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Exemption Medals Reminders of the Past
By Chris Woltermann, World Coin News
December 04, 2013

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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No numismatic relics of Natal have greater historical significance than the colony’s Exempted from Native Law medals. Issued from around 1892 (exact year unknown) to sometime after 1910 when Natal joined three other British colonies to form the Union of South Africa, the medals are reminders of a bygone era’s frontier society.

Scholars understand a frontier as a region characterized by a multicultural population with differing, often incompatible, legal systems and differing norms that regulate everyday life. The principal cultures of 19th century Natal were those of the white British, including immigrants and their progeny, and the indigenous black Zulus.

The majority of Zulus lived in Zululand, which lay north of Natal and which the colony annexed in 1897. Yet, from British Natal’s earliest days in the 1840s, many Zulus and other blacks resided within its bounds. To whose laws were they to be subject?

Black traditional authorities, whom the whites called “chiefs,” wanted their people to remain observant of indigenous African laws. White Natalians generally supported this arrangement as part of the widespread colonial practice of governing colonized peoples by indirect rule.

Some ambitious blacks, relatively few at first, came to resent the indigenous laws and the chiefs whom those laws empowered. The laws and the chiefs seemed increasingly onerous. Whites appeared to live under more agreeable laws with respect to such matters as marriage and the family, inheritances, property, and rights to enter into various contracts.

Natal’s whites proved accommodating. In 1865, their colonial government promulgated Law No. 28 to exempt selected “natives,” as they were then called, from native laws. Such exempted individuals came under the jurisdiction of the same laws to which white Natalians answered.

We would be mistaken to regard Law No. 28 as liberating blacks from “colonial oppression.” Liberation was involved, but it was liberation from black traditions, laws, and chiefs. Nor did Law No. 28 aim to create a colorblind society. The law did not afford blacks voting rights then or later.

Exemption from native laws was not automatic. Blacks had to apply for it individually. Adult males, married or unmarried, could apply without a sponsoring guardian. Adult females, however, could not be married, and each required a white guardian.

The colonial authorities had much discretion to grant or deny exemption. In general, such factors as knowledge of English, property ownership, a trade or a calling, and other evidences of good character improved an applicant’s odds. Exemptions granted for some time after the Zulu War of 1879 required loyalty to the British side during the war.

Every successful applicant received a letter of exemption attesting to his or her new status. An exempted person would present this document when necessary, for example, when deeding real estate to a buyer.

The letters of exemption were susceptible to deterioration and destruction. Although they could be replaced, even the temporary inability to access documentation could greatly inconvenience an exempted person.

Inconveniences could be lessened, someone reasoned long after Law No. 28 took effect, by issuing more durable medals to supplement the paper letters. Upon receiving an exemption, a person could choose to buy an official medal that would be engraved with his or her name and the date the exemption was granted. The medal, like a plastic identification card today, would suffice in lieu of paper for an exempted person’s needs.

Such medals, struck in England, were first issued in Natal around 1892. They would often bear exemption dates from much earlier, before the medal system began.

The obverse and reverse designs of Natal’s Exempted from Native Law medals are as depicted in the accompanying photographs. With one known exception, the designs remained unchanged over about two decades of issuance.

Little need be said about the medals with the usual designs. The obverse bears Natal’s coat of arms, a crowned shield flanked by a pair of wildebeests. On the reverse, each medal as struck provided ample space for the requisite personalized engravings. Obverse and reverse have raised borders with a pattern of triangles and dots reminiscent of Zulu motifs.

The only known anomalous medal differs markedly from the usual examples. Its borders bear a vaguely Celtic design, not Zulu-like triangles and dots. The reverse features a unique arrangement of struck lettering and space for engraved data. Altogether confusing is the medal’s quite late exemption date of 30-10-25.

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There is much uncertainty about when Natal’s exemption system ended. The latest exemption date that I have seen on a usual-design medal is 29-3-1912. My South African and American contacts believe that the medal system ended “soon” thereafter. Hence, the anomalous medal is truly puzzling. However, like many usual-design medals, it was struck in silver.

Exempted blacks who chose to purchase usual-design medals could select silver or bronze versions. Silver seems to have been preferred. Michael Laidlaw, a South African who has studied the medals, reports that he has never seen a bronze example.

The alloy of the silver medals is probably English sterling, but I cannot verify this. Extant silver examples weigh about 15.5 grams and have diameters of 32.5 millimeters. Struck with the same dies, bronze versions should be similar. Silver medals often appear with a suspension loop or evidence of a loop having been attached.

Few exemption medals have survived. Michael Laidlaw estimates their number at around 20. They seldom come to market and are pricey when they do. A silver example with a 1908 exemption date brought $1,380 in a Stack’s auction Oct. 1, 2011.

These medal may be beyond the resources of many collectors. All of us, though, can savor the medals’ rich historical associations, for example, their association with two exempted Natal Native Scouts, Jabez Molife and Robert Mtembu, who served the British during the Anglo-Boer War. Faced with capture by Boers, Molife and Mtembu threw their medals away.

Might these medals be recovered for modern collectors? Prospects like this, however remote, keep numismatics fresh and exciting.

Acknowledgements: This article could not have been written absent information generously provided by Michael Laidlaw (South Africa) and Warren Biller (USA). Dr. Laidlaw credits Jenny Duckworth for her research in the Natal Colonial Archives in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Photos courtesy of Warren Biller.

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