Currency issues

Without getting into the ongoing debate of Britain’s relationship with Europe, I was intrigued to read on 24 April 1919 of a suggestion to introduce “an international note of currency”. Its purpose would be “to supply the credit which will pay for food, raw materials – not to speak of reparations! Two birds with one stone.” 

The one bird being finance, the other linking people/countries together as a means to maintain peace. (Smuts papers iv, p127). This tied in with the idea behind the League of Nations, the single currency idea being put forward by Keynes and backed by Smuts.

So often, we see rates of pay, income, salaries and costs stated without any context. This is fine when working in a single currency at a particular time, but it can cause problems working cross-culturally and over time.

Over the years I’ve been researching the First World War in Africa, I’ve come to realise that there were different currencies in operation in the same East African theatre: the Indian rupee in the north as it was the main currency in British East Africa (Kenya) and the shilling in the south, as used in Nyasaland (Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). The Germans had their own currency too. What is therefore helpful in books mentioning rates of pay etc, is the comparative such as Sana Aiyar notes in Indians in Kenya. In the 1920s when the currency was changed from the rupee to the East African shilling, the income level of black Africans effectively reduced by 33%. The rate of pay was not changed but the cost of living increased based on the exchange rate of the new currency.

In 1915, the hut tax in BEA was 3 rupees 5, increased in 1920 to no more than 10 rupees each.  At that time, the rupee exchanged at R1,500 to £100, ie 1 rupee 4 was the equivalent of 1 shilling. With the new currency, the exchange dropped to R1,000 to £100 (pp86-90, Indians in Kenya). In Chiwaya War Voices, covering the experiences of Nyasalanders in the war, hut tax was between 2.5s and 6s.

Some years ago, I came across this little site (https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/ppoweruk/) which measures the purchasing power of the British pound since 1270. It’s quite sobering. Taking 3s as the most commonly quoted hut tax charge in war-time Nyasaland, today it would be the equivalent of £12.29 or £108.20 depending on what you take into consideration. So, if we take the BEA hut tax as equating to 4 shillings, this equated to £16.39 or £144.20. What we need to know for both, however, is what their respective earnings were. The Nyasalander soldier was paid £1 1s 4d = £87.42 or £769.40. One assumes this was per month.

Concerning West African currency during the war years, Bamidele Aly explores the monetary policy and introduction of bank notes in Southern Nigeria in 1916 in There Came a Time.

If nothing else, a single currency would make historians’ lives easier when it comes to comparing standards of living and other such factors.

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