American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money

East and South Asia in the 19th Century


In the 19th century, three factors changed the Asian monetary system forever: the globalization of trade, colonization, and inflation.

The growth of international trade in the 19th century led to increasing contact—much of it violent—between cultures. The Opium War (1839-1842) between Britain and China was the violent resolution of a protracted trade dispute. Similarly, the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry's Black Fleet in 1853 showed how merchants could undermine the authority of traditional monarchies. The demand for payment in silver trade dollars forced countries throughout Asia to mint coins conforming to western size and weight standards. Many dollars entered Asia from the United States, Mexico, and Peru. These coins were often countermarked and were melted down and re-issued.

Another major event in the 19th century was the colonization of Asia by European force. As European countries imposed these methods of government on local populations, the coinage began to reflect the traditions of the foreign imperial powers.

An important underlying reason for the merchant's power and the establishment of European colonies was poor governance related to the printing of paper money. As empires faced greater military expenditures, Asian governments often sanctioned the massive printing of paper money that was practically worthless. The result was hyperinflation. In response, a bewildering range of coins circulated together. Old-style copper coins were used alongside equally worthless paper money, but neither were as desirable as silver trade dollars.