top of page

South African Numismatic Firsts since 1652

Pierre H. Nortje (May 2024



Some of the “firsts” have already been touched on in previous articles on our WCNS website. However, for the sake of completeness, we have included them here with some new information added. Readers with additional information are welcome to contact us with their suggestions and inputs.


First coins to circulate


The first coins to circulate “officially” in South Africa, were introduced by the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) in 1652 when Jan van Riebeeck was requested by the company to undertake the command of the initial Dutch settlement in the future South Africa. Before that date, many foreign ships briefly visited our shores and it can safely be assumed that coins were exchanged between the sailors, soldiers, merchantmen or whomever made a brief stopover. However, it is doubtful that coins were accepted by the local Khoisan, Khoikhoi and Bantu before 1652. The currency these nations accepted was beads.


When the Dutch settled at the Cape, coins of virtually all nations, especially seafaring nations, circulated locally. If the coins were struck in a sound metal being it copper, silver or gold, locals accepted them. This made the Cape of Good Hope no different than other colonial settlements of the period in the Americas and the East. This situation continued for more than 150 years.


As a matter of interest, on the 5th of April 1652 at 14H30, the day before Van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape, one of the sailors (the First Mate or “Opperstuurman”) on the Drommedaris, was the first to spot Table Mountain in the distance, and won the allotted prize of 4 Spanish Reales in coins. 

A silver 4-reales coin of Felipe IV

A silver 4-reales coin of Felipe IV struck in the Royal Mint of Spain in Madrid (Real Casa de la Moneda) 1621 to 1662. Source: Numista. These coins were also struck in fractions like 1 Reales (below left) and 2 Reales (below right).

1 Reales
2 Reales

First commemorative medal


L.J. de Wet wrote an informative chapter on South African Commemorative medals in Africana Curiosities, edited by Anna H. Smith in 1973. The author says that the earliest three medals of Africana interest are all preserved in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

The first is the Godske Medal of 1677. Isbrand Godske was the second Dutch Governor of the Cape from 1672 to 1676. On an earlier visit to the Cape, he made recommendations regarding the building of the stone castle to replace the wooden castle that Jan van Riebeeck erected.


After his retirement from the Dutch East India Company, they presented him with a gold medal suspended on a chain that carries the date 1677. One side of the medal shows a ship of the Dutch East India Company and the other the words “t’Casteel d’ Goede Hoop” with a birds eye view of the Castle.


Unfortunately, we could only find a picture of the obverse of the medal. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Godske Medal

First paper money for local usage


In May 1782, Cape Governor Joachim van Plettenberg ordered the issuing of money printed on parchment with the following values: Stiver denominations of 12, 24, and 36, and Rixdollar notes in multiples of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 15, 20, 25, 30, 40, 50, and 60. Unfortunately, the Cape continued to face currency shortages, and this initial supply of parchment notes soon ran out. Consequently, the Governor ordered the issuance of further notes on plain paper.

The following is the only known picture of one of the first van Plettenberg issues, although this is thought to be the June (not May) 1782 issue in plain paper.


The 2-Stuiver note is signed by Olof Godlieb de Wet, William Ferdinand van Rheede van Oudtshoorn and Pieter Diederick Boonacker.


Source: Beschrijving van Nederlandsche Historie-penningen, Volume 3 (1863) by Gerard van Loon.

First coins struck for local usage


The Scheepjesgulden dated 1802 were the first coins minted specifically for use in South Africa. With the Treaty of Amiens on 27 March 1802, the Cape was returned by Great Britain to the Batavian Republic who sent Commissioner-General Jacob Abraham de Mist to the Cape to oversee the instalment of the new Governor, Jan Willem Jansens.


At De Mist’s request, 100,000 Guldens were minted for the Cape in denominations of 1, ½, ¼, 1/8, and 1/16 in silver, as well as copper doits and half-doits. However, the coins were not named after the Cape but instead were inscribed with the words 'INDIAE BATAVORUM,' as the Cape was considered one of the Eastern possessions of the Batavian Republic. These coins were struck by Hessel Slijper, the Mint Master of the Dutch Mint in Enkhuizen.

