Histories connecting to slavery are among the worst stories from human history. But, we continue to tell them because they hide important lessons that we can’t afford to forget.
In the Cocos Keeling Islands—a circle of islands with many coconut palms far off Australia's northwest coast—a very discreet form of slavery took shape. The man who first inhabited the islands, John Clunies-Ross, started populating them through the mid1900s with labourers of Javanese and Malay origins. They became the workforce for a thriving coconut plantation that Clunies-Ross owned. The Clunies-Ross family maintained control of the islands for five generations with sons succeeding the fathers and styling themselves as the kings of Cocos.
The currency introduced for Cocos citizens by the Clunies-Ross family was ‘Cocos Rupee’; it was actually a token that could only be used at the Clunies-Ross family store which controlled the food in the islands. The Cocos Rupee tokens were first made of paper and later from ivorine—a form of plastic that mimics ivory. Only 5000-odd Cocos Rupee tokens were made according to records. These tokens were what ultimately pegged the people of Cocos in a discreet, nevertheless ugly, form of slavery.
We discovered this wooden box mounted with a rare Cocos Island Rupee token through an antique dealer in Sri Lanka. It reads ‘Keeling Cocos Islands 1910’. Knowing that Cocos Islands' administrative functions of the British empire were once centered in Ceylon, we can speculate that this token ended up here that way. These tokens are valued by coin collectors for their rarity. But of course, what we find the most intriguing about it is the story of how a system of governance should always be in the interest of the public, not one family.
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