Up until the early 16th century, when the Spaniards colonised Jamaica, there had been little occasion for the use of a regular currency. Although there was a small amount of gold on the island, the Taino Indians, Jamaica’s first inhabitants, used it for decorative purposes rather than for trade, which was conducted by barter.
The first units of exchange used by the Spaniards (who came with Columbus in 1494) in their dealings with the Tainos, were items such as glass beads and trinkets, scissors and mirrors.
Jamaica was not settled by the Spaniards until 1509. Very little attempt was made to develop the country’s natural resources and it remained a poor country used chiefly as an agricultural supplier. It seems that the majority of the circulating coinage on the island at this time was made of copper. These coins, called maravedis, were very thin and light in weight and were apparently brought to Jamaica from Santo Domingo. Sometimes these coins were stamped with different marks such as an anchor or key, which was perhaps intended to vary their value according to the supply of money in the island.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Jamaica was the bullion centre of the British possessions in the New World. The island served as the headquarters of the naval military forces and the home base of the buccaneers, and as such it received a constant supply of coins.
The coins which circulated consisted of a mixture of many denominations struck in widespread areas of the globe by the more important commercial powers and their minting dependencies in the New World. The main coins in circulation were those minted in Spain and the Spanish-American mints in countries such as Mexico and Peru. Because these coins were generally of consistent good quality, readily available and universally acceptable, they became the most important circulating coins in Jamaica.
The basic Spanish silver monetary unit was the real. Eight reales made a dollar or ‘piece of eight’ as it was commonly known. The denominations which circulated were:
|4 reales||½ dollar|
|2 reales||¼ dollar|
|1 real||1/8 dollar|
|½ real||1/16 dollar|
Spanish gold currency was based on the escudo. Its multiples were the pistole (double escudo), double pistole (half doubloon) and the quadruple pistole or doubloon. However, the principal gold coins in circulation were the doubloon and pistole, as the other denominations were seldom seen. In addition to these Spanish coins, gold and silver coins from other countries also circulated in Jamaica. From France there was the gold pistole and silver ecu, and from Portugal there was a gold moidore, half johannes and the johannes. The local colonial authorities set the exchange rates of these coins in terms of pounds, shillings and pence but the rates were different from those used in England.
In 1681, the House of Assembly passed an act to ascertain the value of the foreign coins in circulation. The value of the pieces of eight minted in Spain and Mexico were valued at 5/- while the Peruvian dollar was rated at 4/-. Between 1707 and 1722, the value of the 8 reales was increased to 6/3.
In 1758, the Jamaican Assembly passed an act to make 100 000 pounds worth of Spanish coins legal tender and to have a fixed value. In order to distinguish these coins, they were to be counter-stamped with a special design – a floreate GR in a round indent. (GR represented the reigning English monarch, Georgius Rex, George II). By this act the value of the dollar was increased to 6/8 and by common consent, all coins, whether stamped or not, passed at this new rate. However, the project was abandoned in 1759 as the act was repealed by the United Kingdom authorities and the Governor of Jamaica censured for exceeding his powers in approving the act.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the British Colonial Empire had increased considerably, and the problem of currency used in the colonies was becoming more complicated. In 1816, the Imperial Government turned its attention to the deficiencies of colonial currency and sent out enquiries to the colonies asking for particulars of their systems of currency.
In 1820, in response to a request from Mauritius, the Imperial Government struck silver coins for circulation in that territory. The coins were designed and struck by the Royal Mint in denominations of ¼, 1/8, 1/16 parts of the dollar and were of equal fineness and proportionate weight as the Spanish dollar. The coins became known as ‘anchor money’ because they had the design of an anchor on the reverse.
In 1822, the Colonial Office issued orders for the mint to strike ‘anchor’ coins for use in the West Indies. The coins were to circulate in all the British West Indian territories where British troops were stationed. But Jamaica had no shortage of coins of these denominations, as the Spanish coins continued to circulate, so the Governor pointed out that the coins were not needed here. At first their use was limited to military transactions as the local merchants did not accept them. The issue was not successful in Jamaica and as a consequence, was not repeated, although the coins continued in limited circulation until the 1840s.
The British government’s great attempt to introduce British silver and copper coins into circulation in the colonies was made in 1825. Up until then, coins used in Jamaica had all been made of silver, and the Negroes rejected the copper coins which had been introduced. This aversion to the copper coins resulted in the consignment for 1825, and those of later years being re-exported.
The Negroes, who had become devout Christians did not think it appropriate to offer copper coins for collection. Because of their poverty, however, they could not afford the higher denominations and there was a shortage of lower denomination silver coins. In accordance with a resolution of the House of Assembly of 4 July 1834, British silver three pence and penny ha’penny pieces were imported in that year. The penny ha’penny became known as a ‘quartile’ or quarter real, and if we accept the value of the real as six-pence, we can easily see how the penny ha’penny came to be known as a ‘quattie’. Because of the specific need which these coins filled, they became known as “Christian quatties.”
