From 1913 through mid-1942, the Culion Leper Colony had its own currency in the form of seven aluminum tokens, carrying values ranging from half centavo to 1 peso. Shown is a half-centavo token. (Photo: Jeff Starck, Coin World)
By Gerald Tebben
The first 370 settlers, many horribly disfigured, arrived about 4 p.m., May 27, 1906. Six concrete houses and 85 wooden ones awaited them, left behind by earlier residents who had been forced to leave.
“Lepers were being rounded up throughout the Philippines, arrested, and sent to Culion,” Nestor Lisboas, son of Culion Leper Colony’s first postmaster, told the Cebu Pacific Air magazine in 2008. “During the early years, there was no effective treatment and the island soon became known as ‘the land of the living dead,’ as most of its inhabitants had no hope of being cured or of ever seeing their families again.”
A 1906 U.S. government report notes: “The first lepers taken to the colony . . . protested against going, but on arrival were delighted with their surroundings. . . . They have been allowed to organize their own municipal government, have established a leper police force, and maintain order in the colony. . . . To anyone who has seen these poor outcasts begging on the streets or driven half naked from the towns and obliged to inhabit inaccessible places and eke out a wretched existence as best they might, it is a great pleasure to see them comfortably housed, well fed, well clothed, and leading a normal and happy existence.”
Thousands would arrive over the decades and thousands would die lingering deaths before the disease was controlled in the 1930s and conquered in the early 1980s.
From 1913 through mid-1942, the colony had its own money.
“A special currency is used at Culion to prevent the danger of contagion from money handled by the lepers,” visitor Lois E. Danner wrote in a 1918 article in The Missionary Review of the World.
The reverse of the Culion Leper Colony half-centavo token. (Photo: Jeff Starck, Coin World)
That money was a series of seven aluminum tokens, ranging from half centavo to 1 peso. The first tokens, minted by Frank & Co., were pedestrian affairs, showing the denomination on the obverse and a caduceus, a symbol of medicine, on the reverse.
The Manila Mint took over production in 1922, changing the metal to copper-nickel and in 1927 adding a portrait of a national hero, Jose P. Rizal.
Culion tokens were retired in the 1930s, only to be pressed back into circulation at the start of the Second World War. The colony ran out of money in December of 1941 and reissued stored tokens. In January of 1942, a currency committee authorized the circulation of mimeographed pink and blue paraffin-coated emergency paper money. These bills were retired in July, when Japanese occupation notes arrived.
Culion tokens can be hard to find, but generally command only a small premium. While mintage rarely exceeded 20,000, tokens can be purchased for as little as $5.
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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