The Tabora Mint
Following the outbreak of the First World War the minting of gold coinage in Germany soon ceased, except in her largest and most populous overseas colony of German East Africa (Tanzania) at Tabora, where unrefined gold bullion was converted into gold coins for general circulation.
Germany acquired this vast tropical area of Africa in 1885, which was initially administered by the German East Africa Company until 1891 when the Imperial German government proclaimed the territory a formal protectorate. However, the Company still retained the right to issue its own coinage up to 1904, called the German East African rupie. The company had adopted the rupie, instead of the German mark, because the Indian rupee and its subsidiary coins were the most widely used medium of exchange along the East African coast. Rather than supersede the Indian currency, the Company chose a similar monetary structure. One rupie was made up of 64 pesa. This was equivalent to the Indian system where 64 pice equalled one Indian rupee. The Indian and Imperial British East Africa Company rupees were interchangeable with the German East African rupie and all contained the same quantities of silver. From 1904, the currency was decimalized with 100 heller to the rupie which was valued at 1 1/3 German marks. All the colony’s coins were either struck in Berlin (A) or Hamburg (J) up to 1914, even though some of the coins issued showed no mint mark.
For the first 18 months of the war, the German colony was besieged by Allied forces and blockaded at sea by the Royal Navy which, amongst other things, cut off the supply of any new coins from Germany. By 1915, there was an acute shortage of coins in circulation caused mainly by hoarding. To counteract this problem, a large series of interim banknotes were issued, but they were not well received by the local inhabitants. It soon became apparent that coins had to be produced in order to restore confidence and more importantly provide acceptable means of payment to the thousands of German askaris (native soldiers) in the defence force.
In late 1915, the capital (Dar es Salaam) was coming under threat from British forces and the administrative centre was moved 460 miles to Tabora, the colony’s largest inland city and former Arab slave trading centre situated on the newly-built railway line linking Lake Tanganyika with the coast.
Gold bullion from the Kironda gold mine, near Sekenke, some 120 miles north-east of Tabora, was carried by porters through the African bush to Tabora. The mining engineer in charge of the mine, Dr Friedrich Schumacher, was asked by the colonial governor to strike as many coins as possible using what limited resources were available. The basic information regarding how to mint such coins was found in a large Meyers' Encyclopaedia in the governor's office. An emergency mint was established in a railway workshop at Tabora, where for security reasons a corrugated iron shelter was erected inside the building in order to produce the gold coins. The workforce consisted of two Indians, six Africans and seven Sinhalese goldsmiths recruited in Dar es Salaam.
The makeshift minting process consisted of the following stages:
- Assaying the gold bullion;
- Melting the bullion in crucibles, utilising blacksmith forges, and casting into sand moulds to form bars;
- Reducing the bars into strips to the required thickness by passing them through steel rollers in a mill that was once made for rolling rubber sheets;
- Punching out the blanks using a small hand-powered press;
- Adjusting the weight of the heavy blanks;
- Annealing the blanks by heating to a high temperature and quenching in liquid;
- Striking the blanks one at a time, using a modified former hydraulic pipe-bending machine, operated by hand;
- Polishing the gold pieces with detergent from a soap-berry tree.
However, production was hampered by the rolling mill not designed to produce metal strips of such precise thickness that all blanks punched from it would be of the same weight. To overcome this setback, the strips were rolled to just above the desired thickness and the punched overweight blanks were then filed and scraped down to near the requisite weight of 7.168g by hand. The seven goldsmiths managed to adjust over 200 blanks a day, all within a weight tolerance of ±1% (German gold coins had a weight tolerance of ±¼%).
The raw gold brought from the Kironda mine contained up to around 20% silver in its natural state and was exported that way unrefined before the naval blockade. A uniform fineness of gold in the new coin was set at 75% by adding copper to the alloy of gold and silver. Despite the fact that the official rate of exchange was 15 rupien to 20 German marks, in reality, each 15 rupien coin contained the gold equivalent of 15 German marks.
The 15 rupien coin is sometimes referred to as the ‘Tabora pound or sovereign’ which is really a misnomer. It is not only dimensionally smaller, but also intrinsically worth nearly 27% less than the British gold sovereign, if its silver content is ignored.
Before the First World War, all the German East African silver coins displayed the bust of Kaiser Wilhelm II with an eagled helmet placed on top of his head. However, during the War, the colony’s administration lacked the skills and tools required to replicate such a sharp and accurate portrait. A competition was held for a new obverse image. It was won by R Voght, a cashier on the railways. His drawing featured a trumpeting elephant with a raised trunk against a mountain range in the background. A talented Sinhalese goldsmith from Zanzibar engraved Voght’s design on the obverse die with the date 1916 and the letter ‘T’ for Tabora, while on the reverse was the German imperial eagle surrounded by the inscription ‘DEUTSCH OSTAFRIKA 15 RUPIEN’.
