Given the close relation between the characteristics of the Cuban sugar production and the tokens issued by Cuban sugar refineries within a certain period of time, we will begin this notes by briefly referring to the history of such an important industry.

Sugar cane was introduced in Cuba by Diego Velásquez in the 1520s, just as another plant that was brought to the New World for it to acclimatize. At first it was planted as a nutritional supplement of little importance, which the population consumed in its natural state or in the shape of “raspadura” (sugar bar), or other byproducts that were primitively produced in small sugar mills. By the end of the 16th Century, there were already several sugar mills producing for the domestic market. But the plant offered a much more promising perspective as a result of abundant and fertile lands and the use of slave labor. Thanks to these two factors, plus the increasing demand of a constantly growing population, Cuba became over time perfect grounds to develop and industry that was bound to be highly prosperous.

The primitive wooden mills, drawn by humans or animals, that pressed the sugar cane in order to extract its juice and produce some sugar and sugar bars for the local consumption later became refineries the machinery of which was increasingly sophisticated and efficient, producing sufficient sugar to export it abroad through the numerous ports on the island. Eventually, resulting from a process of remarkable mechanic development determined by different factors, huge sugar estates were built. They could produce hundreds of tons of sugar per day, which was unthinkable for a mill from past times during an entire harvest. However, such development was only achieved resulting from a previous stage of improvement.

In the early 19th Century, the Cuban sugar production was already considerable, and in 1819 the first steam engine was introduced in a sugar refinery near Güines, in the province of La Habana. This fact marked the beginning of a mechanization process that would allow eliminating traction cattle and slave labor force, two costly elements that gradually disappeared, and so land owners’ profits increased.

By 1860, there were already in Cuba –according to reports by Carlos Rebello in his “Estudios relativos a la producción azucarera de la Isla de Cuba” – 1365 sugar refineries, the most important sugar producing region being the western department; the jurisdictions of Cárdenas, Colón, and Matanzas were on top of the list.

A sugar refinery dating from the mid 18th Century

Slavery was a determining factor for the sugar industry, because there were refineries counting with a labor force of over 500 slaves. Nevertheless, as these became more sophisticated, the need for specialized workers increased, and these began to push out slaves, whose little or none education made them incapable of doing anything but harvesting and lifting sugar cane. In addition, the social impact of the Ten Year War (first Cuban independence war), after which a great number of slaves were declared free men, together with the pressure put by some European nations and the abolishing ideals of many contemporary Cubans and Spaniards led to abolishing slavery in 1886.

Tokens appear:

As previously stated, the fact that specialized workers were brought in to do the work that required more knowledge and skills created at some point a peculiar situation, both economically and socially speaking. The capital invested in slaves represented thousands of pesos for landowners, and even when salaries weren’t paid for the work done it was only logical, and convenient, to feed, dress, and heal those men since the master was responsible for the life and health of his slaves, who represented capital they’d want to preserve for as long as possible. However, the scenario changed once slavery was abolished, because then labor force had to be hired and as a result it was necessary to pay workers a wage. Landowners were forced to adapt to a new status quo that affected their capital directly, making them look for profitable alternatives.

That’s how tokens were introduced in Cuban sugar refineries, issued by their owners as private currency used to pay wages to their workers. Their excuse was the shortage of fractional currency circulating on the island due to the prohibition of monetario acuñado in Spain and the Crown’s reluctance to establish a Mint in Cuba.

The use of tokens bounded the labor workers to the refinery in economical terms, because they were forced to buy their food and other needed products in shops owned by their employer since such pieces were only valid there. This was a profitable system ensuring that wages paid would soon return to the landowners’ pockets. Moreover, since the products sold in these privately owned shops were not to be bought elsewhere, taking off the pressure of competition, their quality and price were in general not the best. In this manner, great additional profit was obtained, which reduced the value of wages considerably. All in all, paying with tokens wasn’t difficult. On the contrary, issuing them was very cheap, they rarely exited the limits of the sugar refinery, and a small stock of tokens avoided the complications brought about by having to transport important sums of money to pay wages. Furthermore, their simplicity made it easy for labor workers, mostly illiterate, to identify them. They just associated their size or shape to a certain value.

