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African Coins

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North Africa and the Near East

It seems probable that coins were brought to the African continent by Greek and Phoenician traders as early as the seventh century B.C. By the sixth century B.C., Greek emigrants had founded the cities of Barce and Cyrene, taking as their badge on their coins the silphium plant which they exported in large quantities. The use to which this popular plant was put was twofold; the juice was used as a drug and as seasoning, whilst the the stalk was eaten as a vegetable.

The death of Alexander the Great led, as we have already seen, to internal dissension in the Greek Empire and Cyrene was absorbed into the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt. Ptolemy I, who held the satrapy of Egypt for Philip III and Alexander IV of Macedon, took the title of king in 305 B.C. and began to place his name and portrait on the coinage. Undoubtedly the best known of the Ptolemies, at any rate as far as the layman is concerned, is Cleopatra VII (52-30 B.C.) who was famous for her beauty and personality. There are many portrait coins of Cleopatra, most of which depict her as a rather hard-faced woman; her early coins, however, do show something of her alleged beauty. Following the death of Cleopatra Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire and the personal property of the emperor himself, the official who administered it being directly responsible to the emperor.

The Roman colonization of North Africa extended from Alexandria in the east, through Cyrenaica and the cities of Cyrene, Barce and Euhesperides along the coast to Mauretania Tingitana and the straits of Gibraltar. Mints were set up in convenient cities along the coast, not the least of these being that of Carthage situated near the present-day city of Tunis.; Carthage, which as an independent city state had been striking coins since roughly the fifth century B.c., produced a long series of coins, most of which featured in some way or other a horse as the reverse type. In 146 B.C. the city was destroyed by the Romans. In A.D. 429 the two Roman generals in Africa, Boniface and Aetius quarrelled and Boniface appealed for help to Gaiseric, king of the Vandals in Spain. Gaiseric immediately responded with the result that the Romans were driven out of Africa. Carthage was the one exception, however, and did not succumb until ten years later. Gaiseric continued using Roman coins during the early years of the occupation and also made imitations of themnone, however, with his name on them. Bronze coins were struck at Carthage after the fall of that city and silver coins bearing the king's name first occur under Gunthamund (A.D. 484-96). The Byzantine emperor Justinian I (A.D. 527-65), through his general Belisarius, finally overthrew the Vandals and captured their king Gelimar in A.D. 533.

The mint of Carthage again comes into prominence under the Byzantine emperors, particularly during the reign of Phocas (610-41). In the last year of this reign the Arabs invaded Egypt and soon the whole of the country was under their yoke; it was not until 698, however, that Carthage finally fell to them.

The Arabs at first struck many coins in imitation of Byzantine types but later, the Omayyad Caliphs, who eventually ruled the whole of North Africa from Egypt to Morocco, instituted a new coinage. Owing to the Muhammadan religion prohibiting the copying of any image from nature, both the obverse and reverse of the coinage is devoted solely to legends.

In A.D. 750 the Omayyads were overthrown by the Abbasids, who founded their capital Baghdad twelve years later. Mention of the Abbasids will also be made in connexion with the Seleucid empire. Morocco first overthrew the Abbasids in 788 and twelve years later, Haroun Er-Rashid's governor at Kairuan founded an empire which eventually included Algeria, Tunisia and Tripolis. This empire was destroyed in 908 by the Fatimids, and these areas were again united with Morocco under the Almohades in the latter part of the twelfth century.

Algeria and Tunisia later broke away from the Almohades in the early part of the thirteenth century and founded their own independent dynasties. Tripolis, which had been annexed by the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt in the twelfth century, was later returned to the kingdom of Tunisia in 1510.

The influence of the Turkish empire greatly increased in North Africa at this period so that by the sixteenth century Algeria, Tunisia and Tripolis were all incorporated into the Ottoman empire. After the annexation, Algeria was governed by an official called a Dey, appointed by the Turks, this arrangement lasting until the French conquest in 1830. Tunisia was governed by a Bey, also responsible to Constantinople and then to the French after their conquest in 1881: it is now an independent republic. In Morocco, the Almohades were deposed by the Marinids; a successive dynasty, the Sharifs, hold the throne today. The preceding paragraphs show something of the complex history of North Africa and each of the succeeding dynasties produced large numbers of coins of the typical Muhammadan type with legends both on obverse and reverse. Contrary to Muhammadan law, the representation of a lion appears on a gold coin of Mamluk Baibars (1260-77). Baibars, the most powerful ruler of the Mamluk dynasty who overthrew the Ayyubids in 1250, was known as `the lion' and for this reason placed this emblem on the coin.

