Tales of Soft Money — Nigerian Gin

16.06.2019

Is it creditable to any Government, and particularly a Christian Government, that any portion of its revenue, not to speak of the largest, is raised from such a fearfully destructive source? - Lagos Echo, 1894 [1]

Simon Heap has on behalf of the British Museum delved in to the practice of liquor imports to Southern Nigeria in the late 19th- and early 20th-century. The case is interesting as it portrays a new monetary system forming - something that we will later analyze in a hard and easy (soft) money framework.

So, how did this crude new monetary system evolve? The northern parts of Nigeria, being predominantly Muslim, did not engage in much alcohol production in the 19th century. The southern parts of the province, however, knew how to ferment grain beer and how to tap palm wine, but did not have the expertise to produce distilled spirits. This lead the British, who continuously expanded their colonial presence from the southern coastal parts during the second half of the that century, to start importing casks of liquor. Soon enough, alcohol imports made up more than half of total British revenue in the area. Lagos Weekly Record noted the following, in 1911:

It is a very easy and cheap way of raising revenue. A vessel comes into Lagos and deposits 10,000 cases on a wharf... All that the [British Colonial] Government has to do is to send down a clerk and have the cases counted, and on each case to charge 5 shillings, which practically means realising £2,500. [2]

The large revenue was contrasted with ethical concerns by some parties. One Christian missionary organization argued that this trade practice created 'a hydra that devours the natives'. Despite criticisms however, the lucrative trade continued, supplying the Europeans with agricultural goods like palm oil, but also with ivory and gold. According to Heap's sources, a mind boggling 40% of the South Nigerian exports went to purchase imported liquor in the start of the 20th century. Some farmers sold up to 90% of their produce for gin, which speaks for the importance of those bottles.

Heap concludes that 'everyone' accepted liquor as a medium-of-exchange in Southern Nigeria barter situations. Liquor was also used as a unit-of-account by the locals when quoting prices. This gave rise to the 'gin currency' expression (which was not exclusive to gin itself). D.E. Price, District Commissioner of Brass noted in 1908:

Trade spirits, especially gin are not used merely for drinking, but are in some parts of the country employed as a substitute for currency and large quantities are stored as accumulated wealth. In the more backward parts of the country British coin is regarded with suspicion by the natives and either does not pass current at all or only passes at a depreciated rate. The people are still in the barter stage, and for various reasons gin furnishes the most convenient standard of value. [3]

As soon as liquor bottles evolved from being a consumable commodity to becoming part of a currency network, it is easy to imagine that they started to accrue some premium due to relatively good store-of-value capabilities. With this premium, the incentive for both production and fraud increased. Heap, when writing on the latter, mentions false bottoms, thick glass, long necks containing nothing more than air, water dilution, and darkly colored glass to obscure liquid content levels. The lack of fungibility was obviously a big problem, not only for the consumer of the liquor, but also for the merchants using it as money. As agricultural producers started to demand a gin discount precisely because of the practices listed above, merchants managed to get the colonial government to initiate bottle standardization efforts, both in terms of shape, thickness and contents.

Standardization efforts or not, the gin currency continued to circulate. Its importance was again recounted by liquor-critical Christian missionaries, who ultimately had to petition their headquarters for the permission to use gin as currency, lest 'they would starve'.

In some parts of the Delta it is not possible to purchase food unless you are prepared to pay for it in gin. Archdeacon Dennis, when travelling through the country, could not get a fowl because the people insisted on a bottle of gin in payment, and I have been frequently refused in the same way. At Agberi, we opened a station when the Niger Company retired, but we had to withdraw the man there because the people would not sell him food unless he produced gin in exchange... . Again among the canoe-men the very first thing they ask you when you start on a journey is for an installment of their payment in gin. [4]

It must have been very easy for the Europeans to draw the wrong type of conclusions from observing the high demand of 'gin'. Although much was drunk, as is proved by documented empty bottles cluttering Lagos town, the money properties of the bottles probably fulfilled a role in introducing efficiency improvements in relation to whatever crude value protocols were established in the area prior to that point. It became legal to pay out wages as well as court fines in gin, in parts of the colonial territories. Heap also mentions an instance where in the process of electing a new tribal chief ,  non-attendees were fined a whole case of gin. In yet more examples, 1400 gin bottles were piled up next to a chief's house to signal his social significance, and bottles could sometimes be seen on top of graves to signal the wealth of the buried.

Heap speculates that the emerging money properties of gin not only came from it's store-of-value capabilities (strong alcohol hardly deteriorates like cloth or tobacco). Each case was divisible, usually in to 12 sub-units (flasks). The importance of this divisibility can be seen in the fact that later monetization efforts by the British included the introduction of 12 pence to 1 shilling. Heap also argues that the casks, although rather fragile, were still easier to carry around than bulky copper- or brass bars and wires, or heavy cowrie bags (having probably been inflated over the centuries). Furthermore, many locals seems to have been suspicious of imported silver coins and paper notes  -  both portraying heads of far-away rulers.

But back to the question posed in the Lagos Echo newspaper, over a hundred years ago; 'why does anyone want to create revenue from such a fearfully destructive source?' The answer is of course found in human nature. When someone can produce your monetary units with ease (and thus capture parts of the 'monetary premium'), he ultimately will. Ethical producers of easy monetary units will tell themselves they are providing the market with what it wants. Unethical producers will do the same and use every other tool available to them to counterfeit the money as well. Not only were gin glass flasks themselves tampered with, but the continuous water-down of flask content also acted as a type of inflation. The soft 'gin currency' value protocol, when put up against harder value protocols, was always doomed to shatter in pieces, leaving the liquor to be the consumable commodity it is in the rest of the world until this very day.

In this case, the gin currency story actually ended in Southern Nigeria before its easy money properties could fully kill it off. Gin is just fermented grain mash (or other common agriculture), mixed with juniper berries and other botanicals. It was never going to be hard to produce gin, which of course in the end would have inflated Southern Nigerian wealth away until they could scramble to embrace a harder value protocol. While the First World War raged, the British pressed on with monetization efforts for various reasons. Coins with palm depictions were introduced, while a ban on trade spirits was enforced in 1919. As the colonial government came down hard on the gin currency money, much of the flasks were drunk, causing disturbances in local trade. Despite all efforts, it was still functioning as money in certain places in the area. But it still revealed an inherent weakness with the gin currency other than being inflationary; the size of liquor flasks made it hard to use if actually outlawed. For the British, the monetization of Southern Nigeria meant they could easier exercise control over that economy, which they did until 1960.

[1] Heap, S. (2009). 'A bottle of gin is dangled before the nose of the natives': Gin Currency in Colonial Southern Nigeria. British Museum Research Publication 171. Heap refers to: Lagos Echo, 1 December 1894. Editorial, 2.

[2] Heap, S. (2009). 'A bottle of gin is dangled before the nose of the natives': Gin Currency in Colonial Southern Nigeria. British Museum Research Publication 171. Heap refers to: Lagos Weekly Record, 27 May 1911. 'The liquor traffic', 3.

[3] Heap, S. (2009). 'A bottle of gin is dangled before the nose of the natives': Gin Currency in Colonial Southern Nigeria. British Museum Research Publication 171. Heap refers to: Colonial Office, 1909b. Report of the committee of inquiry into the liquor trade in Southern Nigeria, Part II: minutes of evidence. His Majesty's Stationary Office, London.

[4] Ibid.