The Meaning of Singapore's Currency, The Only One Dollar in Southeast Asia
From Thalers to Dollars
The history of the dollar spans several continents and includes many countries. The name dollar predates the American money unit by a long time. It's an Anglicized variant of "thaler," (pronounced taler with a long "a"), the name given to coins initially struck in 1519 at Joachimsthal, Bohemia, from locally mined silver.
Today, Joachimsthal is located within the Czech Republic's boundaries, and its Czech name is Jáchymov. The term Thaler is a shortening of Joachimsthaler, which was the coin's original name.
Later, the English version of the word (dollar) was applied to comparable coins, including the Spanish peso and the Portuguese eight-real piece, in addition to those produced in central Europe. The weight and purity of these two big silver pieces were nearly similar. We've all heard the expression "pieces of eight" from pirate stories in the Caribbean.
Because of a paucity of official British currency, those coins, particularly the Spanish peso or dollar, circulated frequently in Britain's North American possessions. That is why, after the United States obtained independence, the new nation selected the term "dollar" for its money rather than the pound.
The thaler coins struck during the reign of Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and queen of Hungary and Bohemia, are probably the most famous (1740-80). As recently as the 1960s, Maria Theresa's thalers were in use in Aden and other regions of the Middle East.
Until the second half of the nineteenth century, the thaler was the currency of Prussia and a few other German states. The old units were phased out with the unification of Germany in 1871 and the adoption of the mark as the common currency, just as the French franc, German Deutschemark, Italian lire, Spanish peseta, and other European currencies were phased out with the introduction of the Euro and new notes and coins in 2002.
Due to a severe scarcity of silver coins in 1797, the Bank of England used its reserves to print altered foreign coins. A little engraving of George III was over-stamped on half a million pounds worth of Spanish pesos issued by King Charles IV. The re-issued coins, which were worth 4 shillings and 9 pence, were mocked.
One witticism was, "Two Kings' heads and not worth a crown." (A 'crown' in this context meant 5 shillings, or "half-a-crown," which was a frequent coin before decimalization in 1971 and was sometimes colloquially known as "half-a-dollar.") "The head of an idiot stamped on the neck of an ass" was a cruder description. Over-stamping was also used illegally on the huge supply of light or base Spanish dollars, causing the issue to fail.
The Indian rupee was the legal currency of the British territories of Malaya and Singapore, but the common people kept their accounts and made most of their payments, including taxes, in dollars and cents.
As a result, in 1867, the public's choices were recognized when numerous foreign coins, such as dollars from Hong Kong, Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru, were granted legal tender status. Following that, the British authorities in Singapore made the Japanese yen and the US dollar legal money in 1874.
Twenty years later, in 1894, when British dollars were first produced for the Far Eastern territories, there was rivalry for these foreign currency. The majority of these "British" dollars were produced in India's Bombay. The introduction of the Straits Settlement (Singapore) dollar in 1902 was a significant step toward the replacement of foreign dollars, and the legal tender status of foreign coinage was revoked two years later.
Of course, a currency does not have to be official in order for traders to accept it. An American sailor who served on the battleship USS Washington recalled how a shipmate once bought a basket containing a live cobra at Candy on the island of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), which was still a British colony at the time, because he offered the young street peddler two "dollars Mex" (i.e. two Mexican dollars).
His version of the incident can be found in Playing the Game. Because to the activity of the Dutch East India Company, the word "dollar," or some form of it, had been used throughout portions of the Far East, including Sri Lanka, even before dollars produced in Mexico became available.
From book A History of Money by Glyn Davies, University of Wales Press, 2022
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