New Zealand’s pre-decimals - history of coins

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19 March 2018
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Ed Fletcher looks at the striking imagery on the reverses of a group of coins that combined British and Maori cultural traditions.

Ed Fletcher looks at the striking imagery on the reverses of a group of coins that combined British and Maori cultural traditions.

In 1935 New Zealand introduced its own distinctive currency, retaining the same weights, sizes and denominations as the British coins the new issues would replace. Obverses also remained unaltered; but reverses changed beyond recognition, replacing Britannia, acorns and lions with startling new images.

Because New Zealand’s population remained low during the years these coins circulated; and because collectors admired them from the outset; it can prove tricky to obtain examples of all of them today. Here is what you must keep an eye out for when seeking your own specimens…

Half penny

The halfpenny reverse depicts a Maori charm known as a hei-tiki, with Maori ornamental scrolls on each side. The charm is usually carved from greenstone and worn as an ornamental pendant. One theory of its origin suggests a connection with Tiki, the first human in Maori legend. Symbolically a hei-tiki is either a memorial to an ancestor, or a representation of the goddess of fertility and childbirth.

The most valuable hei-tiki are carved from nephrite jade, esteemed highly by the Maori for its beauty, toughness and great hardness. It is used for ornaments, ear pendants, adzes, and weapons. When creating a hei-tiki with traditional tools, long and arduous abrasion with a combination of sharp sands and hard sticks gradually bores out the holes and shapes the stone. Lengthy polishing follows before the completed pendant is suspended by a plaited cord and secured by a loop and toggle.

The British Museum has a collection of approximately fifty hei-tiki, many acquired by European travellers and sailors at the earliest points of contact between the two cultures. Today hei-tiki are popular with young New Zealanders of all backgrounds for whom the pendants relate to a more generalised sense of New Zealand identity.

Penny

The penny reverse shows a tui perched on yellow kowhai blossoms. Native to New Zealand, these birds belong to the honeyeater family, which means they feed mainly on nectar from flowers, especially the kowhai. Found throughout the country, they inhabit native forests, bush reserves, even urban areas where gardeners cultivate nectar-rich shrubs.

Although their plumage is generally black, tui exhibit a metallic blue-green sheen, and also have a distinctive white throat tuft. Their song is described as melodious, and often heard long before their dark feathers reveal their presence. They make an important contribution to pollinating native shrubs and trees, often flying long distances to a favourite food source.

Threepence

The threepence reverse exhibits two crossed and carved Maori weapons (patu) with thongs attached. The verb patu means to beat or to subdue; it aptly describes what these short-handled, double-edged clubs were used for during inter-tribal warfare. A thrust from the shoulder at an enemy’s temple usually proved fatal, as did a driven blow under the jaw or ribs. Materials used to make patu included hard volcanic rock, the jawbones of sperm whales, and greenstone which was most highly prized for hardness and durability. In Maori ceremonies and dances patu were often brandished for emphasis, and to symbolise the will to overcome challenges and difficulties.

Patu made from the bones of the sperm whale by coastal tribes were also highly prized for their strength and resistance to fracture. They were often embellished with sharks teeth, bird feathers, and carvings depicting or symbolizes family and tribal traditions. Time consuming to make, the finished results were prized by families and tribes. Greenstone occurs only on the west coast of South Island, so most tribes acquired greenstone patu by barter, or as booty during a raid on a hostile tribe. Greenstone patu were so valuable they became a form of currency used to compensate for injury, or paid as tribute at the end of a war.

Sixpence

The sixpence reverse has a huia perched on a branch. This bird was one of several driven to extinction by a combination of Maori feather collecting and European forest clearances in the early 20th century when New Zealand developed its economy by creating huge pastures for sheep and cattle ranches. The huia’s white banded tail feathers were highly esteemed by the Maori and worn mainly by chiefs, who traded them with fellow chiefs across hundreds of miles.

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The female’s long beak, shaped to probe deeply into rotting timber for grubs, was also prized as a pendant. Both males and females contributed to their sad fates thanks to their fearlessness and inquisitiveness around humans. They were simply too easy to capture. Only a single unbroken huia egg shell remains for study today, in a New Zealand museum.

There are modern feather collectors who pay highly for antique Huia feathers when they come up in private sales. A single tail feather sold in 2010 for NZ$8,000, (approximately £3,675) almost doubling the previous record price paid for a bald eagle feather in the USA.

Shilling

The shilling reverse presents a Maori warrior in warlike pose and armed with a taiaha, an elaborately carved and decorated fighting staff with a sharp point. Although superseded by European muskets in the 19th century, the use of traditional weapons lingered in ceremonial settings with a few old men still teaching the ancient martial arts to youngsters keen to sustain Maori culture.

To pre-colonial tribes the taiaha was regarded as more than a weapon; it was an heirloom to be passed to the next generation. Its creation by cutting, shaping, carving and decorating a branch of hardwood from a sacred forest might have taken months to complete. Before using it in battle the warrior would have asked tribal elders to perform an incantation over it to permeate the wood with powers to overcome enemy defences.   

Florin

The florin reverse displays a kiwi, surely the most iconic symbol of modern New Zealand. These birds are flightless, around the size of a British chicken, and lay the world’s largest egg in relation to body size. They were caught and eaten by early European settlers, who described the flesh as akin to boiled beef, and the eggs as good as pullets’ eggs. Fortunately wildlife conservation has saved many kiwis from the same fate as the huia.

The Maoris use kiwi feathers to make traditional cloaks, though nowadays feathers are only collected from road-kill or from birds that die naturally. In fact, modern Maoris regard themselves as kiwi guardians and fully subscribe to the elevation of the kiwi to the status of national symbol. It achieved its place via use as an emblem by a number of 19th century volunteer regiments; then by cities, sports clubs, the New Zealand Air Force and others. 

Half crown

The half-crown reverse artistically merges European and Maori cultures with shield quarterings depicting the Southern Cross, a wheat sheaf, a lamb suspended by a ribbon, and mining hammers. Three sailing ships occupy the central cross; and the shield is surmounted by the Tudor Crown and surrounded by ornamentation inspired by Maori carvings and motifs.

The Centennial half-crown reverse on the commemorative issue of 1940 projects a radiant sun onto a city below, with a standing figure in the foreground. Almost all of the 100,000 issued disappeared into private collections long before the government announced their withdrawal.

The Crown piece reverse of 1935 celebrates the Treaty of Waitangi signed in 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and Maori chiefs from North Island. The Treaty made New Zealand a part of the British Empire, guaranteed Maori rights to their lands, and gave Maoris the rights of British subjects. The image shows a handshake between a Maori chief and a British dignitary. Only 764 of these pieces were struck. A crown commemorating a visit to New Zealand by George VI in 1949; and another in 1953 commemorating Elizabeth II’s Coronation, were also struck in limited numbers.

Image of 1935 crown courtesy of Heritage Auctions.