In 1839, an Act was passed which stated that as of 31 December 1840, the currency of Britain should be that of Jamaica, that is, the lower denomination copper coins, farthing, half penny, penny ha’penny and penny as well as the higher denomination silver coins, three pence, sixpence, shilling, florin half crown and crown. While the Spanish coins were demonetised, an exception was made in the case of the Spanish doubloon, which remained legal tender at a rate of 3.4.0, until it was demonetised on 01 April 1901.
Following emancipation in 1838, when the freed slaves became wage earners, there was a greater need for ready cash, especially for values smaller than penny ha’penny. The copper and bronze coins of the British Imperial coinage were still unpopular among the Negro population who refused to use them, so an acceptable metal had to be found for coins of these denominations. Cupro-nickel, which was just gaining popularity as a metal for coinage was to provide the answer.
By the Order in Council and Proclamation of 11 November 1869, and by local laws, the penny and half-penny made of cupro-nickel were authorised to be struck for use in Jamaica. They weighed the same as the English coins of similar value, but had the Jamaican coat of arms on the reverse. As the British silver coins were accepted, there was no need for higher denominations of Jamaican coinage.
The pennies and half-pennies minted in 1869 constitute the first truly Jamaican coins. In 1880, the range of denominations was extended when a farthing was introduced. In 1937, when the worn coins were being replaced, the metal content was changed to nickel-brass. By this time, old fears and distrust had disappeared and there were no problems associated with this change. The farthing, first issued in 1880 was issued for the last time in 1952.
Alterations in the designs of these first Jamaican coins were made when British sovereigns changed, the sizes were reduced in 1937 and an up-dated version of the coat of arms was used in 1964 following independence in 1962.
The first banknotes used in Jamaica were issued by private commercial banks in the mid 19th century. The Bank of Jamaica (no relation to the present central bank), the first commercial bank to operate in Jamaica was established in May 1836 but did not issue any notes. The Colonial Bank, incorporated in England by Royal Charter in June 1836 began operations in Jamaica in May 1837. The first notes issued by this bank were payable in British pounds, Spanish dollars and local currency. The Planters’ Bank, established in 1839 to serve the needs of the sugar planters also issued banknotes.
However, the Planters’ Bank was wound up in 1851 and the Bank of Jamaica in 1864. Another bank, the London and Colonial Bank started operations in January 1864 but by April 1865 it was closed. With the failure of the London and Colonial Bank in 1865, the Colonial Bank enjoyed a monopoly in the banking system. In 1925, it was incorporated with Barclays Bank in London and in 1926 there was a further amalgamation with the Anglo Egyptian Bank Ltd. and the National Bank of South Africa Ltd. This group became known as Barclays Bank, Dominion, Colonial and Overseas – Barclays, D.C.O. Following this merger, notes were issued in the name of Barclays Bank, D.C.O.
During the late 1800s, with the increasing trade between Jamaica and Canada, branches of Canadian banks were established in Jamaica. The Bank of Nova Scotia was the first to begin operating here. Although the first branch was established in August 1889, it did not issue currency notes until 1900. A branch of the Royal Bank of Canada was opened in 1911 and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce began operations in 1920. These banks also issued their own notes.
These chartered banks continued to issue their own notes in denominations of 1 and 5 pounds until 1940 when they were demonetised and withdrawn from circulation.
In 1904, the Currency Notes Law was passed “constituting a Board of Commissioners to issue notes called currency notes for the value of 10 shillings each.” This law was amended by Law 17 of 1918 which authorised “the issue of currency notes for such denominations as may be approved…” The Commissioners of Currency issued the first notes under these laws on 15 March 1920, in the denominations of 2/6, 5/- and 10/-. They bore the portrait of King George V and the signature of C.C. Anderson, who was the Island Treasurer.
It was the scarcity of silver coins of the lower denominations which made it necessary for these notes to be issued. Only the smaller denominations were issued as the chartered banks operating in Jamaica were still issuing 1 and 5 pound notes. However, the 2/6 note was destined to have a very short life as it was withdrawn from circulation in 1922.
The Currency Notes Law of 1937 gave additional responsibilities to the Board of Commissioners and in 1940 they began issuing 1 and 5 pound notes. Although Queen Elizabeth II became the British monarch in 1952, the first note to bear her portrait was the 5-pound note issued on 17 March 1960 and which carried the signature of E. R. Richardson, chairman of the Commissioners of Currency.
When the Bank of Jamaica Act came into force in October 1960, it gave to the Bank the sole right to issue notes and coins in the island. Bank of Jamaica notes made their first appearance on 1 May 1961 in the denominations of 5/-, 10/-, 1 and 5 pounds. They bore the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and the signature of the first governor of the Bank, Stanley W. Payton. The notes retained the same colours as the notes issued by the Government of Jamaica, in that the 5/- was red, the 10/-, purple, the 1 pound, green and the 5 pound, blue.
One significant difference was that the notes were no longer dated. The only changes occurred when there was a change of Governor. These notes continued to be used until 1969 when Jamaica changed to a decimal system of currency.
