Brick Tea as a Form of Currency

5 minute read

In my previous blog post on this brick tea, I pursued one of the clues found on the label on its back. The label reads,

‘Brick of tea used as money in Central Asia. The monogram ПБ с PB, initials of Peter Bogdonoff, a Russian trader. Given to me by A. C. Haddon 29 Dec 1900’.

I focussed on the monogram, and speculated who Peter Bogdonoff could have been through a broad-brushed overview of the Russian brick tea trade in China, in the late-19th to the early-20th centuries. In this blog post, however, I would like to pursue a different clue that the label gives us. A part of it reads,

‘Given to me by A. C. Haddon 29 Dec 1900’.

A block of brick tea with a monogram in Russian in the centre.

Figure 1. A solid brick of compressed tea with a large monogram impressed in an oval in the centre on one side. China. Donated by William Ridgeway. MAA 1927.84.

Who was this tea brick given to? Why did Haddon give it to them? And how did Haddon come to acquire it?

The catalogue record identifies two people as the sources of this object: A. C. Haddon as the collector, and William Ridgeway as the donor. For me, Alfred Cort Haddon needed no introduction. Even before I started working at MAA, I was familiar with the Cambridge anthropologist, who led an expedition to the Torres Strait Islands with W. H. R. Rivers, C. G. Seligman, and Sidney Ray. The material culture that he collected during this expedition became one of the founding collections of MAA. So, his name props up more often than not when working with the collections in MAA’s care. It was William Ridgeway instead, that had me intrigued – or Sir Professor William Ridgeway, as he was then known.

Ridgeway was a classics scholar with great interest in the disciplines of Archaeology and Anthropology. In an obituary for Ridgeway, Haddon writes that though he was a brilliant classics scholar, ‘he was increasingly attracted towards the more human aspects of classics’. And in order to elucidate various problems in the discipline, he often turned his attention to archaeology and anthropology. In 1892, Ridgeway was appointed the Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge, and spent the subsequent years on two main things: publishing widely on the relation and importance of anthropology to classical studies, and establishing anthropology as an official discipline within the University. In the same obituary, Haddon recounts that it was due to Ridgeway’s efforts that a ‘Lectureship in Ethnology was instituted in May, 1900… a Readership in the same subject in June, 1909… [and] a Board of Anthropological Studies was established in May, 1904’.

Ridgeway founded the Cambridge Anthropological Club (or the Cambridge University Social Anthropology Society as it is now known) and even advocated for an ‘Imperial Bureau of Anthropology’ to be established within the Royal Anthropological Institute, to instruct colonial administrators in the cultures and languages of the countries to which they would be appointed.

1892 was also an important year for Ridgeway in a different sense. In this year, he published one of his most significant works, The Origin of Metallic Currency and Weight Standards. In this text, he rejected the orthodox view that Greek coins developed from a religious beginning. Instead, he argued that many objects once thought to be involved in ritual and worship were actually used for barter and commerce. This view of his informed his larger interest in objects (alternative to coins) that functioned as currency. In satiating this interest, he collected objects like 1927.84. At MAA, I found at least 78 objects donated by Ridgeway, which functioned as currency in different parts of the world. To explore these, visit the online collections page, then click on ‘switch to advanced search’. Select ‘Source’ as your first search term and type ‘Ridgeway’, then select ‘Description’ as your second search term and type ‘currency’, and click ‘Submit’. You will see a wide range of objects including shells, gold rings, charms, beans, tokens, whale teeth, beads, and jewellery amongst other things that functioned as currency across the world.

A bracelet with incised decorations and flared trapezoid shaped ends.

Figure 2: A brass manilla or bracelet, pen-annular in shape with flaring trapezoid shaped ends. Nassawara, Central North Nigeria. Collected by Major Arthur John Newman Tremearne. Bequeathed to the Museum by William Ridgeway. MAA 1927.27.

At the time, Ridgeway was not the only one interested in such objects. In fact, he was part of an entire network of Cambridge academics including Haddon, Alison Hingston Quiggin and others, who collected, circulated, and exchanged such objects amongst themselves. Hingston (wife of the Celtic and linguistic scholar Edmund Crosby Quiggin) was a lecturer at the Department of Geography at Cambridge, and authored the much reprinted, A Survey of Primitive Money: The Beginnings of Currency (1949). According to Wolfgang Bertsch, who has researched the use of tea bricks in Tibet, this publication became the bible for collectors of ‘primitive money’, like Ridgeway and Haddon. The introduction of this publication was authored by Haddon. In it he says,

‘Many years ago Sir William Ridgeway and I were collecting examples of “primitive money”. Sir William approached the subject from the side of classical archaeology… I approached the subject from the opposite side… I began to collect specimens of currency from various parts of the world, and Ridgeway and I exchanged duplicates’.