1/8th Scheepjesgulden

The 1/8th Scheepjesgulden. Source: Schulman Auctions

When De Mist arrived at the Cape, the British occupation troops had not yet left and most likely made him order the entire shipment of coins to be forwarded to the much safer Batavia in Java, Indonesia. A few months later, another shipment of guilders arrived at the Cape but was kept in safekeeping and, for some reason, was not put into circulation. The coins were only circulated three years later, ironically not by the Dutch, but by the new British occupiers after they retook the Cape in 1806. It is important to note that this second consignment of Scheepjesgulden consisted only of the silver ½, ¼, 1/8, and 1/16 issues.


First token coinage

When Commissioner-General Jacob Abraham de Mist arrived at the Cape in 1802, the only coins that were fairly plentiful locally were the British so-called Cartwheel pennies of 1797. The Dutch referred to them as “dubbeltjies”. De Mist conceived the idea of recalling all the Cartwheel pennies and having them stamped with the initials B.R. (Batavian Republic). Dies were made by a local Englishman but on second thoughts De Mist dropped his idea. The chances are probably good that if the dies were ready, a few trial pieces or patterns were struck to present to de Mist. If so, these must have been the first token coins struck for our country.

Cartwheel pennies

Various examples of countermarked Cartwheel pennies. Maybe a lucky collector will one day stumble upon one stamped “B.R.”  Source: St. James auctions.

The first tokens issued for South Africa of which we have 100% proof was the so-called Griqua coinage that was struck in England in 1816 upon the order of the London Missionary Society for use as a circulating medium at their mission station in Griquatown. The LMS referred to these coins as 'tokens,' and they were issued in four denominations: ¼ and ½ in copper, and 5 and 10 in silver. Neither their denominations (e.g. penny) nor the date of their manufacturing is depicted on them. It is believed that the consignment arrived in South Africa the following year (1817) and was subsequently forwarded to Griquatown. The coinage saw only limited usage, as the missionaries struggled to ascertain the value of the silver pieces. Those that were initially circulated were undervalued, resulting in a detriment to the society, who inadvertently short-changed themselves.


Source: Authors own library

First official coins


Twenty years after the second occupation of the Cape, the British government decided to put the currency of all its colonies on a sterling basis and on 1 January 1826, British coinage was introduced as the official currency of the Cape Colony consisting of the ¼d, ½d, 1d, 6d, 1/-, 2/6, 5/-, 10/- and £1.


The highest denomination at the time, the gold Sovereign (£1). Source: Baldwin’s

Of interest is that at the period, the 3d (Tickey) and 2/- (Florin) were not minted. The former was last struck more than a quarter of a century earlier as a circulating medium and minting of the denomination only resumed in 1834. The Florin as a 2-shilling silver coin was never issued in England. It was first introduced as part of an experiment in decimalization that went no further at the time. The original florins, dated 1849, attracted controversy for omitting a reference to God from Queen Victoria’s titles; that type is accordingly known as the "Godless florin", and was in 1851 succeeded by the "Gothic florin", for its design and style of lettering.


It must however be pointed out that after 1826, when the supply of British coin was insufficient to pay the garrison troops, foreign silver coins like the Spanish dollars were still used. It was only in 1848 that foreign coins were no longer accepted at the Cape.


First paper money bearing the official name


As far back as the 1840s, the name South Africa was depicted on local banknotes. An example is the South Africa Bank which was established in 1838 and failed in 1886. It issued a 10 Pound note in 1844. However, this was a private bank and its notes can thus not be deemed as official government issues.


The first official South African banknotes depicting the name were those of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek in 1865. During the same year, the Orange Free State also issued banknotes, but these obviously did not carry the name South Africa. The ZAR actually issued the so-called “Mandaten” in 1859, but as treasure bills, these issues are not considered banknotes in the true sense of the word. Of interest is the fact that the first banknote issues of 1865 were in Rijksdaalder denominations, and only in the next year, 1866, were they issued in Pound/Shilling/Pence denominations. These notes are very scarce and command high prices when specimens are sometimes put up for sale.