The principal mint of the Turkish empire was, of course, Constantinople, but many coins were struck at other mints including Damascus and Aleppo; today, there are mints in both Constantinople and Ankara. It is still the exception rather than the rule to find portraits on Turkish coins, but in 1934 the head of Kemal Ataturk, founder and first president of the republic, was placed on the silver coinage. A short-lived issue of 1 lira pieces struck in 1940-41 bears the head of Ismet Inonu, a later president of the republic.

Tunis, being a French protectorate, now reckons her currency in francs, the values being inscribed on the coins both in Arabic and French. There are no portraits at all on this coinage, the more recent issues of which have, since 1921, been struck in a variety of base metals including aluminium, bronze, nickel-bronze and cupro-nickel. The franc system was also introduced into Morocco in 1929 and again the values appear on the coins in both Arabic and French. In 1960, however, the currency was changed and the unit is now the dirhem.

For three centuries, following 1517, Egypt remained a province of the Turkish Empire, governed by a pasha. In 1792 Napoleon invaded the country and was ejected by the British in 1801. Subsequently Egypt was administered at different periods by Turkey, France and Britain until it gained independence in 1922.

Whilst Egypt was considered part of the Turkish Empire their coins can be distinguished from those of Turkey by the name NUsR (Egypt) in Arabic characters. In 1914 Egypt was declared a British protectorate and Hussein Kamil became sultan, striking coins in his own name in gold, silver, cupro-nickel and bronze. The gold (100 piastres) and silver (20, 10, S and 2 piastres) bear the sultan's name in Arabic within a wreath on the obverse and on the reverse the value and date appear both in Arabic and English. Hussein Kamil's successor, Fuad, struck coins both as sultan and, after 1922, as king. The republic that was established in 1953 has struck a variety of coins with various designs, most of the lower denominations bearing the head of a sphynx.

Sudan, at one time ruled by the Turks and after 1899 by an Anglo-Egyptian agreement, is now independent and has its own currency. The system is a decimal one based on milliemes, piastres and Sudanese pounds. The coins are of a pleasing design with the legends and denominations in Arabic on the obverse and on the reverse, a camel with its rider.


The kingdom of Ethiopia is worthy of special mention in as much as throughout its long history, its rulers have struck an attractive and unusual series of coins. Apart from this, however, it provides us with an excellent example of how numismatics can be of service to the historian, for of the twenty-four Axumite rulers known to us from their coins, only five are recorded in history. About the year A.D. 330 Christianity was introduced into the Axumite kingdom which had been established in the Tigre province of Ethiopia, its capital being at Jeha and later at Axum. The kingdom lasted until approximately 920 and during that time its rulers, beginning with Endybis (A.D. 250-75) struck an interesting series of coins in gold, silver and copper. None of the coins is particularly common and the silver are rarer than the gold. A peculiarity of some of the copper coins is that occasionally part of the design is decorated with gold inlay. An example of this work may also be found in the ancient Chinese series as very few pieces of the so-called `key money' are decorated in this manner. The obverse of the coins is usually devoted to a bust of the king with a surrounding legend; on the early coins this is in Greek and after about the sixth century the legend is in Gheez script. The reverse, prior to the introduction of Christianity, often bears a bust of the king similar to that on the obverse. After this time the reverse is usually devoted to a cross around which an inscription is placed. Unfortunately, there is very little contemporary information concerning the Axumite coinage and at the present time, due largely to this and to the variations in weight, the relative values and denominations have not yet been ascertained.

In recent times the coinage consisted of the silver talari first struck by Menelik II (1889-1913) together with its fractions in silver and copper. At present the coinage is based on the Ethiopian dollar of one hundred cents, coins being struck in the denominations of one to fifty cents, all of a similar design. The uncrowned bust of the emperor, Haile Selassie, is on the obverse and the Lion of Judah with the value below on the reverse; this type is reminiscent of that on the coins of Menelik II.

