by Bernard Heydorn

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Posted November 28th. 1999

De almighty dollar…
Paralyze man like a stroke
Harness man like a yoke
Grip man throat till he choke
And still he end up broke…
Yuh feel is joke ah joke?
Brother Resistance
(Dollar Horror)

Money, the ‘root of all evil’, has been around for a long time. The earliest coins found in Britain were made in Gaul around the second century BC. Money in the West Indian context, is part of our folklore and history. We all know people for whom, “money bun a hole in dey pocket”. When oil was flowing in Trinidad and prices were high, then Prime Minister Eric Williams reportedly said, “Money is no problem”; in other words, ‘money cyaan’ done’.

In life you come across people with various attitudes to money. They include ‘the money satan’ (people who make the almighty dollar their God); people made of money; people married to money; people who gamble regularly and ‘throw good money after bad’; and people ‘funny with money’(so tight, they won’t even have a light on in their house, preferring to stumble around in the dark!) In the scheme of things money not only talks, it answers back.

My own acquaintance with money is a life-long, fleeting one. In other words, money and me are enemies - we can’t stand the sight of each other. If we do meet, it has to be in the presence of a third party i.e. somebody with money. This animosity started a long time ago when I was a child. We had little money in my family and I had a ‘puzzling box’ in the bedroom in which I saved all my coppers. This money I earned from shining the shoes of visitors, running errands, cutting grass, looking after the fowls in our yard, and peddling fruits I had raided off neighbours’ trees. Not to mention selling paper flowers that my mother made, washing my father’s bicycle in the backdam trench (when on one occasion, an alligator nearly ate me alive), and putting aside my bread ration money, for which I went without bread some days.

The ‘puzzling box or tin’, so called because getting the money out was a puzzle to the child, was a cut-off half of an empty Carnation milk tin can with a slit, nailed into the greenheart bedroom wall of our house with two long-as-ass nails. This was so that no one could break it, without bringing the house down. However, my saving plans came to a premature end when the parish priest decided to pay my family a visit. I guess he was following up on his mandate to minister to the rich and the poor, little realizing that his visit would make us poorer.

My mother insisted that I break my ‘puzzling box’, and take the money to buy a soft drink and some refreshment for the thirsty Englishman as our larder was empty of such frills (not an unusual occurrence), and the house budget exhausted. I was assured that God would see what I was doing, in spite of the fact that I was to do it quietly, and this ‘generosity’ would help to get me to heaven. I reluctantly complied, bringing half the bedroom wall down with the box. For a long time, I often wondered how I was going to make it to heaven with the little money I had to give.

Money, in the Caribbean as in many other places, has always led a secret life. You never asked any adult, including your father, how much money he earned. That could get you a ‘box’ on the ears. You never knew what was in a person’s wallet or the size of his estate. In my father’s case, he said that all he had was seven children, and the ‘goady’ of bringing them up. It appears that he too was not on friendly terms with money.

Traditionally, man makes the money, man takes the money, and man spends the money. As a child, you were most fortunate if you got a ‘freck’ - pocket money or allowance, but I was not that lucky. My father made sure that all the money our family earned, passed through him, even the “extras” that the boys received from working at the Post Office during the Christmas rush. He also warned us children not to get sick, as he didn’t have ‘a red, copper cent fuh doctor’. Left to him, many a doctor would have starved to death!

Today, there are men and women married to each other who have secret and separate bank and financial investments, a case where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Attitudes to money often drive people apart and are a common cause of marriage break up. If a woman earns more than her man, the woman may be uncomfortable and the man may be upset and feel that he is less of a man. Friends and neighbours may also be angry with him, thinking that he is a freeloader.

Some people believe in spending, while some believe in saving for the future, their children, or a rainy day. In today’s world, many people are encouraged to spend money they are yet to earn. There are also stereotypes with regard to different races or groups when it comes to money - one group is perceived to spend ‘like drunken sailors’, another group thought to be frugal and thrifty; one group is believed to possess a good business head, another group with no head at all.

The most interesting characters are those infected with MD - the Money Disease. These are people who never stop working and saving, not because they have to, but because they want to. These people retire from work, and end up working three jobs! They work till they drop, and they are always complaining of a lack of money. These are the people who if accosted by a highwayman, would prefer to hand over their life, rather than their purse.