Given that this was the case, it is possible that 1927.84 was amongst the objects – the ‘duplicates’ – that Haddon and Ridgeway exchanged. In MAA, I found six other objects that were part of this exchange. To explore these, visit the online collections page, then click on ‘switch to advanced search’. Select ‘Source’ as your first search term and type ‘Ridgeway’, then select ‘Source’ as your second search term and type ‘Haddon’, and click ‘Submit’. Amongst these objects are a necklace of nine conical gourd beads, a bundle of copper wire, a bundle of dried tobacco leaves, three beads threaded onto a loop of twisted fibre, and 194 cowries threaded onto a double string of plant fibre. Most of these objects were used as currency in different parts of Africa.

A necklace of nine conical gourd and blue beads, threaded onto a plant fibre.

Figure 3: A necklace of nine conical gourd and blue beads, threaded onto plant fibre through a hole through the narrow end. Between each gourd bead is a section of small, spherical blue glass beads. Collected by Charles William Hobley. Exchanged between William Ridgeway and Alfred Cort Haddon; ultimately, donated by Haddon. MAA 1925.709.

I have already spoken a little about how and why brick tea was used as currency in my previous blog post on the subject. Tea was an extremely valuable commodity throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The weight of brick tea could be standardised, it was easily portable and measurable; thus, it was apt for this use. I could not find much information on how it was used as currency in Central Asia. But, for the Tibetan context, Bertsch describes that bricks or packets containing four bricks each were used to purchase swords, horses, camels, sheep, and to pay the wages of workmen and servants. It is possible that brick tea was used in similar ways in Central Asia too. I am not quite sure about the use of brick tea as currency in this context, so if you have any information, then please feel free to share in the comments below!

I also mentioned in my previous post that brick tea was at times ridged (e.g., this Tokmakoff, Molotkoff, & Co. tea brick at MAA) allowing users to break a piece and use as a smaller measure of value. Given that 1927.84 is not ridged, it was probably used whole or in a pack of four when used as money. The label on its back says that it was used as money in Central Asia, but we have no other evidence except this to prove that this was the case. We could argue that it might have been so since there is a Russian inscription on it. Since this is the case, the tea brick was probably intended for the Russian market, and so would have passed through Central Asia, and used as currency on the way. Any other guesses?

We have resolved almost every clue given to us by the label on the back of the tea brick above. We think that Peter Bogdonoff was a Russian trader in China. We are not sure about where exactly he was based. In my previous post, I suggested that he could have been based in Hankou or Jinjiang, two major centres for Russian brick tea production. Or indeed in any of the cities through which brick tea passed in order to get to Russia, such as Mongolia, Siberia, and Central Asia.

The label suggests that this tea brick was used as money in Central Asia. We proposed that this could have been the case since there is a Russian inscription on it; thus, it was intended for the Russian market and passed through Central Asia where it might have been used as money. Alternatively, it is possible that the author of the label, William Ridgeway, simply noted that the tea brick was used as money in Central Asia, as a general fact about tea bricks rather than about this specific one. Why else would the catalogue record identify the place where it was collected as China? Would it not have to be found in Central Asia by its collector, had it been used as money in Central Asia?

We also know that the label was authored by Ridgeway because the catalogue record attributes him as the donor and Haddon as the collector, encapsulating the relationship that two shared in exchanging examples of ‘primitive money’. The only thing that remains unknown is how did Haddon come to acquire it? Haddon never visited China, and the most plausible answer we have is that he acquired it through someone who was a part of his social network, and who might have travelled through or lived or worked in China. MAA has one more tea brick, for which the catalogue record identifies Haddon as the donor. The fact that Haddon ambiguously features as at times, donor and at others, collector may give us some reason to believe that he did indeed acquire these objects through his network, rather than actually travelling to China or Tibet. I am out of answers. Do you have any? Do you know who might have given these tea bricks to Haddon? Who might have actually acquired them?

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