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Sierra Leone Modern Coins Start in 1964
By Bob Reis, World Coin News
November 07, 2013

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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In writing this series I go to Standard Catalog of World Coins for my country list. The next country would be Sharjah, currently one of the constituents of the United Arab Emirates. The listings are all of non-circulating coins and I want to wait until I get to the UAE to write about them. I would note though that the only Sharjah coin or “coin” that shows up with any frequency is the Kennedy 5 rupee which has been banished to the Unusual World Coins catalog due to the slipshod lack of government authorization for its issue.


Sierra Leone was in the news a few years back. There was a nasty civil war. The war leader of neighboring Liberiia got involved. Sierra Leone has diamonds, a fact that many people, including that a neighboring leader, since tried and convicted as a war criminal, have found hard to ignore. The British were called in to restore order. Unfortunate situation.

For most of the human period West Africa, where Sierra Leone sits, has had a zone of dense forest that extended inland from the coast for hundreds of kilometers. The forest formed a barrier to the formation of large political units, kingdoms and empires if you will, which seem to have been dependent on cavalry for the enforcement of autocratic unity during most of human history. The west African forest has not been friendly to horses. There were kingdoms and empires north of the forest zone, Mali and Ghana for instance, but they did not extend far into the woodlands. There smaller clans lived in small villages. They did some gardening but they didn’t do field agriculture, they hunted and gathered, some of them kept animals but not cattle for the most part.

Herding people lived to the north in the grassland and up into the edge of the desert with their horses and cattle and goats. For thousands of years they had been in the habit of going down into the forest and stealing horseless people for slaves. The forest people would kill and eat elephants but they couldn’t stop the horse people from stealing their women and children.

There was also the matter of ethnicity. There are about 16 distinct languages in modern Sierra Leone, there may have been more in the past. Hard to unite under those circumstances. Interethnic conflict was endemic along with interethnic trade.

The Wikipedia article on the history of Sierra Leone infers that slavery was substantially absent in coastal Sierra Leone when the Portuguese first arrived. They didn’t mention it, says Wikipedia, so probably it wasn’t there. Maybe so, but the northern regions of that forest had been subject to slave raids for millennia. Maybe the level of social organization in the forest zone was sufficiently fragmented as to proclude a lot of slavery but there was certainly interethnic conflict, people were captured and kept. When Europeans showed up looking for slaves (and ivory) there were plenty of subject people around, enemies from over the hill and so forth, to feed the demand.

It would seem that there were plenty of people available for slavery over many centuries. Foreigners kept coming and getting them and there didn’t stop being people available to be taken. Local businessmen went into the slave business to serve the foreign buyers.

The earliest Portuguese slaving practice was military but they found it was easier to buy them. And what were they buying the slaves with? Beads, copper, iron, cloth, things like that. And cowrie shells and other cheap stuff.

There was also a subterfuge used by the Europeans in the acquisition of slaves. That was the notion that if captives were “liberated” it was assumed that they were going to be killed so the idea was that the lucky saved people owed their lives to the “rescuers.” Probably nobody took that line seriously but it was used not infrequently. There was also a thought that being slaves of Christians was somehow better off than being among pagans, the souls would get edified and perhaps saved.

There was also an invasion from the northeast by Mande speaking people. They were horse-cattle-iron people, related to the people who had built the earlier empires of Ghana and Mali, used slave labor, had an army. The Mande invasions began in the 16th century and proceeded over decades all the way to the coast where they encountered the Portuguese. The conquerors did not remain politically united but instead fell into warring factions.

Meanwhile Muslim influence from the north continued as it had done for centuries until by the 18th century, the height of the European slave trade, it became dominant in the region.

So of the Europeans the Portuguese arrived first in 1462, found this wonderful harbor, and named the coastal hills Serra Leao, “Lion Mountains” in English, Sierra Leone to the Italians who drew the maps. In 1495 they built a fort where modern Freetown stands, facing the third largest natural harbor in the world. Wherever the Portuguese went French, Dutch, and English tried to go as well to horn in on the business, and mostly the Portuguese were too overextended to stop them. That happened in Sierra Leone, with the English becoming dominant by the 18th century. Plantations were developed, worked by slaves.