The role of sugar refineries’ shops:

Shops appeared in sugar refineries as a logic necessity derived from this phenomenon. They were created by the landowners in order to force workers to spend there the tokens that represented their wages. These establishments were generally located in the so-called “bateyes”, within the perimeter of which the labor workers spent most of the time during the harvest, and they offered basic products such as clothes, shoes, working tools, food, etc. They weren’t always run by the refinery’s management, but sometimes leased under very profitable conditions, but always maintaining the token and payment system. In addition, in some of the most important refineries, there were cheap restaurants selling food portions to the workers for tokens that were only valid for such purpose.

Isolated examples of their value:

There were a few exceptions in terms of this commercial monopoly, because sometimes the landowner or the tenant had such credibility that their tokens were accepted as real currency in all establishments of neighboring towns. Such opportunity was taken by the workers to somehow escape from the limits imposed by a unique shop. Such were the cases of the Santa Lucía sugar estate in Gibara, Oriente province, and the Mercedes sugar estate in Colón and Manguito, Matanzas province.

Shop of the Francisco refinery

Other means of payment… paper notes:

Some sugar refineries went as far as issuing private paper notes that imitated official banknotes, although always small and with a low printing quality. However, such tendency didn’t last for long, because these pieces wore out easily, and workers refused to accept them. They preferred tokens, which were more resistant and easier to identify and manipulate.

Due to paper’s ephemeral duration and the fact that very few series of paper notes were issued, not many samples of them have survived. These are true museum pieces that we’ll include within the pages corresponding to the area where these issuing centers were located.

With this regard, we should explain that many sugar refineries didn’t pay with tokens, but with checks or hand written vouchers signed by the foremen, which had the same value as the tokens. Also, in many sugar refineries tokens weren’t used to pay all personnel, but only the less qualified employees and labor workers.

Last, we shouldn’t fail to emphasize that only a small percentage of the Cuban sugar refineries issued tokens, because the rest used legal tender for their payments. Still, in all refineries, within the limits of the so-called “bateyes” (sugar workers’ towns), the rigid structure of a unique shop or grocery store was maintained, with its low quality articles as a means of exploitation. And many owners thought not necessary or worth it to issue such pieces.

Some of the few paper notes or paper tokens issued by Cuban sugar refineries

The tokens issued by the so-called “colonias” (farming estates):

Many somehow important sugar refineries, as they developed, began absorbing smaller and less productive ones, and they became the center of the region where they were located. As a result, the term “ingenio” (sugar refinery) was substituted by that of “central” (sugar estate). And so emerged the great sugar estates, true industrial plants within the sugar production, connected to large sugar cane plantations, which aiming at increasing their productivity even more, established the so-called “colonato” system, which consisted in hiring private harvesters in addition to the plantations of the refinery. These “colonos” (tenant farmers) would grow sugar cane in plots of land nearby, farming estates, and then sold their production to the refinery to be pressed. The system was highly profitable since the owners didn’t have to care about the land’s legal ownership as long as these would produce the sugar cane the refinery would press. Therefore, economically speaking, it was as if they owned the land.

Some of these farming estates issued tokens to pay the labor workers, which also applied the system of validity only in the local store, or in that of the refinery they were connected to. Therefore, these are pretty simple pieces, and very rare, because they were issued in small numbers. And outstanding example of these system is the Francisco refinery in Santa Cruz del Sur, Camagüey province, which didn’t issue tokens while its farming estates Carlos Arche and Bartolomé Pons did, together with those by the names Fe, La Esperanza, Porvenir, Sitio Viejo, and Yamaqueyes. Also the farming estates associated to the Soledad refinery in Cienfuegos issued different pieces of the sort that are among the rarest of the Cuban collection.

A typical farming estate from the early 20th Century in Cuba

Already at the beginning of the 20th Century, with the end of Spanish domination, which had little interest in solving the situation created by the general use of tokens in the sugar industry as well as other trade activities, a new situation appeared. With the emerging of the new republican order, and facing the continuous and increasing protests generated in different regions of the island by workers dissatisfied with the outrage of being paid in an unwanted currency, it became necessary to pass a special legislation to put an end to such exploiting system. On June 23rd 1909, the Congress of the Republic passed the so-called Arteaga Act, presented by the representative from Camagüey Emilio Arteaga Quesada, forbidding to pay salaries in any kind other than the legal tender.

And so, for a short while, some isolated sugar refineries continued to pay with tokens, but these disappeared gradually, and became only a memorabilia of a dependant epoch.

Their antiquity:

It’s very difficult to determine in what year the first Cuban tokens appeared, because these were possibly handcrafted in small quantities in isolated sugar refineries lost in time. However, the oldest token known up to now, minted with quality and date inscription, was issued by the Ecuador sugar refinery, founded in 1860 in the municipality of Cuevitas, Matanzas province, by Manuel and José Francisco de la Vega.