Colonies and Independent Territories

The history of `modern' colonization of the African continent by Europeans is very largely bound up with the spirit of adventure and colonization that prevailed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Originally it was Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal who, by a series of expeditions in the middle of the fifteenth century, laid the foundations for the white settlements of the West Coast of Africa. By the end of the century, the slave trade was well established on the Guinea coast and various British companies were formed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for the purpose of trade with Africa. The Portuguese had been ousted by the Dutch in the seventeenth century and today only a small portion of the continent may be counted as part of their possessions. The British vied with the Dutch over the trading rights of the country and this was further complicated by the entry of the French on to the scene.

In 1750 the African Company of Merchants was formed in England for the purpose of trade with the African coast and in 1796 the company struck a series of silver coins for use in the Gold Coast. It is doubtful, however, whether they actually circulated for they usually turn up in at least `extremely fine' condition. This series consisted of the ackey, its half and quarter, and the one takoe or eighth ackey. On the obverse they bear the crowned GR cypher with the date either side of the crown. The reverse bears the arms of the company and on the larger coins negro supporters are added. The legend reads FREE TRADE TO AFRICA BY ACT OF PARLIAMENT 1750; the takoe does not have this legend. In 1818 the type was altered to bear the head of George III on the obverse with his titles around and the date below; underneath the king's head appears the denomination i.e., ACKEY TRADE.

In 1957 the Gold Coast received its independence and in 1960 became the republic of Ghana. The new coinage is unusual in that it is, so far, the only country within the British Commonwealth to place thehead of its prime minister on thecoinage. Struck at the Royal Mint in London, the coinage consists of a silver ten shillings (a crown-sized coin), cupro-nickel two shillings, shilling, sixpence and threepence, and bronze penny and halfpenny. Gold coins, the size of an English two-pound piece were also struck: they pass current at 5.

In 1791 another company was formed, this time with particular reference to Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leone Company struck a more extensive series of coins than its other African counterpart, the issue in 1791 consisting of a silver dollar, fifty, twenty and ten cents and copper cents and pennies: the ten cents and pennies were again struck in 1796. The designs are similar throughout; the obverse depicts a lion crouching with SIERRA LEONE COMPANY above, below is the word AFRICA. The reverse is devoted to clasped hands heraldically shaded to represent black and white. This presumably makes reference to the fact that the country had that year (1791) sworn allegiance to Britain. Above and below the clasped hands are the denomination and the date respectively.

The Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, together with all the other British possessions west of Lake Chad, were counted under the general heading of British West Africa. In 1907 a coinage in cupro-nickel and aluminium consisting of a penny and tenthpenny was issued for the territory of Nigeria. The final issues of halfpennies for this coinage were made in 1911 and two years later a more general coinage was put into circulation for use over the whole of British West Africa. The issue consisted of silver two shillings, shilling, sixpence and threepence, and cupro-nickel pennies, halfpennies and tenth-pennies. The silver denominations bear the crowned bust of the king facing left, surrounded by his titles and the reverse a palm-tree dividing the date with BRITISH WEST AFRICA above and the value below. These denominations have been issued practically every year since then (the silver denominations now being struck in nickel brass) until the reign of Elizabeth II when the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Nigeria received their independence. The new coins for the latter country were, like those for Ghana, struck at the Royal Mint in London and consist of the following denominations and designs: two shillings (groundnuts); shilling (palm-tree); sixpence (cocoapods); threepence (cotton flowers); penny and halfpenny (crown and value above central hole).

French West Africa and Equatorial Africa

The coinages of French West and French Equatorial Africa are very similar. The design of the winged head of Liberty is used on the obverse whilst the reverse shows the head of an antelope between foliage together with the value either side of the horns. The only variation between those struck for French West Africa and those struck for Equatorial Africa is the legend; both coinages are struck in aluminium. More recently, in 1958, Equatorial Africa has issued three new coins of a different design. Struck in an alloy of copper and aluminium, the issue consists of five, ten and twenty-five francs. The antelope design is modified to show three animals in the centre with the legend above and below; the reverse is devoted to the value within a wreath.

