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Voyage to Madagascar: Thomas Locke Lewis and the Anglo-Merina Treaty of 1817

Coins and payment

On top of the mixed commercial system, the Ovah did not use coins in conventional ways.

Silver coin, cut up for useSilver coin, cut up and possibly of Spanish originLewis states that: ‘Respecting Coins, the smallest money current at Tamatave and from thence to Yzeit (a distance of about 160 miles) is a crube or a quarter of a dollar; in the Ovah District the natives shew most partiality for the Spanish dollar – this they cut into an unlimited number of pieces, & the value of each is ascertained by means of small scales extremely neatly made and well balanced, & they take every description of silver in any state by weight; indeed for silver coin they shew so much partiality, that it is the best medium of traffic for provisions or otherwise’ (pp 53-54).

With regard to labour, Lewis records that ‘These people when solicited, do not perform the most trifling service without payment or an equivalent, tho’ they are not devoid of hospitality and will voluntarily do a kind act.’

Lewis even went so far as to hypothesise that ‘many of the inhabitants might be employed in opening the bosom of the earth and working its abondant Treasures’, which were listed as plumbago, tin, potter’s clay and iron ore. It is not clear who would put them to work, but the implication appears to be that such industry would improve British trading opportunities with the island and enlarge its economy.

Lewis also claims that keeping to agreements and being careful about the inferences that might be made in discussions was vital in dealings with the people, as they did not take kindly to breaches of agreement and disputes had the potential to develop into physical violence. When trading is conducted, Lewis believes that the Ovah show a particular proclivity towards tobacco (pp 45, 52-54).

The image reproduced here shows pieces of coin used in Madagascar during the 19th century and is used under a Creative Commons licence © The Trustees of the British Museum.

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