The British were major slavers but by the end of the 18th century they were having a change of heart and were getting ready to ban the slave trade, which they did in 1807. Part of this intellectual movement of thinking that black people had rights found expression during the American Revolution, with the British taking an anti-slavery position against the pro-slavery Americans. When the British quit the American colonies after 1782 they took several thousand free blacks with them, settling them in Nova Scotia.

The blacks found Nova Scotia cold and the locals hostile. What to do? The decision was made to take them back to Africa, and in 1787 some hundreds of them were brought to Sierra Leone and settled on land obtained from a local king. As so often happens in international deals the two parties seem to have had differing interpretations of the contract. The English thought they were getting the land forever, the local king thought it was more of a rental. Disputes continued until the king destroyed the the settlement. It was reestablished on another site but it failed too through disease and violence from the locals in 1792.

Another settlement was begun that same year in Freetown and that is the origin of the Sierra Leone we know today. The new settlers also came primarily from Nova Scotia, many of them escaped slaves from Virginia and South Carolina, brought under the auspices of a group of British abolitionists operating the “Sierra Leone Company.” Conditions were rather harsh and there was a rebellion by some of the colonists, put down by a company of Jamaican Maroons brought in for the purpose. The Maroons stayed and were granted land confiscated from the rebels.

After the 1807 abolition of the slave trade in the British empire people freed from interdicted ships were brought to Freetown. Through the 19th century the influence and territory of the colony expanded inland by both commercial and military means. Late in the 19th century, as the activities of the European colonial nations reached their culmination in Africa with the seizure of almost the entire continent by one or another of them, various treaties were written to fix the boundaries between them. Sierra Leone got its borders in 1895.

That other colony of freed slaves, Liberia, was founded by American abolitionists in 1816 on Sierra Leone’s southeastern border, formalized as an independent nation in 1847. Sierra Leone and Liberia have not had a particularly harmonious relationship but there have been no formal wars.

The Sierra Leone colony before 1895 covered only a portion of the post-treaty borders. British attempts to extend colonial authority to the new borders resulted in a number of small wars with small kingdoms. The new territories were lumped together as the Sierra Leone “Protectorate” as distinguished from the “Colony.” There was a certain level of resentment all around and two separate rebellions by two ethnic groups, the Temne and the Mande, in 1898-99.

In many colonial situations there developed a stratified social situation of colonial “masters” on top, a middle level of “half breeds,” and “the locals” on the bottom. In Sierra Leone the middle level was termed “Creole,” and a composite language developed to conduct their business, called “Krio,” which has become the dominant language in the country, though the official language is English. A sector of Creoles became highly educated and influential.

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In general the political situation in Sierra Leone in the first half of the 20th century was a struggle between numerous power groups all living off the oppression of a large but similarly fragmented stratum of poor people. After numerous attempts at a comprehensive settlement a constitution was devised in 1951 that set up a framework for independence. The hero of that effort was a politician named Milton Margai, a Mende. A parliament was duly elected, and in 1961 independence was attained, Sir Milton Margai first prime minister.

There was dissension during and after the independence process. Margai’s party was opposed by a somewhat more leftwing party led by Siaka Stevens. When Sir Milton died died suddenly in 1964 and was replaced by his half-brother, Sir Albert Margai. Sir Milton had been an inclusive accommodating kind of guy, Sir Albert was insecure and imperious, governing with a heavy and insensitive hand. He allowed elections however in 1967 and lost to Siaka Stevens. The army took over and removed Stevens but neglected to kill him. A few weeks later a countercoup put Stevens back in power. The situation continued to be sporadically volatile over the next decade. Government became increasingly corrupt and ineffective, the economy stagnated and regressed. Elections did not make much difference.

Then in 1991 a war that had been bubbling along in neighboring Liberia spilled over into Sierra Leone. The Liberian war started as a revolt in the army by “native” against the “settlers” who had controlled the government since the 19th century but had devolved into a multifaceted conflict between armed factions. The leader of one of the factions, Charles Taylor, supported an uprising by a faction in Sierra Leone called the Revolutionary United Front, led by a guy named Foday Sankoh. The Sierra Leone government was unable to prevent the RUF from taking over about half of the country, including most of the diamond fields. The RUF quickly gained a reputation as notable bad guys, perpetrating various atrocities in their zone of control. There was a military coup when the elected government could not prevail, but the army couldn’t do it either and another coup eventually led to another elected government in 1996.