5 Rijksdaalder Note of 1865: Source: Herns’s South African Banknotes & Paper Money – Pre-Reserve Bank (2010).

First coin struck bearing the official name


The first coin bearing the name South Africa was the so-called Burgerspond of 1874. It was struck in England by Messrs Heaton & Sons of the Birmingham Mint, with the punches supplied by Mr. L.C. Wyon. On the request of the then President of the Transvaal, Thomas Francois Burgers of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, 837 of these gold coins were struck.


Source: Numista (Heritage Auctions)

For the following 18 years, no other coinage intended for circulation was struck for the Z.A.R. until 1892, when first in Berlin and then at the Pretoria Mint a series of coins was produced – the so-called Paul Kruger coinage series struck from 1892 to 1900.


First military medal

The first South African military medal was a campaign medal, the South Africa Medal, instituted in 1854 by Queen Victoria, the sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, for award to officers and men of the Royal Navy, British Army and locally recruited Cape Mounted Riflemen who served on the Eastern Frontier of the Cape Colony between 1834 and 1853 during the Xhosa Wars.

South African Medal - Source: Wikipedia

Medalje voor de Anglo-Boere Oorlog - Source: Wikipedia

The first military medal awarded by a South African government, was the Medalje voor de Anglo-Boere Oorlog, originally officially designated De Zuid-Afrikaanse Republiek- en Oranje Vrijstaat Oorlogsmedalje (the South African Republic and Orange Free State War Medal) and commonly referred to as the Anglo-Boere Oorlog Medalje. It was instituted in terms of Government Notice no. 2307 dated 21 December 1920, and published in the Union of South Africa Government Gazette of 24 December 1920. It was a retrospective campaign medal for Boer veteran officers and men, who served in the combat forces of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State during the Second Boer War between 11 October 1899 and 31 May 1902 and who remained in service of the Republican forces until 31 May 1902, without surrendering or taking either parole or the oath of allegiance prior to 31 May 1902. Incredibly, the last one was issued in 1982.

First paper money issued for the greater South Africa

The South African Reserve Bank opened its doors for business for the first time on 30 June 1921 and issued its first banknotes to the public on 19 April 1922.


They were signed by the bank’s first Governor WH Clegg and issued in denominations of 10-Shillings, £1, £5, £20 and £100.


These notes are all scarce and truly rare in high grades. 


Source: South African Coin and Banknote Catalogue 2002/3 published by Randcoin

First coins struck for the greater South Africa


The Union of South Africa was established on May 31, 1910, through the unification of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal, and Orange River colonies. Thirteen years later, in 1923, the first coins were struck for the united South Africa, consisting of the ¼d, ½d, 1d, 3d, 6d, 1/-, 2/-, 2/6, 5/-, 10/- and £1.

Source: The Coin Cabinet

First commemorative coin


Technically, the first commemorative South African coin was the 5-shilling piece (crown) that was issued in 1947 to coincide with the Royal Visit of the Windsors in that year to our shores. This was the first time this denomination was again struck after the Paul Kruger (ZAR) issues of 1892. However, the  5-shilling piece of 1947 did not depict it as a commemorative issue as such – the first coin clearly showing commemorative details was the 1952 issue that was struck with the tercentenary of Jan van Riebeeck’s landing at the Cape (1652-1952).

Source: Private Cabinet

First decimal coins and notes


In his Money in South Africa (1987) by C.L. Engelbrecht, he mentions that as far back as 1913, there were suggestions that the Union of South Africa should adopt a decimal monetary system. This issue was raised again in Parliament in 1932 and then again in 1944. However, it was only in 1961, the year that South Africa became a Republic, that the first decimal series was introduced.

Source: Money in South Africa (1987) by C.L. Engelbrecht

The coinage of 1961 consisted of the ½c, 1c, 2½c, 5c, 10c, 20c and 50c. A gold R1 and R2 were also struck, but these were not issued for circulation purposes. The first R1 struck for general usage was the silver issue of 1965 with the introduction of the second decimal series.

Source: Russell Kaplan Auctions

The first decimal notes were issued in 1961 in denominations of R1, R2, R10 and R20.


Source: South African Coin and Banknote Catalogue 2002/3 published by Randcoin

bottom of page