Liquor Money

Perhaps some measure of the importance of stimulants and depressants to civilization can be seen in the use of these goods as money. Stimulants such as coffee, tobacco, and cocoa beans have served as money, and alcohol—a depressant—has also fulfilled the functions of money in some societies.

During the nineteenth century, gin circulated as money in Nigeria. A bishop reported that it was impossible to buy food in parts of the Nigerian Delta, unless one could offer gin in payment. Bottles of gin changed hands for years, eluding human consumption. Members of a commission on native races, visiting the home of a chief in the central province, saw a stockpile of cases of gin, some cases exceeding 30 years of age. Gin functioned as a store of value, with chiefs holding large stocks of gin as a treasure. Gin owed part of its popularity as a form of wealth to the government’s practice of steadily raising the taxes on imported spirits, rendering domestic stocks more valuable. Although there is no evidence that prices were fixed in gin, signifying gin as a standard of value, gin served as a medium of exchange and store of value. The government banned the importation of spirits during World War I, ending the use of gin money, and opening a period of a silver currency shortage.

In Australia rum served as the medium of exchange of choice during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a time in Australian history known as the “period of the rum currency.” Metallic currency was in short supply, a common problem among remote colonies, including the 13 American colonies along the eastern seaboard. Adding to the currency shortage in Australia was the thinking among English authorities that a convict colony did not need to be provided with money. Trade brought in a limited number of Spanish dollars that were used to pay for imports, and rum could be found in the cargo of every ship that came into port.

Rum met the need for a domestic medium of exchange in Australia. Farmers sold their produce for rum, workers expected to be paid in rum, convicts performed additional work for payment in rum, and law enforcement authorities offered rewards in rum for the apprehension of criminals. Rum functioned better as a medium of exchange than as a store of value. Its value fluctuated with the size of the last shipment, and its owners often fell prey to the temptation to drink it, rather than save it to buy other goods. Although Europeans accepted rum in payment for goods and wages, there no evidence that the aborigines accepted rum in payment, unlike the American Indians who were reported to have had a fondness for whiskey.

Beer has found a place among the ranks of currencies. Some tribes in Uganda are reported to have made payments in homemade beer, and tribal workers to have accepted beer in payment of wages. The consecration of a goat or the manufacture of a shield cost a pot of beer, and the barber charged a pot of beer and one chicken. There is no evidence that these tribes used beer as a store of value, but there is some evidence in Angola that during the 1980s imported beer served as a store of value.

The use of liquor as money gives added meaning to the New Testament admonishment that the “love of money is the root of all evil.” One would expect liquor money to challenge the physical and moral strength of a society in ways that other currencies would not. Many societies have held up objects of reverence as money, such as whales’ teeth on the Fiji Islands, or even gold and silver in ancient Western societies. In Angola the cynicism of war may deserve some credit for the use of imported beer as money. Also, colonial domination by other cultures may be a factor in the use of liquor money in Australia and Nigeria.