Coins of the Boer Republics by Ken Williams
By the late 19th century only four nations remained independent on the African continent after the partition of Africa by the European colonial powers. The surviving nations were: the two Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, Liberia and Abyssinia (Ethiopia). All of them, except for the Orange Free State, issued coins for general circulation.
The first European settlement at the southern tip of Africa was founded at Table Bay by the Dutch East India Company in 1652. It comprised mainly Dutch farmers (Boers), there to replenish the Company's ships on their long voyage between Europe and the East Indies, which lasted over six months. In the 1680s Huguenots from France also joined the settlement and intermarried with the Dutch to form, together with German immigrants, the ancestors of the Afrikaners living in the Boer republics. Although the Cape Colony was linked to the Dutch monetary system, a large variety of other silver coins were in circulation, consisting of various weights and standards. The Spanish reales (or pieces-of-eight) were the most popular, because of their consistent weight and purity.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the Cape peninsula was captured by the British and when peace was made in 1814, the Netherlands ceded the colony to Britain. The years of war had deprived the Dutch settlement of coin shipments from their homeland and consequently the currency became paper rixdollars printed to alleviate the scarcity of metallic money. From 1826, British silver and copper coins from the Royal Mint were gradually introduced to replace the rixdollar notes in circulation, until 1841 when sterling became the sole legal tender in the Cape Colony.
The Act of 1833 to abolish slavery within the British Empire was only one of the many grievances that encouraged thousands of Boers to move away from British control during the Great Trek (1835- c. 1840), and to establish new states beyond the Orange River. These autonomous land-locked Boer republics of the Transvaal, also known as the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), and the Orange Free State were recognised by the British government in 1852 and 1854 respectively, but remained under British suzerainty.
Coinage of ZAR started with the 1874 gold ponds (pounds) bearing the effigy of President Thomas Franҫois Burgers, which were struck at the mint of Ralph Heaton & Sons in Birmingham, England. The Company commissioned Royal Mint engraver Leonard Wyon to design and supply the punches for producing the working dies. They were equivalent to the British gold sovereign and, in total, only 837 were coined from some of the first gold found in the Transvaal. There were two obverse varieties minted, because the first dies of the President displaying a fine beard broke in service and another batch of dies were made in which the points of the beard were coarser. However, all the coins were struck with the same reverse dies featuring the coat of arms of the young republic. When President Burgers proudly presented 50 gold pond coins for approval in the country’s Parliament, the reaction was quite mixed with some members annoyed by not being consulted on the minting of these coins. Many long and lively discussions followed and in the end his monetary experiment was eventually shelved. However, each member present in the parliament received one of these gold ponds in payment for his first day’s work in the session of 1874. A coin was also given to the head of each foreign power that had recognised the independence of the Republic. The majority of the remaining gold coins, which soon became known as ‘Burgers ponds’, were believed to be paid out to favoured creditors of the Government. Although it was the first coin issued as currency for any of South Africa’s four provinces, the gold ponds were never circulated, but were instead kept as mementoes, often mounted as jewellery. These pieces are now extremely rare in an unimpaired condition and seldom come on the market. An ex-mounted fine beard Burgers pond, described as good fine, realised £1,300 when auctioned in 2015.
The Orange Free State, by contrast, relied mainly on the circulation of British and later ZAR coinage. An opportunity arose in 1887 when an enterprising German company, Otto Nolte of Berlin, offered to supply the Free State with sterling silver and copper coins at a reasonable price. They proposed a unit of currency called the crown divided into three denominations of 1/10, 1/5 and ½ crown, together with copper ¼, ½ and 1 penny pieces. The state government, however, chose to delay indefinitely the introduction of its own metallic currency system. As a result, when the Republic ceased to exist in 1900, it had never struck its own coinage.
The discovery of large gold deposits in the Transvaal in 1886 complicated the uneasy peace between the Boers and the British. From being a poor agricultural country, the Transvaal was suddenly transformed into potentially one of the richest and most powerful states in southern Africa. Britain now saw it as a political threat to its imperial ambitions in the region. The Rand (a gold-field near Johannesburg) attracted a large influx of white immigrants and the city itself became rich and cosmopolitan. By 1895 many Boers became concerned that these uitlanders (outsiders), as they were known, now outnumbered the Boers of a voting age throughout the entire country. President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal, afraid of compromising his country’s independence and way of life, denied them all political rights and imposed taxes on them. His refusal of the British request to grant full citizenship to the ‘outsiders’ in a short period of time was the ostensible cause of the Boer War (1899 – 1902).
The first coins with the head of President Kruger were issued in 1892 by the Royal Prussian Mint in Berlin, and were modelled on the British monetary system. There were some embarrassing errors made in the first consignment of pond, half-pond and five-shilling pieces, which incorrectly showed two shafts on the wagon and similar size front and rear wheels in the country’s coat of arms on the reverse side of the coins. In reality, the wagon used by the voortrekkers (pioneers) had a single shaft and rear wheels of a larger diameter than the front wheels. Moreover, on the gold coins the very small initials ‘O.S.’ of the engraver, Otto Schultz, were inserted, as was customary, on the truncation of President Kruger’s portrait.
