Facing Colonialism: A Brief Case-Study on the Use of Currency as an Agent of Foreign Policy

Posted on 4/17/2012

Take a look at a group of notes issued in the Philippines during the early 20th century and the potential implications of the choices that area made concerning who or what appears on our currency.

As questions concerning the future of US currency continue to periodically flare in this country as well as the rest of the world, it is worth considering the significant effect the symbols present on paper money can have on the societies in which our currency circulates. While the significance of allegorical figures and vague, metaphorical gestures toward democratic principles are complicated to pin down, more direct representations of a particular nation’s interests are not at all uncommon. Indeed, one does not need to look beyond the current rendition of the US $20 Federal Reserve Note to find the portrait of an individual that – to some in this country as well as abroad – may be less than appealing based on his personal habits and strong policies concerning indigenous populations. This discussion, however, is concerned with a specific group of notes issued in the Philippines during the early 20th century and the potential implications of the choices that area made concerning who or what appears on our currency. A discussion of Jackson will simply have to wait for now.

Following the end of formal hostilities in the Philippine-American war in 1902 the US administration in the Philippines released a new group of notes to circulate concurrently with those already circulating under various issuers including the Bank of the Philippine Islands and the Banco Español Filipino. What differed greatly from the notes of the Philippine Islands issue of 1903 and those already in circulation were the individuals chosen to grace the obverse of each denomination. Where allegorical references to concepts such as fertility, navigation, knowledge, and justice dominated previous issues of Philippine currency under US governance, the Philippine Islands issue of 1903 initiated a trajectory that would see very specific references to American interests and dominance in the region.

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Perhaps the most obvious example of the ways currency can be used as an agent of foreign policy is found on the 5 Pesos note from 1903. Featuring President William McKinley on a banknote circulating in the Philippines so soon after his assassination in 1901 could be viewed as a gesture by the American legislature intended to memorialize his substantial accomplishments while in office – the annexation of the Philippines not being the least of these. The choice of McKinley could also – on the other hand – be viewed as a pointed reminder to those of the insurrectionists in the Philippines of the origins of the US presence in the region. To my knowledge, an academic survey of the effects the symbolism found on currency may (or may not) have on the populations that come in contact with them has yet to be conducted but it seems compelling to say the least that the President most responsible for Philippine annexation would be a chosen symbol of US interests in the region alongside George Washington.

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Appearing on the 2 Pesos note from the same issue, the portrait of José Rizal is no less curious and potentially inflammatory immediately following the brutality observed on both sides of the Philippine-American War. Often regarded as one of the first Filipino patriots, Rizal was outspoken about his desire to see an end to Spanish rule over the Philippines and supported change through institutional reform as well as violence (as a last resort). His foundation of La Liga Filipina eventually evolved into the Katipunan, which would continue guerilla attacks on U.S. forces long after the formal close of the Philippine-American War. The use of Rizal as the central symbolic figure on the 2 Peso note from the Philippine Islands issue of 1903 seems to cut across multiple planes since he can be seen both as a Philippine hero, an individual supportive of Western interests, as well the intellectual father of Filipino insurrectionism. It seems unlikely that the US government elected to include Rizal on the 2 Peso note for his indirect connections to the Katipunan. It seems more likely that his inclusion in this particular issue of banknotes (and for many more to follow for that matter) is intended to serve as a reminder of his significance in the initiation of hostilities against Spanish rule that ultimately resulted in annexation of the nation to the United States.

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Again, further analysis on this matter is absolutely needed to substantiate any of the speculation made above but it is compelling to look at the currency of the past in search of the physical manifestations of colonialism, attempts to police the boundaries of US national identity and power abroad, and – perhaps most significantly – the origins of a nascent nationalism that would ultimately blossom into an independent nation despite centuries of European and American domination. By examining the 1903 issue of the Philippine Islands I have hoped to raise questions about what we are explicitly saying about ourselves in the choices that are made concerning the symbolism present on our currency. I hope that you may also consider – as I have – the unintended consequences of the historical actors and metaphors that appear on our banknotes still. Do their stories still demonstrate the current trajectory of our society or is it time for a reevaluation of the images we use to display American interests in a way that literally touches hundreds of millions outside our territorial boundaries in a far more significant way than any other vessel of US foreign policy?

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