Belgian Congo

To the west of Lake Tanganyika lies the troubled country of the Belgian Congo which became an independent state of the Congo in 1885 and a Belgian colony in 1908. Between 1887 and 1896 a series of silver and copper coins were issued in the name of Leopold II (1865-1909). The silver denominations consist of the five, two and one francs, and the fifty centimes; these bear the bearded head of the king facing left with his titles around. The reverse is devoted to a crowned coat of arms, either above a wreath or with lion supporters. The copper coins have a central hole and therefore no portrait is possible. The obverse design consists of a number of crowned L's around the hole surrounded by the king's titles whilst the reverse shows a large star, together with the denomination and date. After becoming a colony in 1908 the designs were altered but little, with the exception of a new legend which instead of reading souv. DFL'ETAT INDEP. DU CONGO was amended to read BELGIAN CONGO. A variety of new coins were, however, introduced at this time. The highest denomination was the fifty francs which, together with a hexagonal two francs dated 1943 and later issues of 1944-48, depict a large-eared African elephant walking to the left.

British East Africa

British East Africa which consisted of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika also incorporated the seaport of Mombasa which, until its entry into the general monetary system for the colony, issued a coinage of its own. This coinage, which was authorized by the British East Africa Company, consisted of the silver rupee and its fractions, the half and quarter, and two annas; copper pice or quarter annas were also issued. In 1897 it was decided to make the rupee as used in British India the basis of the currency and for the next three years copper one pice were issued bearing the legend FAST AFRICA PROTECTORATE and the young head of Queen Victoria. In 1905 further amendments were made to the coinage; the rupee was again taken as the standard but the divisions were to be in cents, the highest denomination of which was to be the fifty cents. Following the First World War, the Indian rupee was discarded in favour of the British coinage as the basis for the currency. The florin was divided into one hundred cents with the result that on the shilling the value is given thus: FIFTY cFrrTS-orrE SHILLING. Later, in 1921, the shilling became the standard and the legend on the fifty cents therefore reads HALF SHILLING.

Throughout the series the higher denominations in silver and cupro-nickel all bear the portrait of the king, whilst those struck in copper valued at ten cents and below all have a central hole and therefore no portrait. East Africa is counted among those British colonies that struck coins bearing the name of Edward VIII; in this instance valued at ten and five cents.


Prior to the entry of the Rhodesias into the Central African Federation, a special series of coins had been struck for use in Southern Rhodesia. These coins, first made in 1932, consisted of the silver half-crown, florin, shilling, sixpence and threepence; pennies and halfpennies struck in cupro-nickel did not appear until 1934. A variety of designs were used for the reverses of the new coinage and include a sable antelope and a rock cave drawing-the Zimbabwe bird. The obverse of all coins (except the pennies and halfpennies which have central holes) bear the crowned head of the monarch.

In 1953 a crown piece was struck in -900 silver to commemorate the coronation of Elizabeth II and the royal visit. A small medallion in the centre of the reverse bears the head of Cecil Rhodes to commemorate the centenary of his birth.

Further examples of wild life are to be found on the seven new coins of the Central African Federation, which were first struck in 1955. The half-crown takes for its reverse design the arms of the Federation; the florin an eagle in flight with a fish in its talons; the shilling a sable antelope; the sixpence, a leopard; the threepence, a flame lily; the penny, two elephants rampant, and the halfpenny two giraffes.

South Africa

The fact that Prince Henry the Navigator opened up the West Coast of the continent to white traders has already been mentioned and it is also to him that the credit must go for establishing Europeans in South Africa. The Portuguese established a trading post at the Cape of Good Hope, but it was the Dutch who made the first major contribution to extensive settlement of the area when the Dutch East India Company founded a settlement at the Cape.

The English, who had used the Cape as a re-victualling post on their voyage to the Indies, captured the Cape in 1795 and held it until the Peace of Amiens in 1802 when it was returned to the Dutch. In 1806 the colony was again occupied by the English who eventually purchased the Dutch colonies of Guiana and the Cape for 6,000,000. The first half of the nineteenth century was marked by a series of tribal wars and further political unrest caused the Boers to set up a republic in Natal. Further Boer settlements were established in the Transvaal and the Orange River Sovereignty, the former being granted independence in 1-852 and the latter becoming the Orange Free State. In the Cape Colony the governing officials agitated for independence in 1850 and a constitution was granted them three years afterwards. One of the most outstanding figures of this era was Paul Kruger who was born in 1825 at Colisberg in the Cape Colony and had trekked with his fellow Boers to their new settlements. Later, in the war against Britain in 1881, he distinguished himself to such an extent that he was appointed head of the provisional government. In 1883 he was elected president of the Transvaal or South African Republic and his bust appears upon an extensive series in gold, silver and copper that was first issued in 1892.