Another coup in 1997 invited the RUF into Freetown, the capital, to share in rule. That coup was overthrown by a combined West African international force and the elected government restored. A UN peacekeeping force went in but failed to stop the war. Finally British troops, who had gone in to evacuate foreigners, went against the RUF and defeated them. Elections were held in 2002 and another in 2007. The country has been quiet for several years now. Some British troops remain.

In some ways the story of Sierra Leone in the 20th century is like a lot of other African countries: colonialism giving way to instability. Unlike many other nations there was no long-lived dictator though more than one short term leader tried for that status. Let’s talk about the coins.

For discussion of money in the pre-coinage period one refers to “A Survey of Primitive Money,” by A. H. Quiggin, published in 1949, reprinted in 1978. No work has superseded it. Ms. Quiggin wrote that in the 18th and 19th centuries the “money” situation of Sierra Leone was similar to that of Liberia: there was circulation of copper or brass bracelets, manillas, some made in Europe for trade, cowries, cloth, and the odd shaped iron “kissie pennies.” These things were substantially replaced by British West Africa coins from the 1920s. The coins of the Sierra Leone Company dated 1791, 1796, and 1805 were apparently circulated so heavily that most of them have disappeared. The coins were made at the Soho mint, Birmingham, there are off metal strikes and proofs. The pennies are scarce, the others are rare.

One finds listed in the Standard Catalog a token or medal commemorating the abolition of the slave trade. This piece is often found circulated, occasionally corroded, as if it might have been in West Africa, though probably most of them were used in England along with the other tokens of the time. There are several varieties, none common.

One further notes cut and countermarked Spanish colonial silver coins attributed to Sierra Leone for the year 1832. I’ve never seen them in person.

The coinage of modern Sierra Leone commenced in 1964 with a set of coins honoring the late Sir Milton Margai, father of his country. The coins range from the bronze half cent through the copper-nickel leone (dollar, if you will). The half cent and cent were exported by coin dealers for cheap sets, there was a collecting boom going on in 1964-65, so those coins are very common in the market. There is a proof set of these coins, also common, issued loose in a plush case, so the coins have had a tendency to get separated. The coins were also struck as silver proofs, the leone also as gold, in very small quantities. I’ve never seen them.

A set of oddball coins denominated in “goldes” was struck in 1966 in gold, palladium, and platinum versions. Possibly a few were handed out for diplomatic purposes, most were sold to Royal Mint customers raising a bit of foreign exchange. They are rare but I’ve seen a few of the gold versions.

The Siaka Stevens period produced coins with his portrait. For circulation there were the same denominations as the Margai coins from half cent to 20 cents plus a 50 cents issued with various dates from 1972 to 1984. Generally these coins are not rare but neither are they common like the 1964 coins. There are also 1 leone crowns commemorating this and that in copper-nickel, silver, and gold, typical royal mint products. The base metal coins can be found, the silvers are uncommon, the gold rare. A heptagonal copper-nickel 2 leones of 1976 is fairly common. A silver 10 leones for the Year of the Scout in 1983 is uncommon, gold 100 leones for scouts, apparently the only leone denominated on-metal gold coin, is rare. Dr. Stevens had some of those funny golde coins as well, all rare and unappreciated.

The vainglorious president theme continued with a few coins bearing the portrait of Dr. Joseph Momoh, 1985-91. An octagonal silver leone commemorating the bicentennial of Freetown is scarce, a gold version is rare. Nickel-bronze leones of 1987 and 1988, also octagonal, are possibly the only Sierra Leone coins usually found circulated. A scarce silver 10 leones for the World Wildlife Fund and a rare 5 golde round out the Momoh coinage.

Then there was a series of inflation coins of 1996 that were significantly stocked by dealers that have been common in recent years. That series was extended past the turn of the millennium. The current high value is I think 500 leones, worth about $0.10 U.S. today.

Then there is the dollar series made for sale to collectors. Perhaps they got the idea from Liberia. The coins consist of copper-nickel crown sized dollars, silver 5 and 10 dollars, and various gold denominations from tiny $20 to 5 ounce $2500. More than 100 types have been issued from 1997 until this year. I run into Liberian coins of this commercial type, made only for collectors, but I’ve never encountered the Sierra Leone versions.

Someone must be buying them, don’t you think?

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