British Museum blog

Discovering objects in the archives

counterfeit 1938 two shilling West African Currency Board coinEllen Feingold, Project Curator: Money in Africa, British Museum

When conducting archival research, historians look for documents that can help them to better understand people, events, and objects from the past. Rarely, however, does an historian looking through documents at archives come across objects inside files. It is even more unusual to discover objects that not only help to piece together an historical narrative, but are the subject of the research itself.

As a Project Curator for the Money in Africa project at the British Museum, I am conducting research on counterfeiting in British colonial Africa. One of the goals of my research is to understand how British colonial authorities thought about and responded to counterfeiting in colonial Africa during the twentieth century. A key source for this research is the Colonial Office files at the National Archives at Kew (UK). These files hold correspondence, memos, and internal minutes that have helped to shed light on how authorities in London reacted to counterfeiting across the British Empire.

Some of the correspondence in the archives is focused on keeping officials in the Colonial Office up-to-date with respect to recent counterfeiting cases and related issues in the colonies in Africa. Yet officials in the colonies not only wrote to the Colonial Office and Currency Boards in London about counterfeiting, they also sent evidence of the problem, including actual counterfeit notes and coins. These objects were small and light, typically encased in relatively plain envelopes. It seems that they have remained with the correspondence since the 1930s.

The obverse (left) and reverse (right) of a counterfeit 1938 two shilling West African Currency Board coin found at the National Archives (UK).

The obverse (left) and reverse (right) of a counterfeit 1938 two shilling West African Currency Board coin found at the National Archives (UK).

Finding these objects in the files was thrilling, not only because the experience of discovering objects in an archive is exceptional, but because of the unique way in which they can enhance my research. By examining the counterfeit notes and coins confiscated in West Africa in the 1930s, I am able to collect evidence to help me answer questions about counterfeiting in colonial Africa that documents alone cannot provide. For example, were these counterfeit notes and coins ‘good’ imitations of the legal tender? With access to the counterfeit coins and notes in the archives, I can compare them to the authentic legal tender held in the British Museum’s collection. This enables me to judge whether counterfeit currency specimen could have easily passed for legal tender or were poor imitations that could have been deemed fake by a person with an untrained eye. This information is useful in thinking about how counterfeits circulated and who detected them.

Furthermore, having found counterfeit currency opens up the possibility of querying what materials and tools people in the colonies used when making counterfeit coins and notes. Colonial authorities speculated about the means of production and materials, but finding and handling the counterfeit money allows me to consider whether their judgements were correct.

A cigarette case with the image of a 1934 twenty shilling note issued by the West African Currency Board found at the National Archives (UK).

A cigarette case with the image of a 1934 twenty shilling note issued by the West African Currency Board found at the National Archives (UK).

Though counterfeit notes and coins were the primary concern among colonial authorities, the Colonial Office was also worried about unauthorized use of images of British colonial currencies. In the 1930s, Japanese manufacturers produced silk handkerchiefs and cigarette cases that depicted West African Currency Board and East African Currency Board notes and exported them to African colonies (see images above and below). Upon learning about these items, colonial administrators sent samples to London, so that the Colonial Office and Currency Boards could decide whether they were a cause for alarm and how to curb their circulation in Africa.

A silk handkerchief with the image of a 1933 ten shilling note issued by the East African Currency Board found at the National Archives (UK).

A silk handkerchief with the image of a 1933 ten shilling note issued by the East African Currency Board found at the National Archives (UK).

A Japanese handkerchief depicting an East African Currency Board note was the first object I found in the archives. I was surprised to learn that the somewhat bland description of these handkerchiefs in the documents did not do them justice. Made from silk and dyed vibrant colours along the edges, it is easy to see their appeal to buyers.

Seeing the handkerchief raised many questions for me: Why were notes used as decoration? Who bought the handkerchiefs? What did the image of currency on the handkerchief mean to those who bought them? Did the presence of the note on the handkerchief matter to buyers or did the handkerchiefs circulate because they were colourful and attractive?

Though I will not be able to answer all of these questions with the evidence available, the discovery of this object in the archives, as well as the others, has served as a valuable reminder that while archival documents alone can tell a story, objects can enhance and even challenge that story in unexpected ways.

Note: after discovering these objects, I handed them to the National Archives information desk with the relevant files, so they could be examined by their staff.

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Find out more about the Money in Africa project

Filed under: Money in Africa, Research

4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Serenity says:

    So kool!

    Like

  2. Lisa Thomas-Tench says:

    What a fantastic project! As a university economics instructor, I often tell the tale of the development of currencies and how they spread around the world. This project could lead to some wonderful discoveries that could inform how we understand the history of economic development.

    Like

  3. V.H says:

    Ahhhh, now I understand the problem that the shopkeepers who were ejected be Idi Amin had with Scottish, Isle of Mann and Channel Island cash.

    Like

  4. Festo says:

    This is an amazing project, and I cannot wait to see the results of it all. I would be very interested in knowing how the counterfeits were produced, and by who. Fantastic!!!

    Like

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