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The History of Siamese Money

ROMANTICS STEP ASIDE, money makes the world go round (not love comes in second). Financial experts from all over the world are meeting in Chiang Mai at the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The history of ancient money is fascinating and Thailand can be a coin collector's dream or nightmare, depending on how you look at it. Thai pig-mouth money, bracelet money and bullet coins are unique in world coinage, but the scarcity of old coins makes research and comparisons difficult for the collector.

Funan Coins Thai coinage, along with that of most of Southeast Asia, traces its origin to the Funan Kingdom, which lasted from the first to the sixth century, whose people were Buddhist with a strong Brahmin influence. The Kingdom ofFunan was established as a Hindu (Indian) kingdom in the Mekong delta area to foster trade between Hindu and parts of Asia, particularly China. It was at Oc-Eo, the port city of Funan, that coinage first appeared in Southeast Asia during the first few centuries of the Christian era. This coinage was based on the Hindu models of silver coins, and throughout the region's history, most coins have been local variations of this early Indian silver coinage.

Dvararati Coins The importance of Hindu India's role in the coinage of Southeast Asia is closely related to the reason Hindu ventured into the region to begin with. In the first century A.D., Rome, Hindu's (India's) supplier of gold and silver, suddenly cut off all exports of these metals because of trade deficits and the undermining of their own economy at home. Hindu, in great need of new sources of both metals, turned to Southeast Asia and began to build trade and exploration settlements that later evolved into kingdoms such as Funan. At the time of the Roman decision to stop exports of precious metals, India already had a long history of silver coinage. When the Hindu explorers found silver in Southeast Asia, this supplanted the earlier Roman supplies and the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms that arose followed India's lead and began their own silver coinage.
The coinage of the Funan era was silver, molded and hammered in a method very similar to that of sixteenth-century England. One side of a Funan coin shows the sun; the reverse side shows Vishnu's hair, a drum, the sun and the moon. These coins, apparently divided to make small change, are sometimes found cut in pieces. They were widely distributed from present-day Burma to Vietnam.

Srivijaya Coins By the sixth century, the Funan Kingdom was in decline and was succeeded in Thailand by the Dvaravat Kingdom which prospered from the sixth to the eleventh century, when it declined after an Angkoral Khmer invasion. The coinage from this period was also hammered, with more designs including conch shells, goats, rabbits, lotus blossoms and water jars. The Srivijaya Kingdom spread north from Sumatra through the Malay Peninsula to southern Thailand, existing from the eighth to the thirteenth century. Its coinage includes gold and silver coins with a sandalwood flower markand a namo (prayer) mark These three ancient kingdoms all contributed to coinage produced in Thailand.

Laan Chang (Northeast Siam) Money The Kingdom of Laan Chang (Laos and northeast Thailand) used silver tiger-tongue money sometimes called "leech money" because it resembles a leech found in Thailand. However, the foreigners preferred to use the term of "bar money." Brass versions were changed for the silver version. Governors in southern provinces issued tin-based coins, similar to Chinese coins, with Chinese, Arabic and Thai inscriptions.

Lana Money (pig-mouth , Flower , Bracelet) The northern Lanna Kingdom , which lasted from 1239 to 1564, used leaf (or line) money made of brass and silver bubbles, which is called "pig-mouth" money . Nobody has been able to duplicate the technique of making pig-mouth money, and because the silver is very thin and breakable, good pieces are now very rare. Flower money , which is flat, round and small, is of better quality silver than other coins from this period. One side is decorated with flower like patterns, and the reverse face is dented or pitted. Bracelet money was also used in the Lanna Kingdom. Called this because of their shape, bracelet coins are actually too small to fit around a wrist, although some experts believe that this type of coinage originated in a larger size that was worn by mountain people around the wrist for easy transport. King Ramkhamhaeng (1279-1298) of Sukhothai is credited with introducing bullet coins. Some experts think they were developed to resemble cowry shells, which had been used as money from ancient times. Others believe they were only a more convenient form of bracelet money.

Sukhothai Bullet Money A bullet coinis shaped something like a signet ring. It was made from a short bar of silver, widest at the middle, with its ends bent around to form a complete circle. It was then stamped with various circular decorations which could indicate certain reigns or places of manufacture. The coins were solid silver, but since their weight varied, their value had to be assessed by weighing before a transaction could take place.

During the Kingdom of Ayudthaya (1569-1767) many high-quality bullet coins were produced, but because of the destruction of Ayudthaya's records during the Burmese sacking in 1767, it is difficult to attribute the marks on the bullet coins to the correct reign. Ayudthaya coins are well made and, aside from their markings, can be distinguished by their shape. Ayudthaya bullets have one hammer mark.