In the Dutch language ‘os’ stands for ‘ox’, and with an election pending, Kruger's political opponents used it to deride him. Consequently, every effort was made to limit the damage and all the coins in circulation that were recovered, together with those not yet issued, were melted down. When the Pretoria mint finally opened in late 1892, the coins issued were: £1 and £1/2 in gold; 2s 6d, 2s, 1s, 6d and 3d in silver and 1d in bronze, but the halfpenny and farthing were not produced because British bronze coinage was bulky and unpopular. At that time, only a small quantity of bronze coins circulated in the Transvaal and thus the silver threepence was in effect the smallest denomination coin. Although the first coins (2/- and 1/- pieces) from the Pretoria mint carry the date 1892, they were in fact not struck until 1893.
There were several brass/bronze varieties of imitation Kruger ponds produced, which were primarily used as gaming counters. The most common of these imitations was dated 1896 and the ZAR motto Eendragt Maakt Magt (Union makes strength) was replaced by ‘IMITATION KRUGER SOVEREIGN’, on the ribbon, below the coat of arms on the reverse side.
At the outbreak of the Boer War in October 1899 the ZAR government seized all the gold in the banks and mines. The bullion was melted down into small bars of about 300 to 500 oz, and was marked by numbers, which served as currency when coined money was unavailable. These bars were accompanied by a document recording their fineness and value. In addition, the Government had 925,000 gold ponds struck at Pretoria during 1899 and 1900. The bulk of the gold coins minted were dated 1900 and those of 1899 were struck with the 1898 dies, because the new dies ordered from Europe were intercepted by the British. When the dies had broken, the mint struck a number of blank gold ponds, some with a rim and some plain. There was also a batch of blank pennies released into circulation before the evacuation of Pretoria in early June 1900. All the gold and bronze blanks produced at the mint had no distinguishing marks.
To mark the beginning of this wartime coin production at the Pretoria Mint, 130 of the 1898 dated gold ponds were countermarked with a small ‘99’ below Kruger’s bust. At a London auction house in December 2016, one of these over-stamped coins reached a staggering £57,600 against its upper estimate of £12,000.
At the end of May 1900, the British army was poised to capture Johannesburg. Their commander, Lord Roberts, allowed the Boer forces a 24 hour truce to withdraw from the city, provided they left the gold mines intact. So the Boers escaped taking the last boxes of gold mined on the Rand. Punch magazine showed a cartoon of Paul Kruger fleeing on horseback from Pretoria with a fortune in his saddlebag (£2,000,000 written on it). Rumours about ‘Kruger’s millions’ persist to the present day. The Boers retreated eastward, fighting a series of rear-guard actions against the advancing British. Kruger, himself, was spirited over the border into Portuguese East Africa and safety in September 1900.
The Republic’s last coin is the 1902 pure gold ‘veld pond’ (field pound), and, all told, 525 were believed to be struck from improvised machinery in a mine workshop at Pilgrim’s Rest in the eastern Transvaal. They were hurriedly minted in order to buy essential supplies for the Boer commandos in the final stages of the War. Their obverses feature the letters ‘ZAR’ with the date ‘1902’ beneath, whilst their reverses bear the value ‘Een Pond’ (one pound). Amazingly, the minting process was achieved entirely on hand-operated machines, since the mine’s electrically-driven machinery had been put out of action at the beginning of the war. The electric lathe, for example, that made the dies and a punch to produce the gold blanks, was adapted to be turned by hand. As an inducement, these pieces contained a higher gold content than the British sovereign and to make them more readily acceptable as a coin, they were given a milled edge. Some of these gold coins were exchanged at face value with Boer citizens for their British gold sovereigns in order to facilitate trade with the local Africans who would only accept British sovereigns which were familiar to them. At the end of hostilities in May 1902, the veld pond became much sought after by souvenir hunters and was soon selling far in excess of its intrinsic value of 22 shillings. Even today these coins still generate a lot of interest and a veld pond in GVF condition fetched £8,500 against an estimate of £6,000 – £8,000, at a London auction in 2016. Since the fate of the pair of veld pond dies is still unknown, counterfeits are said to exist using these dies. It is also known that a variety of other counterfeit veld ponds can be found.
The defeated Boer republics were annexed as British Crown Colonies in 1902, but joined with the British colonies of Natal and the Cape to form the self-governing Union of South Africa in 1910. The four colonies were renamed provinces and were subordinate to the Union Parliament.
Following the Boer War the regular Kruger currency that was issued between 1892 and 1900 started to slowly circulate in the other three of South Africa’s provinces, but it was not until 1911 that both the Kruger and British coinage were officially accepted as legal tender throughout South Africa. In 1923 the country issued its own coinage replacing the British currency which since the mid-19th century had been, for most of the time, the main medium of exchange in the four provinces of South Africa. Between 1925 and 1933 the ZAR gold pond was withdrawn and re-minted into sovereigns and half-sovereigns from the Royal Mint at Pretoria, with the letters ‘S.A.’ under Pistrucci’s engraving of St. George and dragon. The last of the Kruger silver money was withdrawn in 1937 and consequently most of these coins had circulated for a long period, resulting in many worn specimens. By contrast, very few, if any, of the Kruger bronze pennies remained in circulation by the early 1930s.
The image of President Kruger, designed by Otto Schultz, is still with us today on the obverse of the Krugerrand, which was first introduced in 1967 as a means to market South African gold and they have become a huge success around the world as the most traded gold bullion coin.
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