Ethiopia’s birr coinage was struck as a declaration of sovereignty in the face of growing Italian efforts to subjugate the country. (Photo: HeritageAuctions.com)
By Gerald Tebben
Money in Ethiopia before the First World War was a complicated affair. But bullets, as might be expected, could always be counted upon to cut through the confusion in marketplaces from Himora, in the cotton country north of Lake T’ana, to Werden in the Ogaden Desert.
Tracing its independence to biblical antiquity—when King Solomon’s son by the queen of Sheba reputedly settled in the northern part of the country—Ethiopia sat at a political and cultural crossroads in the early 1900s.
Its money reflected the undeveloped East African nation’s peculiar station in the world, poised between an uneasy independence under growing European influence and the colonialism that would follow with Italian conquest in 1935.
Gold, silver and copper coins had their place in the storekeepers’ stalls, but bullets served a dual purpose—buying goods and slaying game and enemies.
On March 26, 1909, Paris-published L’Economiste Europeen wrote about Ethiopia’s currency. The French report, curiously, was translated and placed in the annual report of the director of the United States Mint for 1909. In those days, the Mint surveyed, through extensive correspondence, the status of the world’s money. In 1909, the Ethiopian reprint filled more than a page of the annual report, several times the two paragraphs devoted to that year’s star—the new Lincoln cent.
“What people might be surprised at is that peculiar money, the cartridge; but when one knows the country they can easily understand their full value,” L’Economiste reported. “All the world goes armed, from the poorest to the richest. Therefore it can be said that Abyssinia is truly an armed nation. The cartridge has two uses: They can serve either to charge a gun or to pay for what one purchases.”
The paws of the lion on this birr’s reverse reveals the mint that struck the piece. Since the left forepaw is raised, this coin was struck at the Paris mint. (Photo: HeritageAuctions.com)
Maria Theresa thalers—all dated 1780, as they have been for centuries—were accepted almost everywhere. Ethiopian silver-dollar size birrs and their parts—fairly new coins first minted at the tail end of the 1800s—were accepted only in Addis Ababa and the larger commercial centers, and only if they were of the proper type.
Thalers and birrs were valued at 10 to 12 cartridges, depending on where and when they were offered. But, L’Economiste reported, “To have currency, the cartridges have to bear the mark of the French society of ammunitions (S.F.M.).”
Only top-condition thalers were accepted in trade. L’Economiste said: “By way of compensation, the Maria Theresa thaler … is maintained to be current everywhere, always on the condition that they do not show traces of wear to any extent. One of the indications of wear is the defacing of the clasp placed upon the right shoulder, which hold the raiment of the Empress. That ornamentation is made to stand out, and, naturally, disappears first in the wear. For reasons, which are not clearly apparent, this piece is unmercifully refused.”
The birr coinage, which was struck as a declaration of sovereignty in the face of growing Italian efforts to subjugate the country, had its peculiarities, too. The birr and its parts were struck at Addis Ababa and Paris. The paws of the lion on the coin’s reverse revealed the mint that struck the piece. Right forepaw raised meant Addis Ababa. Coins with the left forepaw raised were produced at Paris.
Merchants generally refused to take the quarter birr struck at Addis Ababa, calling it francawi—or “foreign,” despite being locally produced— because, according to L’Economiste, the right-pawed lion on the locally minted coins failed to conform to Ethiopian heraldry. Menilek II decreed shortly before the article was printed: “In case of the refusal upon the part of the public to accept the quarter thalers, called ‘francawi,’ as lawful, we have decided to advise our people to deliver to justice those who refuse, after this advertisement, to accept them in commercial and daily exchanges. In such cases the quarter thalers shall become the property of the informers.”
L’Economiste wrote, “Today all is returned to order, but how long will it last?”
Despite the decree, the birr coinage and later decimal coins played second fiddle to the Maria Theresa thalers, which had been introduced in the late 1700s by Muslim traders. The 1780-dated coins, which are still minted, remained the most popular medium of exchange throughout East Africa until after the Second World War.
Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.
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