A brief historical background of
Ceylon Coffee Estate Tokens

During the period 1825-1869, the currency system of Ceylon was based on sterling, and the supply of actual coin was inadequate.

As the coffee estates developed during the 1820's-1850's, new problems arose in the method of payment of labour. Considerable labour forces were employed in their cultivation and maintenance. Much of this labour force was found from partly or almost entirely illiterate people, and wages were paid either by the day, or by the task. On the estates and also in the coffee curing mills, many tasks had a set value. The sum to be paid for a certain fixed task in coffee picking determined the wage paid. Thus, for picking half-a-hundred weight of clean coffee, the amount was generally 4 1/2 d or about 18-19 cents and a store-woman was expected to do this as a day's work. From the values impressed upon many of the minted tokens, we are aware that this set rate was almost standard throughout the island as the amount paid for a day's labour, or a day's Set task.

The employment on the estates and in the curing mills was a labour force engaged by the month but under the Labour Law Ordinance, No.5, of 1841, had to be paid by the day or by the set task. This involved the immediate payment of such labour at the conclusion of the day or completed task. In the early days, and for many years later, no organized system obtained for the distribution of money. Banks did not exist in the up country areas of the estates and the supply of metal money was erratic and inadequate. Even more pertinent was the fact that there was no denomination in the sterling scale that could equate the local wage rate in one payment.

This combination of unsuitable denominations of the currency and its inadequate supply, coupled with the inhibitions of an illiterate labour force and an employment system which required immediate payment, forced the estate managements to provide a more convenient mode of payment labour.

The lack of clerical staff prevented the installation of wages records and the like, and the estate managements evolved their own methods of accounting by adopting a token or tally system. This token or tally was then redeemed in actual currency coin at a set time weekly, usually on a Friday.

The early tokens or tallies took many forms and besides metal discs, included paper chits, leather and other media. The first of the metal tallies were quite crude and are easy to distinguish from the minted pieces. The materials used in their manufacture cover the range of common metals and include brass, copper, tin, zinc, pewter and lead. Brass is the metal that predominates.

A study of many of this class indicates that they were not manufactured entirely on the estates, but by local engineering shops. Several of these can be roughly graded into distinct groups as their style is regulated by the type and size of the cutting tools, punches, and sheet metal available in the local engineering shop. As the engineering shops in the planting districts were scattered, it is apparent that the tallies or tokens produced by one shop went out to several estates.

The form of manufacture was simple. Thin sheet metal was used. From these sheets discs were cut. The disc was then punched with the initials of either the owner, manager, or the estate name, followed in some cases by an indication of the value, such as 1, 1/2 , Bus (for bushel), 1/2 B (for 1/2 bushel), and sometimes in figures representing a currency denomination. A few later pieces also occur struck with dies that were manufactured locally but they are very rare and are usually made from the softer metals such as tin or lead.

For the later and more interesting group were struck from dies and manufactured in properly equipped mints in England or India, the reason for their inception is not hard to determine. When a laborer lived and reared a family, usually large, on a wage of 4 1/2 d a day, a token or tally represented quite a high value. The locally manufactured pieces could quite easily be copied by anyone who possessed a scrap of metal, a file and a piece of iron to make a punch, and it is evident from an examination of several specimens that forgery of the tokens or tallies became rife.

To counter this some tokens were serially numbered, but in the main the larger estates and firms sought the assistance of properly equipped mints and tokens were struck to the order of the several estates or firms. By their very nature, the tokens of this later group are the more interesting. Their detail is more complete. They usually bear the names of their issuers and sometimes the estate or mill name. In not a few instances, their designs are local and topical and compare favorably with the currency tokens issued in other colonies.

The British under Governor Edward Barnes invested in a network of roads which precipitated a land grab, and eventually the conversion of large tracts of land into coffee plantations, expanding this crop which was first brought to Ceylon in 1690 from Java by the Dutch. In 1869, Coffee covered over 90,000 acres of Ceylon's 'hill country' and had created a vibrant export trade. It was in that year that nature turned its wrath on the early planters through a leaf blight - Haemileia vastatrix, for which no control could be found. Yet in 1879, a decade after the blight visiting Andrew Carnegie wrote there are more than twelve hundred coffee plantations, and the amount of coffee exported exceeds twenty millions of dollars per annum. Tea cultivation has been introduced recently, and the quality is said to be excellent. There cannot be any doubt of this, because it finds a ready market here. None has been exported. If it were not a remarkably good article the foreign would be preferred, as we all know a domestic article has a world of prejudice to overcome at first. I shall watch the Ceylon tea question with interest, and hope that at some not distant day the production of tea leaf may rival that of the coffee bean. On the ashes of a once great coffee industry, was built the now famous Ceylon Tea Industry.

Text edited from
* The Coins of British Commonwealth of Nations to the end of the reign of George VI 1952 - Part 2 - Asian Territories by F. Pridmore Spink & Son Ltd. 1965.