Money is good for nothing unless you know the value of it – P T Barnum

The tale of South Africa’s first coinage and the Griqua tokens is a rich saga interwoven with myth and mystery. The DEI had money, but it did was useless in the hinterland, where there were no banks and initially no stores. This was the world of barter until in the early 1800s, trading stores began popping up and doing good business. Barter over long distances was always a problem. However, launching currency in remote inland areas was not easy. Few indigenous people could count or calculate and none had pockets or purses, hence nowhere to keep coins. Some shopkeepers issued cardboard tokens, known as “good fors”. They simply wrote the amount that these were good for on a piece of cardboard, but the system was riddled with flaws. Soon a desperate need for some form of currency developed in the isolated inland areas.


In October 1811 Burchell in Travel in the Interior of South Africa comments on the number of inhabitants at Griquatown, the outpost of Ongeluksfontein (Unlucky Fountain). It fluctuated greatly he said and at times the spot was quite deserted. The Koras and Bushmen cannot be considered as belonging to the establishment. They show no desire to receive instruction from the missionaries and they do not attend their meetings. It does not seem that any attempt at cultivation has ever been made here as the ground nowhere appears to have been broken. They continue to move from place to place; they are a wild independent people. Hunting is the only employment for which the people at Griquatown show any eagerness and it, therefore, occupies the greatest part of their time. Burchell goes on to describe how the spoils of hunting, such as ivory and other valuables, were bartered for brandy and goods.


The first man to address this problem was said to be the controversial missionary John Campbell, who was wellknown for acting on his own initiative. Without consulting the directors of the London Missionary Society (LMS), he ordered the minting of a set of four coins for the Griqua community when he was in England in 1814. They had the values of ¼, ½, (in bronze) and the five and ten (in silver). Sometimes called “Christian coinage”, it is considered to be South Africa’s first autonomous community coinage because it was introduced to help really rural people who had no medium for purchasing small articles, such as knives and scissors. Food was bartered and beads and rixdollars addressed the rest. Quite some controversy surrounds these tokens. In his book, The Coinage of Griqualand, H Alexander Parsons states, that they were struck by die sinker Thomas Halliday and sent out to the Griquas in 1815; a second minting followed in 1816. Parsons stated he doubted whether these coins were ever used by the Griqua community because, these people were unfamiliar with pounds, shillings and pence. This was far too complex for remote, unsophisticated and uneducated people to grasp. They could not calculate, so the values of the coins meant nothing to them. He then added that too few ¼, ½ coins were struck to make up the 5s and 10s and that similar designs on the farthing as well as the five pence pieces, caused confusion.


The great missionary Robert Moffat did not like Campbell. He considered him to have a deceptive personality and accused him of being a liar and of “building castles in the air”. He said Campbell was very quarrelsome and had a drinking problem. On August 20, 1822, Moffat’s in-laws, James and Mary Smith, stated that Campbell was very

“quick to get onto his Highland Horsey and was lavish with foul language.” George McCall Theal, South Africa’s most eminent historian, was also a bit skeptical of the man. He wrote: “Little reliance can be placed on anything he describes which did not come under his own eyes. It is difficult to make out his Dutch, Korana and Setshuana as his ear is not good at catching sounds, but there is a kindly tone throughout … which compensates for many defects.” In his book Walks of Usefulness Campbell admits that he was prone to fantasy. Oddly enough, in Travels in South Africa, A Second Journey, Campbell makes no reference to the Griquatown token coins. In fact, he mentions Griqua teacher, Jan Hendrik, going to the market at Beaufort (West) to barter ivory for articles that he wanted. Moffat also makes no mention of the use of Griquatown token coins in his many journals and books.


Sadly, Campbell’s dream of a thriving commercial center did not materialise. The primitive Griquas did not know what to do with “coins” and, in all sincerity, had no real use for them. Robert Moffat reflects that the Griqua were a transient people, who if anything, had gone backwards in all respects as a result of their displacement from the Cape. In his opinion this tiny population was in no position to have or use coinage. The Griquas of South Africa and their Money outlines of the history of these people and gives some fascinating facts on their coinage. This book challenges the misconceptions and romantic notions surrounding the “Campbell coins”. It stresses that the coins were never used by the Griquas and were, therefore, not South Africa’s first currency. In from Barter to Barclays, compiled for Barclays National Bank by Eric Rosenthal, he discusses currency such as cowrie shells that were used by traders and the Griqua tokens. He said: “The entire commerce of the Griqua nation totalled £50 per annum and at that time there were only about 291 males in Griquatown.”


The tokens were held by Heinrich Helm, resident missionary of Griquatown, who asked the LMS what he should do with them. He said the coins had not been circulated because there was no store nor bank in Griquatown and the Griqua refused to accept them. (The first bank opened 100 years later.) Also, there was nothing on which to base their introduction to the community and trading stores refused to accept. Historian Karel Schoeman states in the 1820s the Griqua only accepted rixdollars and that the “Griqua money” was still unused. The coins had no parity with British coins and it seems no “value” was ever agreed upon for the silver pieces. By 1821 that the Griquas and traders still refused to accept these tokens thus rendering them worthless. In addition to all of this, the Griquas could not count; they were not industrious; their only traditional activities were shepherding their livestock, horse riding, hunting, and barter. Many lived off plunder and the chase. Even the great Griqua leader Waterboer would not accept the Griqua tokens and was paid for his services in rixdollars.


