Money and banking story unfolds at Bank of Ceylon’s modernised museum

Saturday, 3 September 2016 00:08 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 2 DFT-8



During the late 1820s coffee planting began in earnest and by 1831 coffee plantations began to proliferate. Though many types of crops had been grown for export this crop was promising to take planting to new heights.

The plantations began to cultivate increasingly larger areas. As the scale of planting increased so did the need for labour to run the plantations. This led to an unusual kind of problem. The workers had to be paid a daily wage. The problem was finding enough quantities of coins of such value. 

Though the British Government of those times had issued coins of required denominations, the quantity of coins in circulation was not even close to the amount required by the plantations for their day-to-day operations.

The plantation companies (most of these large plantations were owned by companies) came up with a unique solution – the coffee tokens. Workers were paid in tokens and often a token carried a value equal to that of the daily wage of a labourer. The first of these were quite crude but later on they came to be minted by reputed mints and the quality improved sharply. Details such as the value and the name and logo of the company appeared on the token.

Later on the British Government established the decimal currency system and began to issue coins of smaller value in sizeable quantities into circulation. This issue of coins in sufficient quantities and later the collapse of plantation companies following the ‘Coffee Crisis’ led to the decline of the use of the coffee token. Gradually they faded out of use and out of memory too.

A wide collection of coffee tokens issued by various companies are on display at the Bank of Ceylon Money and Banking Museum at the Bank of Ceylon’s head office building in the Fort area of Colombo. This museum was opened as part of the celebrations commemorating the bank’s 77th anniversary which fell on 1 August.


Bank of Ceylon Money and Banking Museum

The bank’s new museum is situated at the 28th floor of the head office. In designing the museum the architect has taken advantage of the round shape of the Bank of Ceylon head office building, giving it unique curved presentation galleries. There is circular viewing gallery which goes round the building from which a visitor could get a good view of the City of Colombo by walking around the gallery.

At the entrance to the museum a panel gives the objectives of the museum as follows: “The BoC Money and Banking Museum aspires to educate and enrich people with Sri Lanka’s history of money and commerce spanning two millennia, and its transition into the modern banking era. Discover Sri Lanka’s early bartering methods, long history of trade relations, and the emergence of a stylised local coinage, followed by the country’s entry into modern banking and its role in 21st century commerce and banking practices.”

The Museum consists of three sections – the coins and currency section called the ‘Money Gallery,’ the Bank of Ceylon history section called ‘BOC Gallery’ and the modern banking section called the ‘Banking Centre’.


Coins and currency section

This section tells how exchanging goods led to the gradual development of the use of money and how different systems of coinage developed over the years. It also houses an interesting collection of coins and currency notes. 

Sri Lanka’s pre-history goes back thousands of years. There is evidence that pre historic humans in Sri Lanka have exchanged goods perhaps as far back as 40,000 years ago. The cave dwellers of the interior part of the country have exchanged goods with the hunter gatherers of the coastal areas. The excavations have revealed things like shark teeth in the dwelling sites in the interior of the country. 

During the proto historic period, which ranged from about 1500 BCE to 600BCE, this exchanging of goods became more methodical leading to the introduction of primitive systems of weights and measures. These weights and measures were an important development that led to money in the form of coins coming into use.

The first coins appear to have come into use at the end of the Proto Historic Period and the dawn of the Early Historic Period. The earliest types of coins to come into use were the ‘punch mark’ coins of Indian origin. These are the coins that were used in India during the time of the Buddha. By the second and third centuries BCE, coin production commenced locally.

During the second and third centuries CE, the influence of Rome extended to Asia and Roman coins came into use in Asia including Sri Lanka.

An important development of coins was the introduction of gold coins. As trade expanded Lanka became a busy hub as an important link in what is called the ‘Maritime Silk Route’. The famous ‘Kahapana’ gold coin came to be issued during this period.

Another important development occurred during the shift of the kingdom to Polonnaruwa. Raja Raja Chola, the first to rule from Polonnaruwa as the capital, was also the first monarch to introduce coins bearing the name of the ruler.

Tissamaharama in the south is another place where many unique coins have been unearthed, leading us to look deeply into the relative importance of this area.

The coming of the Portuguese, the Dutch and finally the British brought interesting changes to the money that was in circulation. Many such types of coins can be seen at this museum along with a description of their unique qualities.


The Bank of Ceylon section

This section deals with the gradual arrival of modern banking in Sri Lanka and the events that led to the formation of Bank of Ceylon as a State-assisted bank. 

With the coming of the Portuguese in the early 1500s a new era in trade begin. This trend continued under the Dutch and became firmly established when the British consolidated their control over the entire island in 1815. The 19th century saw increased opportunities for those who could produce agricultural goods for export to make immense amounts of money. Those who could find the money to invest in such production stood a good chance of becoming very rich. Finance was the key issue and banks and financiers appeared, such as the Nattukottai Chettiar community.

Later on, as problems of finance reached a crisis point, a commission was appointed by the Government by way of an order from the British Governor. The commission’s recommendation led to the formation of Bank of Ceylon.

The day-to-day operations of a bank in those far-off days were very different to what we see today – a far cry from the highly-computerised environment we have come to take for granted. 

A great many operations were done by hand. Documents were filled using a ‘dip pen,’ where the nib of the pen had to be dipped in ink every few words. These entries are often written in very beautiful hand writing. The office used manual ledgers – large books which were bound in leather. A rotary sharpener was used to sharpen pencils. 

Later on accounting machines made by companies such as Burroughs and Ascotta came into use. Many such pieces of equipment that were used during those times are on display.

The museum also has a collection of interesting documents. Among these are letters written by former Prime Ministers – for example the letter written by the late Dudley Senanayake after the death of his father the first Prime Minister of Ceylon D.S. Senanayake. Another interesting set is the documents pertaining to the buying of shares in Bank of Ceylon at the first issue of shares.


Modern banking section

This section, which has been designed keeping the interests of schoolchildren in mind, is designed so that a visitor could experience a modern banking environment. Multi-media projectors, touch screen displays, etc., have been installed so that this educational aspect could be strengthened. 

It also has a Ultra-Violet light facility so that children could experience first-hand the security features of currency notes. An Automated Teller Machine is also available for children to try out how to use one.

We live in an era of increasing technological advances and sophistication. The last two decades have seen changes occur that one could not have dreamed of a few decades back. Technology has invaded many fields. It is to be expected that there will be more technological innovations occurring with regard to banking and also money. 

With regard to banking the changes are obvious. Technology is shaping not only the way banking services are offered and the products themselves, but also the way banks are controlled and governed. Increasingly more advanced teller machines and cash deposit machines are changing the way people draw money and make deposits. 

Modern advanced risk management approaches which are used to control banks would not have been possible without the availability of required levels of computing power that today’s computers possess.

Money has also been touched by technological advances. Today’s currency notes incorporate many advanced security features. Among them are watermarks and cornerstone watermarks, security threads, see-through registration features, extra small print and the incorporation of multi-coloured threads in the paper used that glow under ultra-violet light. Other features likely to appear include the use of printing inks that change colour with the angle of light falling on them.

The future may hold many changes. Money as we know it now may also change to incorporate ‘smart’ features. The first signs have begun to appear. We live in an era of digital technology and it is probably only a matter of time before it touches and changes money as we know it today.

Pix by Lasantha Kumara