West Indian currency, based on British coins, has a colourful history. There is the gold sovereign (pound) and half sovereign; in silver, the crown ($1.20), double florin (.96¢), half crown (.60¢), florin (.48¢), shilling (.24¢), six pence (.12¢), four pence (.08¢), three pence (.06¢); in copper or bronze, pennies (.02¢), half-pennies or cents (.01¢), and farthings (.005¢). As school children, we learnt in rote fashion like parrots, our coinage from the arithmetic tables at the back of our exercise book. Sovereigns, half-sovereigns, and farthings were rarely seen, but for me, all coinage over a penny was a rumour, something I heard people talk about but I could never put my hands on. In those days, I always walked with my head down, in case anybody had dropped anything, but all I found was a dead crapaud and dog doo-doo.

In rum shop parlance in Guyana, a finee was a four cents (tuppence) shot of rum, while a settee was sixpence worth. A shilling was known as a ‘bob’ and an old ‘moidore’ was a Portuguese gold coin worth 27 shillings. A penny was a gill (jill), and a farthing, even in the old days was not worth a fart (hence its name abbreviated). The four penny (bit) and three-penny piece were very similar, and ‘tricky’ customers could fool inexperienced vendors in the dark. However, the edge of the four penny (bit) was rough while the edge of the three penny piece was smooth, and experienced hucksters always rubbed the edges of the coins to differentiate them.

The gold sovereign was a highly prized coin and Portuguese shopkeepers had a tendency to hoard any that came into their hands. East Indians made necklaces out of gold sovereigns. The story is told of the East Indian man being repatriated back to India, who died on board ship, and was found to have 40 gold sovereigns strapped around his waist, which were probably his life savings. The dowry, brought by a bride to her husband could also include a nice collection of coins.

In Guyana, the first notes were $1.00 and $2.00, approved for issue in August 1915 and issued in January 1917. In December 1921, there were notes in circulation to the face value of $800,000 These included Government Currency notes of $1.00 and $2.00 bills, and Colonial Bank (later Barclays Bank) notes and Royal Bank of Canada notes of $5.00, $20.00 and $100.00 denominations.

In the 19th century, around 1832, the only acceptable currency in Demerary and Essequibo in Guyana, was the ‘Joe’, a large piece of paper that looked more like a school-leaving certificate than money. It was originally a gold coin, a Dutch unit of currency, the equivalent of 22 guilders, and was used in Guyana until the late 19th century. Old people used to say some things cost ‘a Jew and a crown’, (a Joe and a crown), meaning that it was very expensive. Later the saying was changed to ‘a poun’ and a crown.’

A well-known West Indian coin is the silver coin known as the ‘bit’. It had different values in different places - in Guyana 8 cents (a quarter of a guilder), Barbados 10 cents, Jamaica six pence, and in other places three pence. The term ‘bit’ may have originated from the practice of cutting Spanish dollars into 8 bits or pieces of eight. At the special request of the colony of British Guiana in 1888, a special coinage of silver four pence pieces (bits), originally ‘groats’, were approved. This request originated from the practice of the local population to reckon in ‘bits’, and to pay estate and other workers in ‘bits’. Terms such as a ‘bit-na-half’, (6 pence), half-a-bit (tuppence), ‘tubbits’ (two bits), ‘six bit’, and ‘eight bit’, were commonly used. Fish may be sold four for a bit, or you could ask for a ‘bit’ worth of potatoes at the shop.

In the old days, many people did not trust banks or paper money, and many still don’t. It was not uncommon for people, especially those in rural areas to hide their money in their mattresses or under their beds. Banks were also not very accessible, and there were sometimes problems of communication between bank staff and customers. For example, a customer asking for “three twenty” in Guyana, was quite surprised to receive three hundred and twenty dollars from the teller when he only wanted sixty dollars (three twenty dollar bills).

To open bank accounts, customers who could not read or write had to give a thumb print. They were also asked to show identification, which could include any identifiable marks on their body. This could pose some embarrassment to both customers and staff, depending on where the marks were located. Some customers, brave enough to put their money into a bank, would withdraw all their savings in one lump sum, count the money right there at the bank, and then deposit it again on the spot. In this way, they were assured that all their money was still there.

The almighty dollar continues to make some and break many. The Guyana dollar went “to the dogs”, under Burnham’s dictatorship, and other Caribbean currencies are continuously taking a beating. U.S. money continues to go far, for as the old calypso says, “money in du land wit’ duh yankee dollar bill”. Some say not love but money, makes the world go round. No one gun cry, duh day money die, except those who got a lot of it. Having said that, I don’t know ‘bout you boy, but I have to go out there and ‘ketch meh hand’. Money ain’t about to give up the ghost yet and who knows, one of these days, we may become at least acquainted, if not friends.