Burchell wrote: “The trees of my imagination had vanished, leaving nothing but that which the missionaries themselves had planted. The church had sunk to a barn-like building of reeds and mud. The village was merely a row of half a dozen reed cottages; the river was but a rill; and the situation an open, bare, and exposed place, without any appearance of a garden, excepting that of the missionaries. It would be very unfair towards those who devote themselves to a residence in a country, where they are cut off from communication with civilized society, and deprived of all its comforts, to attribute this low state of civilization and outward improvement, to a want of solicitude on their part. Their continual complaint, is of the laziness of the indigenous people, and the great difficulty of persuading them to work, either on the buildings or in the garden.” Commenting on the possible introduction of monetary tokens, he said: “Apart from the missionaries, this is not community in which to ‘circulate’ currency.”


Nothing changed over the next 30 years. In the 1840s the great white hunter Gordon Cumming visited and commented: “They are of an indolent disposition, and averse to hard work of any description; much of their time is spent in hunting, and large parties annually leave their homes and proceed with their wagons, oxen and horses on hunting expeditions into the far interior, absenting themselves for three to four months at a time. They are remarkable for their disregard of the truth, a weakness which I regret to state I found very prevalent in South Africa; they are also great beggars, generally by soliciting ‘trexels’.” (A trexel was a pound of tea or coffee.) In 1812 Griuatown boasted 25 traditional Griqua huts made of branches and mud, three kraals for livestock, a church, a missionary store room (for produce harvested from the missionary’s garden), and the missionary’s mud house, In The Cape Coloured People J S Marais, Professor of History at the University of the Witwatersrand, notes that influence of missionary William Anderson declined around 1814 and that from 1815 to 1820 Griquatown became a ghost town with the few nomadic Griquas using the mission station as a temporary camp before moving on. Note: Firms like Barry &Nephew as well as Mosenthals issued notes that were honoured across the country, states tokencoins.com. In 1874 gold coins referred to as staatsponde or burgersponde were issued and in 1902, when money was scarce and the Boers needed resources to buy provisions, the veldpond was issued.


There was no leader at the settlement because the leading families, of Adam Kok II and Barend Barends, had left to set up home at Campbell and Daniel’s Kuil between 1814 and 1820, the very time that the coins were supposed to be circulated. The only permanent resident at the mission in 1815 / 1816 was missionary Anderson’s and his were the only gardens. A few Griquas lurked about at the mission, but “it seemed these people had lost trust in Anderson over the Cape Regiment fiasco in 1814,” wrote Reverend Philip. In the 1860s A F Hattersley in Later Annals of Natal reflected on the plight of the Griquas: “Nothing has changed. To our disappointment we found it a very dirty place, consisting of about 200 mud huts, a few old wagons, and a lot of dirty people sitting or lying outside their dens. A small church and fort in the middle of the village and Adam Kok’s house at one end. Adding to the miserable appearance several houses were only half built and some had only their four walls standing.”

Other money


Most numismatists consider South Africa first coinage to have been minted in England by Strachan and Co in the mid-1800s. It was withdrawn in the late 1980s by Ken Strachan the last member of the company. He had the tokens melted down and donated the proceeds to his church. Some coins, however, remained in circulation and are quite valuable today. Robert and Mary Strachan and their sons – Thomas, who was born on January 29, 1838, and Donald, May 22,1840 – came from the Null of Kintyre in Scotland to settle in Natal. They were part of the infamous Natal Emigration and Colonization Scheme devised by Joseph Charles Byrne. Would-be settlers landed in Natal from 20 ships between 1849 and 1851 and were settled on allotments in Byrne valley, near Richmond.


Joseph himself was a flamboyant character, about 50 years old, tall, sturdy, well-built and with “a fresh complexion and impressive manner.” He was always “well-dressed and exuded prosperity”. His usual attire was a black cutaway coat, tight trousers and Hessian boots. While in Natal from July 1851 to April 1852, he wore dark glasses and carried a whip. He always rode a good horse and was followed by a mounted white personal attendant. He claimed to have travelled widely, but cleverly refrained from stating exactly where and when. Many doubt that he had actually visited the places of which he spoke and wrote. In 1839 he did travel overland from New South Wales to South Australia with two friends, driving about 1 000 sheep along the Murrumbidgie and Murray rivers to Adelaide. After a five-month journey, they safely delivered most of the animals to market. He then went on to Melbourne, where, in 1841, he married Agnes O’Farrell, the daughter of William O’Farrell of Port Philip. He then took a job as a reporter on the Melbourne Argus, but lost it after a dispute in the police court.