Prior to this event, however, a wide variety of coins had been used as currency in the South African colonies, including coins of the Dutch and English East India Companies, Portuguese, Spanish and American coins. In 1874 President Burgers issued a very limited coinage of gold ponds which he had had struck in England and it was not until 1891 that the National Bank of the South African Republic was able to begin work on the construction of a mint within the colony.

The first coins were struck in 1893 but were dated 1892. In order to hasten the issue of the new coins Kruger placed an order for gold ponds, halfponds and silver crowns with the Berlin mint who made an error in the die cutting and gave the ox wagon a pair of shafts instead of a single pole; this was, however, corrected on the remainder of the order.

In 1900 Britain annexed the Transvaal, and British coins later circulated throughout South Africa together with coins of the South African Republic. It was not until 1922 that a coinage act was passed ordering a series of coins to be issued expressly for the Union of South Africa and these were struck the following year at the newly established branch of the Royal Mint at Pretoria. The issue consists of ten denominations, ranging from the sovereign to the farthing and bears the bust of George V on the obverse. The sovereign and half sovereign were only issued for a limited period (the sovereign until 1932 and the half until 1926), but the remaining denominations have been issued every year since then. The crown was added to the coinage in 1947 and, like its fellows, has been struck in every succeeding year.

South Africa has now decimalized her currency, the new system being based on the rand, equal in value to the ten-shilling piece: all denominations bear the bust of Jan van Riebeeck.

German East Africa

During the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a large number of coins were produced for the German East Africa Company, who had trading interests in the whole of what is now Tanganyika, Ruanda Urundi, and Portuguese Mozambique. These coins, first struck in 1890 bear the helmeted bust of Wilhelm II to left and the arms of the company on the reverse. The highest denomination at this time was the silver two rupees. This, together with its fractions down to the quarter rupee and the copper pessa, were replaced in 1904 by another series of coins struck for the territory itself. The most interesting coins in this somewhat large series are the gold fifteen rupees and the copper and brass twenty and five heller which were struck at Tabora in 1916 during the First World War. The coins for the colony were usually struck either at the Berlin or the Hamburg mint. It became a British Trust Territory at the end of the First World War.

Somalia: Mozambique: Madagascar

Finally, before turning to the coins of Asia, the coins of three countries remain to be considered; Somalia and Mozambique on the mainland and the island of Madagascar some three hundred miles off the east coast of Africa.

Briefly, dealing with the most northerly first, Somalia is at present under Italian trusteeship and has only a very limited coinage based on the somalo which is divided into a hundred centesimi. The two silver coins-the somalo and the fifty centisimi -depict a lioness below a crescent above SOMALIA. The reverse is devoted to the value, date and mint name (Rome). The bronze coins consisting of the ten, five and one centisimo have a rather pleasing elephant head above SOMALIA, the reverse being somewhat similar to the silver coins.

Mozambique (Portuguese East Africa) has a more extensive coinage based on the escudo of a hundred centavos. All the coins are very similar in design, mostly bearing the arms of the colony on the obverse and the value on the reverse; the denominations at present in circulation range from the copper twenty centavos to the silver twenty escudos.

The island of Madagascar is the fifth largest island in the world and has been a French protectorate since 1890. The coinage is, however, a comparatively limited one, most of the currency being in note form. Five denominations are at present in circulation, the one, two and five francs being struck in aluminium whilst the ten and twenty francs are an alloy of aluminium and copper. The obverse designs are reminiscent of those coins struck for French Equatorial and French West Africa: the one and two francs issue of 1948 indeed make use of the same obverse dies. The reverse of the one, two and five francs are a modified version of the antelope design on the other French colonial coins whilst the reverse of the ten and twenty francs has a map of the island within a wreath of growing crops.