Gold Dust

Page 136

During the Alaskan gold rush gold dust became a circulating currency in parts of Alaska. Silver coinage and other small coinage was nonexistent, so in its place little packets of gold dust, sealed in writing paper similar to medicine powders, passed as current money. The packets contained a fixed weight of gold dust, and the value of the enclosed gold was written on the outside of each packet. The packets came in popular denominations, such as one-dollar or two-dollar denominations, and some of the packets were known to circulate for two years.

The Alaskan gold dust currency demonstrates how societies will identify a medium of exchange when nothing else is available, but gold dust currency has a long history. In the tenth century the Japanese began circulating bags of gold dust. Later Japanese merchants began wrapping gold dust in small paper packets. The units were the ryo, the bu, and the shu. The bags of gold dust equaled about 10 ryo. After learning that a certain amount of gold dust seeped from the opened end of the bag, the Japanese began melting down the gold dust into gold bars. In the nineteenth century the people of Tibet used as currency gold dust by weight.

For part of the nineteenth century gold dust was virtually the only metallic money in Ghana. A farthing’s worth of gold could be scooped up on the tip of a knife, and an ounce of gold dust equaled three to four British pounds. The government received taxes in gold dust and employed special weighing scales that gave an advantage to the government.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gold dust by weight circulated as money in the islands in and around the Indonesian Archipelago. As early as the sixteenth century gold dust acted as currency in the Philippines. The gold-producing districts of Siam made use of gold dust as currency into the twentieth century. In nineteenth-century Siam, a tube of gold dust, 10 centimeters long and the diameter of a thumb, could purchase a buffalo. Some Malayan tribes packed gold dust of uniform weight in pieces of cloth, and circulated these cloth packets as coins.

Africa also furnished examples of gold dust by weight circulating as currency. In Arguin of Spanish Sahara, on the west coast of Africa, an ancient Arabic unit of weight, the mitkhal, survived as a unit of weight of gold dust. The mitkhal was a monetary unit of account, but it does not appear that gold dust circulated as money on a significant scale. For a while gold dust by weight was the favored medium of exchange in the Ivory Coast