The minting of the gold coins commenced in mid-April 1916, but came to an abrupt halt 2 ½ months later when the improvised pipe-bending machine irreversible broke down, after striking around 6400 coins. Another machine was converted for coin making in the way of a static steam-driven press used for extracting oil from groundnuts located at Lulanguru about 15 miles west of Tabora. This much stronger power-operated machine proved more efficient than the hand press, and production increased to give a total output of 9803 gold coins. Although these coins were struck at Lulanguru they nevertheless bore the Tabora mint mark, and for simplicity all the gold coins produced at both sites had a plain edge.
The Tabora mint also struck large quantities of (mainly) brass 5 and 20 heller pieces from over 20 tons of scrap sourced from spent brass cartridges and shell cases and some non-ferrous metals salvaged from sunken ships in shallow waters, including the German light cruiser SMS Königsberg scuttled in the Rufiji river delta. There were no master dies produced and when a die became worn or broken a new die was engraved, and this resulted in a number of die varieties.
The long-awaited joint Allied invasion of the colony that came in April 1916, did not present an immediate threat to the coin production based at Tabora, because the interior of the country was still largely undeveloped with few roads. This meant that everything the invading army needed had to be carried by thousands of African porters. Any strategic advantage of the horse was soon neutralised by the deadly tsetse fly, which within a month would decimate their numbers. Furthermore, malaria took a heavy toll on the contingents of newly arrived European troops. The north of the country was invaded by British forces from British East Africa (Kenya) and from Uganda, while the Belgian army made slow progress from the Congo and reached the Tabora district by mid-September.
During the evacuation of Lulanguru, the man in charge of the mint, Friedrich Schumacher delivered the last 1,500 gold coins struck there to the bank at Tabora, where they were promptly issued across the counter. It is still a matter for conjecture on whether around 200 kg of the uncoined gold bullion held at the bank was traded with rich Arabs to prevent it falling into Allied hands.
From February to mid-September 1916, the mint produced a staggering amount of crude subsidiary coins: 302,000 brass 5 heller; 1,634,700 brass and copper 20 heller (around 20% being of copper); in addition to 16,198 of the more sophisticated 15 rupien coins, before Tabora fell to the advancing Belgian army on 19 September 1916.
On the night before his capture, Schumacher buried the 15 rupien dies, and he also managed to conceal forty 15 rupien gold coins in his clothes, suitcase and even in a bar of washing soap. After interrogation by the Belgians on the distribution and whereabouts of the gold, he was transported with other non-combatant German nationals on an arduous journey across the Belgian Congo to join a ship bound for Europe. He was further interrogated by Scotland Yard in London where all but one of the gold coins were detected by using the latest X-ray machine. The gold coin not found was inserted under a padded arm pit in his suit and is now on display in the Bochum mining museum in Germany.
Schumacher waited over half a century before revealing the existence of a tin box containing approximately two hundred 15 rupien gold coins that he buried over a metre below the ground somewhere in Tabora’s German colonial administration compound on the night prior to his capture by the Belgians. He suffered for many years from the debilitating effects of malaria and feared a relapse on a return to Africa, and consequently, he stubbornly refused all requests to participate in a search for this hoard due to health reasons. Although the old construction plans of Tabora exist in German archives they are of limited use since the administration district in question has now been redeveloped.
A month after Schumacher’s death in 1975, the Government of Tanzania announced that there would be a search for this elusive tin of gold coins, but so far nothing has been officially reported. Even today, stories of buried German gold are still alive in Tanzania. A German tour guide, based in the country, told me that he met some Africans who knew where the German gold was hidden, but because of their tribal superstitions, the gold could only be dug up by a native German otherwise bad luck would fall upon them. Needless to say, the offer was not taken up.
Whenever the 15 rupien coins come up for auction they usually attract a lot of interest and can sell for a price well above the auctioneer’s estimated value, and this summer at a London auction a coin in a good VF condition realised £2,900.
- D D Yonge, The History of Tabora 15 Rupee piece, Tanganika Notes and Records, March 1964.
- Andreas Udo Fitzel, Friedrich Schumacher (1884-1975). Spaichinger Heimat Brief, 2009.
- Deutsche Bundesbank Virtual Internet Museum, The 15 rupees from German East Africa
- 4.Der Spiegel, The Gold Treasure of Tabora, Issue 41 (10 June 1975), p22.