had, until they needed it of course.

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