This week I made a rather interesting journey – the kind you do without burning a litre of diesel or lifting a single pole of a tent. In fact I never, for once, left the comfort and warmth of my house – thanks to the miracle of the Internet and WiFi.
But still I traveled in cyberspace and went back in time in search of the origin of the Kenya shilling and the journey it has taken to be here today. The story I uncovered was as interesting and intriguing as I had expected.
Long before Kenya began printing and minting its own currency in 1966, under the Central Bank of Kenya Act, cap 491 mandate given to the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), various forms of currency were being used as legal tender in the country.
I traced the earliest use of currency in Kenya to the 1800s and 1850s at the Kenya Coast. It was at that time the Maria Theresa Thalers were introduced. The Thalers were 18th and 19th Century silver coins used by Indian, Greek and European merchants at the Eritrean and Kenyan coasts.
But the Thaler was not able to penetrate into the mainland. It remained a popular currency only along the East African Coast.
It was the Indian Rupee that emerged in the late 19th century, during the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway, that gained wide acceptance across the region. The Indian Rupee was introduced as payment for the Indian workers building the railway line.
One year later in 1897 Harry Jackson, leader of the British East African Protectorate (BEAP), tried to introduce a new currency with the hope of superseding the Rupee. It was known as ‘Specie’ (or ‘Pice’).
The Specie did not become the success it was intended to be. In 1905 the Indian Rupee was made the official currency of the BEAP. It was produced in 1/2, 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 Cent coin denominations. There were notes as well in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 500 Rupees.
But the Indian Rupee did not last long either. It was soon abolished after Kenya became a crown colony in 1920 when IBEA’s mandate was terminated.
A central body known as the East African Currency Board was then established to oversee the issuance of currency in the region. The body reported to the secretary of state for colonies under the advisory of the Bank of England.
The exit of the Indian Rupee paved way for the short stint of the East African Protectorate Rupee. The Rupee was to later be replaced by the East African Florins. In January 1, 1922 the shilling equivalent was introduced in all the three East African countries. By June 1923, the EA shilling was firmly established as official currency in Kenya, Uganda and the then Tanganyika.
In 1964, after the three East African nations had bagged their independence, there was talk of establishing a common East African Central Bank. The bank issued its first interim banknotes that used Lake Victoria as a background picture, hence their name, the Lake Victoria Money.
The Lake Victoria notes existed in denominations of 5, 10, 20 and 100 shillings. There were a few coins which were popularly known as ‘Uhuru’ coins. These initial regional currencies did not have a head or monarch printed on them.
With CBK’s blessings, the first Kenya shilling notes were issued. They bore the face of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta and came in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 shillings. Since then there have been several changes as 2 more heads of state have come to power.
Current denominations of banknotes and coins in circulation include 50 cent, 1, 5, 10, 20, 40 shilling coins and 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1,000 shilling notes.
What a journey the Kenya shilling has taken! If anyone has samples of these currencies, I would love to hear from them. Just drop a message here and I will get back to you.