The Strachans, who arrived on the “Unicorn”, were granted 60 acres of land in the Illovo district but found it unsuitable for farming. A year later, in 1850, they became victims of Byrne’s bankruptcy. He had not visited the country before launching his scheme and in the long run there was insufficient arable land for his settlers. The Strachans moved to Durban where Mary died and Robert was killed on February 2, 1852, in a building accident. The orphaned boys, then 12 and 14, were cared for by a faithful servant, Simon Rhadebe. They accepted jobs with James Kinghurst, a Durban butcher, to drive wagon trains to Pietermaritzburg and Nomansland, but James was always in financial trouble and could seldom pay the brothers.


By 1858 Thomas, 20, and Duncan, 18, had raised enough capital to open a trading store in partnership with George Charles Brisley. In time, a village sprang up around it. By the time the Griquas arrived in Nomansland in 1862 their store was well-established and widely accepted. While trade blossomed, there was a major handicap – operating over great distances meant that some sort of monetary token was desperately needed. To overcome this growing hurdle, they introduced Strachan and Company tokens. These coins had holes in their rim and this allowed them to be strung around the neck with beads and other décor. They were called “kences” because that was the noise they made when rubbing together. The tokens were widely accepted even in church collections. Tragedy struck in August 1879 when Thomas broke a leg in a sawmilling accident, never recovered, and died.


In 1882 a severe recession hit East Griqualand and many traders went out of business following the collapse of the local economy. Strachan and Co’s trade tokens, however, managed to keep their business afloat. The main cause of the economic collapse was speculation in diamond shares following Rhodes and Barnato’s battle to secure the big hole of Kimberley. Eventually the recession coupled to the growing rift between the business partners hit Strachan and Co very badly and in January 1887 the company was temporarily dissolved. Despite this the company’s trade tokens continued to be circulated and honoured by Donald Strachan who was the first and only white Magistrate appointed by the Griquas. He then engaged Simon Radebe as his trusted adviser. Over the next 50 years the business blossomed and under consecutive generations grew into a trading empire with 30 stores spread across East Griqualand. The trade tokens rescued this business which was disbanded in 1986 with the proclamation of the homeland policy.


In 1872 two brothers John Robert William and George Larkan sailed from Kilkenny, in Ireland, bound for South Africa. They went to East London, but in 1875 they trekked north and into the hinterland to what was then known as Nomansland, between the Cape and Natal. In about 1880 they formed a partnership and bought the farms of Antioch and Raven Hill, near Harding. Soon after they bought Bont Rand (Speckled Cliff), outbidding the syndicate of Donald Strachan and Stafford at an auction at the Kokstad hotel. (The farm was 3,200 acres in extent and cost four shillings an acre.) In 1890 John Robert William Larkan’s son, John Robert, who was born in 1870, set out on his own. In Durban he was contracted to build the railway line between Durban and Stanger. While working on this project he formed a strong friendship with a Mr Baytoppe and this led to him meeting the beautiful, Frances Charlotte Baytoppe, who later became his wife. At the completion of the line he assisted in the building of another railway line between Glencoe and Dundee. With the money he had earned through this work he was able to buy Bont Rand from his father and his uncle. He then also bought Readsdale and Gaybrooke. In 1894 he married Frances and they settled on the farm Bont Rand.


A rather strange custom, in force during those early days, was the practice known as “halving”. This was the letting of land to the locals, whose rent was half the crops that they reaped. John Robert Larkan gathered his share of the crops and bartered them in areas of famine for skins, hides, and other goods which he then sold in Durban. It was a lucrative business, but tiring, So in 1901 he opened a store on Bont Rand and later that year bought a small tract of land called Cupar, from a Scotsman Jack Bonnar. (Cupar was named after a small town in Scotland). John Larkan opened a store there and appointed Ernest Buhre to manage it. The locals called it “Kwabuwe”. John Larkan found barter trade a totally unsatisfactory way to conduct business. He had, however, noted how the Strachan trade tokens had been used to the benefit of their stores and so decided to create his own out of cardboard with a monetary value written in ink. The denominations were 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 shilling and nine, six and three pence. This form of coinage was readily accepted by the locals


John Robert died at the age of 36 on September 26, 1906. This left Frances Charlotte in a desperate position, with young children in the middle of nowhere. Frances knew nothing about running stores in isolated areas, so she called in the assistance of her brothers William and Arthur Baytoppe. One of the first things that they did was renovate the old store at Bont Rand as thieves had merely dug their way through the mud walls to steal goods at night. William burned all the cardboard tokens as the locals had started to alter the figures on them. This almost led to bankruptcy. William then suggested to his sister that she have brass coins made, similar to those used by Strachan She ordered aluminum tokens from a Durban. These were issued despite the fact that there was a genuine shortage of currency, and their stores were several days ride away from Durban. These tokens put the business back on its feet. Robert Percival Larkan and his wife Naomi Francis joined the business and issued aluminum “bobbin” shaped tokens bearing their initials. They were declared illegal in the 1930s.

All money is a matter of belief – Adam Smith