After the Ayudthaya era, King Taksin (1767-1782) reigned over a transitional kingdom at Thonburi (opposite the present day Bangkok). The most distinguishing feature of Rattanakosin (Bangkok) era coins is the mark of the chakra , the Buddhist Wheel of Law and symbol of the Chakri Dynasty. Ninety-five percent of Bangkok coins have the chakra as a dynastic mark, plus another personal mark. The stamping of the marks was done with the newly made bullet coin held in a mold in an elephant bone. Elephant bone was used because wood was too soft and would split, and iron was too hard and would flatten the coin.

Ayudhya Bullet Money The old Thai monetary units were complicated. The largest denomination was a chung , that was used only for accounting purposes. Twenty tamlueng equaled one chung, four baht equaled one tamlueng , four salueng equaled one baht and two feungs equaled one salueng with further breakdowns into seeg ziew or pai utt and solot This system prevailed until 1897, when it was replaced with the current system of baht and satang (one hundred satang equals one baht).

Cowry shells from the Mekong River had been used as currency for small amounts since the Sukhothai period. Rama III (1824-1851) was the first king to consider the use of a flat coin. He did so not for the convenience of traders, but because he was disturbed that the creatures living in the cowry shells were killed. When he learned of the use of flat copper coins in Singapore in 1835, he contacted a Scottish trader, who had two types of experimental coins struck in England. However, the king rejected both designs. The name of the country put on these first coins was Muang Thai , not Siam.

Flat coins were finally introduced for use in the Kingdom during the reign of King Mongkut, Rama IV (1851-1868), although bullet coins were still produced during the early years of his reign. The manufacture of bullet coins was slow; only 240 coins in a day could be produced by a single group of craftsmen. But commerce and trade were on the increase, creating a great need for more coins. A lot of poorly stamped and hammered bullet money was made during this time because the artisans were under constant pressure to speed up their work. Two experimental series of flat coins were issued, but the production of these coins by hand was even slower. Large numbers of foreign coins were coming into the Kingdom at this time, and the normal practice was to melt them down and manufacture bullet coins. This procedure was time-consuming, so King Rama IV issued a decree legalizing the use of foreign coins.

Thonburi Bullet Money Mexican coins were especially popular for international use because Mexico was the biggest silver producer in the world, and large numbers of coins were exported, especially to China.Many merchants in Thailand were reluctant to accept the foreign silver coins, even after the Royal decree in November 1857 that made the foreign coins legal tender. Because of this lack of acceptance, the king issued another decree, this time ordering the counter-stamping of the chakra and the crown on the Mexican coins. These markings clearly made them Thai coins. They soon became so popular and desired as jewelry that another decree was issued to prohibit the use of foreign coins as children's ornaments.

Also in 1857, England's Queen Victoria became aware of the coin shortage in Thailand and sent King Rama IV a coining machine as a gift. This was used to produce the first machine-made Thai coins. The first series of coins in gold and silver have the chakra and elephant on one side and the crown on the other. Stars are used to show the denominations. Because the machine was a gift, these are known as banagarn (royal gift) coins. The machine was hand operated, so only a small total of coins was actually issued. The king was impressed by the minting technology, so he ordered a new minting machine from England, which cost three thousand pounds, and included an engineer's services as part of the purchase agreement. The machine arrived in Bangkok in 1858, but the engineer unfortunately died on arrival. Two replacement engineers were sent; one drowned, but the other set the minting machine up before he also died. Fortunately he had time to train a Thai engineer who was able to carry on.

Rattanakosin (Bangkok) Bullet Money King Rama V continued the manufacture of flat coins and an occasional commemorative issue of bullet coins. In 1876 King Rama V introduced the first Thai coin with a king's portrait. This required special assurances to the people that they could handle the coins and put them in cash boxes without being guilty of lese majesty. To make sure policemen were not overzealous, the king proclaimed that any policeman arresting a person for this offense would himself be punished. Bullet coins continued in use for many years, and were finally withdrawn from circulation in October 1904. Thailand can be proud of its old coins, a heritage that proves that a monetary system has existed here for many centuries. Ancient coins, although becoming scarce, can still be found in the antique shops of Chiangmai. The constant shifting over the centuries of empires, tribes and colonial powers vying for power and influence, each imposing their own currencies, has produced a little known numismatist's delight. Silver coins, because of their importance in hill tribe costumes, can also still be found. Other finds include rupees from India and Burma, coins of the old Indo-Chinese French empire, American silver dollars, and the highly prized silver Mexican peso.For collectors of old coins, Chiangmai has an old coin museum (Mint Bureau of Chiangmai or Sala Thanarak , Treasury Department, Ministry of Finance) on Rajdamnern Road (one block away from AUA) open to the public during business hours.


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Last modified on:  October 27 2013