Coffee Mills Tokens in British Ceylon in the 19th Century

Srilal Fernando

Shunned by numismatists for many years, collection of coffee mills tokens has received a boost in the last decade. Collection of items used as currency when actual money was not easily available even has a label of its own, Exomania.

To understand the use of coffee mills tokens, it is useful to trace briefly the development of the coffee industry in Ceylon. Though coffee had been grown in Ceylon for many years, it did not become a major export till the latter half of the 1830’s. During the period of the Dutch occupation, coffee grown in the interior was brought to Colombo by traders and exported in very small quantities. In early British times, the import duty in England favoured coffee grown in the West Indies. The abolition of slavery in the West Indies and the refusal of the freed labourers to work on the estates saw a reduction of production there. As a result, coffee prices in London rose. The duty on coffee was reduced and favourable tariffs for West Indian coffee were revoked. Duty was set at six pence per pound. These factors provided the impetus for coffee plantation to open up in Ceylon. With the opening up of the roads to the interior, transport difficulties were overcome. Crown land was sold at five shillings an acre. Officials of the Government took this opportunity to both open up areas for cultivation and engage in land speculation.

One of those who commenced coffee planting was George Bird. His brother Colonel Henry Bird was the Deputy Commissioner General to His Majesty’s forces in Ceylon. Around 1824 he opened coffee plantations in Sinnapitiya near Gampola. Governor Edward Barnes was a source of encouragement to George Bird and others involved in the systematic cultivation of coffee.

george bird epitaph

_DSC0500 Jeronis de Soysa  _DSC0547 Hanguranketa Valauvva

Jeronis de Soysa, the father of C.H de Soysa, bought Hanguranketha Estate (also called the King’s garden) by bidding 650 pounds sterling, beating George Bird’s bid of 600 pounds . The native Ceylonese refused to work in the arduous conditions in the estates, which involved clearing up land and cultivating coffee. Accordingly, cheap labour was recruited from South India. The rapid growth of the coffee industry saw a large influx of mainly illiterate labour. There was a need to have a simple system to pay this increasing labour force. According to the Labour Law Ordinance of 1841, the workers had to be paid at the conclusion of each day. Usual payment was either per day or per task performed. The task unit was 4 ½ pence or 19 cents per half hundred weight (56 pounds) of coffee. The monetary system prevailing at the time were ¼ farthing minted in England for exclusive use in Ceylon and ½ farthing and 3 halfpence coins for use in the colonies. There was a shortage of coins and the system did not lend itself easily into a labour force being paid daily.

37= Clearing land for coffee plantations ++ Imagined etching of the work of clearing forests — Courtesy of

Peacock Hill Coffee estate-Gampola Peacock Hill Estate in Gampola locality– Lithograph from Capt C. O’Brien, A Series of Fifteen Views in Ceylon…,, 1864,, Plate XI.

The very early tokens were locally manufactured and consisted of many forms such as paper chits and leather, but mainly thin metal discs punched with the initials of the owner/ manager, the name of the estate or a figure. These were easily copied and forgery was rife. As a result, better quality of tokens minted in India or England. As the industry prospered, more sophisticated tokens with good design were produced. The fact that they were minted even after the decline of the coffee industry shows that they were used to pay the daily paid workforce irrespective of the type of work.

Tokens that are machine minted can be categorised in several ways. They are usually catalogued according to the company or owner issuing them. Several copper or brass tokens have a similar size, and have the initials of the owner of the mills or estate or the initials of the company. Examples are J P G for J P Green , J P J for James Perera Jayatilleke and C H de S for C H de Soysa.

They often have the value on the reverse side either 4 ½ D or 19 cents.


Some tokens have an elaborate pattern and show that some thought had gone into their design. Keir Dundas & co had their tokens struck in England. They had elaborate scrolled initials on one side and the famous three-masted sailing ship, the Eastindiaman, on the other side. One of their tokens for the Upland Mills in Mutwal had a tortoise after the 200 year old tortoise that lived there and at the Whist Bungalow nearby.

The George Steuart tokens dated 1843 had the company name on the obverse. The company was first started by Capt James Steuart in 1835. In 1843 his brother Capt George Steuart assumed control and the Company took his name. Although the tokens had 1843 inscribed on them, were actually minted in 1881. The design was created by Charles Hendry the manager of the mills. On the reverse the tokens had two women at work with Wekande Mills in English, Sinhala and Tamil. Although the Sinhala and Tamil writing was inaccurate, this was the only token with all three languages in it.

Other companies that issued beautiful tokens were The Colombo Commercial Company for their Slave Island Mills, and J M Robertson & Co for the Oilyard mills in Slave Island and Vauxhall Mills in Vauxhall Street.

A study of the tokens is also a study of the various companies, some of which in later years became household names, whilst others passed into oblivion. However, they form an interesting study of how fortunes were made and lost, of financial irregularity, and employees of the crown using their positions to feather their own nests.

Curiosities abound to make the hobby interesting. Some worn out coins were overstamped and used as tokens. Recently an item came up for sale which was a King George the Vth military or police button made from a recycled coffee mills token.

The depression in the late 1840’s caused a drop in price of coffee from 100 shillings to 25 shillings per hundredweight. Though some plantations were abandoned the industry survived and by the 1850’s had recovered. At its peak nearly 170,000 acres were in production. What finally killed the industry was the “coffee blight” in 1868. A disease caused by the fungus Hemileia Vastatrix produced orange powdery blotches on leaves leading to defoliation. By 1882 almost all the plantations were abandoned or taken up by other crops such as tea.

In 1869 decimal currency was introduced. In 1872 the cents coins came into circulation and over the next decade the need to pay the workers in tokens gradually declined. By the late 1880’s the use of tokens had almost disappeared and now the once humble token representing a labourer’s daily wage form part of coin collections in all parts of the world and exchange hands for hundreds of dollars.


* To Hugh Karunanayake of the Ceylon Society in Australia for cross checking the details of coffee estates.

* My late father from whose collection the tokens for illustration were used.


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Ceylon Coin Web: Coins & Currency of Ceylon: Coffee Mills … ….. Coffee Mill Tokens used in Ceylon: Sales: As we do not sell from this website, we recommend that you check out the excellent selection of Ceylon material that is …

Tokens of Ceylon by Lowsley … The Ceylon tokens were mainly struck in the prosperous times of coffee cultivation. … Tea cultivation has taken the place of that of coffee, and the old coffeemills ..

Ceylon – Coffee Mills Tokens (1841-1890), Steuart and Co …………/id,81508257,var,CeylonCoffeeMillsTokens-18..CeylonCoffee Mills Tokens (1841-1890), Steuart and Co. Wekande Mills, Colombo. 19 Centesimi 1843 (1881), autorizzato – is the best auction …

Ceylon Sri Lanka Coffee Mills Token 1843 AE | eBay ……………… › … › Coins: World › Asia › Other Asian Coins

Nov 29, 2009 – I understand that the Ceylon Plantation Tokens (Lots 795-803) of the … The majority of the copper tokens were issued by Coffee Mills in Ceylon …


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3 responses to “Coffee Mills Tokens in British Ceylon in the 19th Century

  1. Rohan Hordagoda

    Very interesting and valuable information, thank you.

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