On 30 January 1968, the House of Representatives unanimously approved the report of the Select Committee of the House, which had been appointed to study and make recommendations on the decimalisation of Jamaica’s currency. The chief recommendations were that:
- The currency should be decimalised on the basis of the 10/- unit;
- The names of the major and minor units should be ‘dollar’ and ‘cent’ respectively; and
- The change should take place some time in September/October 1969.
The Committee also recommended that, as far as was possible, the new coins should be the same size and weight as the denominations in the pounds, shillings and pence, to which the public had become accustomed. With regard to the notes, it was recommended that portraits of national heroes should replace the portrait of the Queen and that the motto should be incorporated in the design of the new notes. It was also felt that there would be some advantage to be gained through association, if the new notes could be the same size and have the same basic colours as their equivalents in the sterling denominations. The denominations decided on were:
|1c = 1.2 pence||50c = 5/- Red|
|5c = 6d||$ 1. 00 = 10/- Mauve|
|10c = 1/-||$ 2 00 = 1 Green|
|20c = 2/-||$10.00 = 5 Blue|
|25c = 2/6|
The introduction of a decimal currency provided the opportunity for the introduction of a complete Jamaican coinage as formerly, the coins (with the exception of the penny and ha’penny), were the same as those used in the United Kingdom.
With regard to the design, it was decided that the portrait of the ruling British monarch, which had appeared on the obverse of all coins, would be replaced by the Jamaican coat of arms, with national symbols on the reverse. On the 25c was the national bird, the swallow-tailed hummingbird or doctor bird; the 20c featured the national tree, blue mahoe; the 10c, lignum vitae, the national flower, the 5, the crocodile and the 1c, the national fruit, the ackee.
The coins, minted by the British Royal Mint, were first put into circulation on 08 September 1969. They were all made from cupro-nickel with the exception of the 1c, which was made from copper. In 1970 the metallic composition of the 1c was changed to bronze.
The notes were also released into circulation on 08 September 1969. They were printed by Thomas De La Rue Ltd., printers of Jamaican banknotes since 1920. As had been recommended the notes all bore the portraits of national heroes, with George William Gordon on the $10; Paul Bogle on the $2; Sir Alexander Bustamante on the $1 and Marcus Garvey on the 50cent. An additional note, a brown $5 was introduced on 20 October 1970.
Following a review of the island’s currency in 1974, the decision was made to issue a $20 note; replace the 50c note with a coin and change the metallic content of the 1c from bronze to aluminium. The first aluminium 1c coins, which were twelve-sided instead of round, went into circulation in July 1975. In June 1976, the new maroon $20 note, with a portrait of Noel Nethersole, widely regarded as the founder of the Bank of Jamaica, was issued and in November 1976, the long-awaited 50c coin was placed in circulation.
In October 1978 the colours of the $10 and $20 notes were changed to a lighter blue and grey and orange respectively and the old notes were demonetised. An additional note – a $100 – was introduced on 01 December 1986 and a $50 note was added in 1988.
In 1989, following a review of the currency structure, it was decided to replace the $1 note with a coin; switch the production of coinage from cupro-nickel to nickel-plated steel and over time, abandon the 50cent and 20cent coins and the $2 note. The new $1 coin was put into circulation on 28 September 1990 and on 07 October 1991, new 25 cent and 10 cent coins were released into general circulation. The 25cent coin now bore the portrait of National Hero, Marcus Garvey and was made of nickel-plated steel. In addition, the shape of the coin was changed from round to seven-sided. The new 10cent coin, also made of nickel-plated steel now carried the portrait of National Hero, Paul Bogle.
In June 1994, it was announced that a new currency structure had been approved by the Cabinet – the $5 note would be replaced by a coin; the $1, 25 cents and 10 cent coins would have a new look and the 5 cents would be abandoned. As such the new structure would include the following coins, 1 cent, 10c cents, 25 cents, $1 and $5 while the notes would be $10, $20, $50, $100 and $500.
The new $500 note was issued in June 1994 while the $5 coin was released in December 1994. The new 10 and 25-cent coins were released into circulation in April 1995 and the coins with the old designs were demonetised in January 1997.
By 1999, a decision was taken to coin another note and a $10 coin replaced the note in March 1999. In March 2000, a $1,000 note was released into general circulation and in July of the same year, the $20 note was replaced by a coin. This coin bore the portrait of National Hero, Marcus Garvey and was the first bi-metallic coin to be produced by Jamaica.
In 2009, the $5000 note was introduced. The note bears the portrait of the Rt. Honourable Hugh Lawson Shearer ON, PC,LLD (Hon).
Since 2011, De La Rue International Limited and The Royal Mint are no longer the sole printer and mint for notes and coins, respectively. A competitive tender process was implemented to select printers and mints in a given year for each banknote and coin denomination. In that regard, successful printers to date for banknotes are De La Rue International Limited, Giesecke and Devrient Currency Technology GmbH and Oberthur Fiduciaire. For coins, successful mints to date have been, The Royal Mint, Royal Canadian Mint, Royal Dutch Mint and Mint of Finland.
Effective 15 February 2018, the $0.01, $0.10 and $0.25 coins were demonetised. Consequently, the $1.00 is the lowest coin denomination effective 15 February 2018.