It has the image of a palm tree embossed on the obverse, together with the year 1864, and its value (1 real) and the name of the owners on the reverse. This piece leads us to conclude that tokens were already used some time before the abolishment of slavery in Cuba, surely to pay those workers who had been brought to the industry to do the more specialized works, which slaves were unable to do.

Obverse and reverse of the token regarded as the oldest of the Cuban collection

Variety of monetary units used:

The tokens of the sugar industry correspond to different exchange values depending on the different monetary systems implemented at the time they were used. They generally represented low denominations according to the poor wages that were paid and the prices of goods at the time. In the beginning, the values were expressed in “reales” and “quartillos” (a quarter of “real”), and exceptionally in strong “reales”, which was the denomination given to the circulating currency coined in the Spanish colonies in America. Such was the case of Sucard’s San Francisco sugar refinery, in Las Villas, which in 1872 issued tokens worth ½, 1, and 8 strong “reales” (8 strong “reales” = 1 strong peso).

Later, when the monetary reform took place in Spain in 1878, repealing the “real” system and replacing it by the peseta, tokens’ values were modified, and these began to be minted using the “centavos” (cents) and pesos system –although maybe by the force of habit, in some cases these were issued representing values of “quartillos” and “reales” for some time. From 1880 on, most sugar refineries that issued tokens used the fractional denominations in “centavos”, and in some cases they reached the value of one peso. Another exceptional case was that of the Mercedita sugar refinery, in La Habana province, which issued tokens worth 5 and 10 “centavos”, and 1, 5, 10, and 20 pesos.

Other values used in the tokens were those related to rations, wages, working hours or days, etc., which are more abundant in the east of the island.

Examples of the different values expressed by Cuban tokens

Materials that were used:

Although there’s been a lot of speculation about it, it isn’t known for a fact that precious materials have been used to make tokens, because given the nature of their use there was no need to produce valuable pieces. Besides, such pieces would have been stockpiled just as gold and silver coins were.

Throughout time, the most common metals used for tokens were first of all copper and brass, then bronze, sometimes zinc alloy (Esperanza sugar refinery in Oriente), and last aluminum, which was profusely used because it became cheaper since the late 19th Century, long before it was used to mint coins in other countries.

The sugar refineries Indio, Santísima Trinidad, and Soledad, in Las Villas, and El Recreo in Camagüey used another variant: Bakelite. Apparently they were looking for a hard material that could resist high temperatures and allowed the pieces to be more durable in order to prevent them from wearing off as a result of continuous use.

Different materials that were used to manufacture Cuban tokens

Designs, shapes, and sizes:

Cuban tokens’ designs were many and varied, depending on several factors, such as epoch, the regions where they were used, or the manufactures that produced them. In general, it was common to emboss the name of the sugar refinery on the obverse, sometimes next to the owner’s name or his initials. Some pieces also show a date, which can be either the year of issue or that of foundation of the sugar refinery, like the case of Los Dos Amigos sugar estate, in Oriente. As decoration, or in order to make them distinct, many of them showed a central motif, frequently elements regarding the owners’ status, or the industry as such – coats of arms, images of sugar refineries, weighing scales, sugar mills, farming tools, animals, sugar cane fields, etc. These were either the owners’ ideas, or suggested by the manufacturer, who would often use the same reverse, already prepared, showing the denomination for the pieces of different sugar refineries. Such is often the case of the series of ½ , 1, and 2 “reales”, which allows us to classify these tokens as Cuban even when it’s not possible to clearly identify the initials or the name that appears on the obverse.

Some of the motifs that decorate Cuban sugar refineries tokens

Tokens’ shapes are also diverse, and sometimes even fanciful. Most of them are round, but there are some square (Violeta, Mercedes), octagonal (Aljovín, Esperanza), of fluted edges (Chaparra, Senado), shaped as a rose (Colonia Fe), etc. Such variety of shapes is thought to have been used by some sugar refineries to emphasize the fact that these were tokens, so that they could be easily identified by the day laborers most of whom couldn’t read.

Examples of Cuban tokens’ many shapes

As for their sizes, in most series this is associated to their value. Although some sugar refineries made them with different denominations but the same size, which caused great confusion and made it hard to distinguished them at first glance. In general, with very few exceptions, their diameters are similar to those of the circulating coins at the time, minimum 16 and 37 millimeters tops.


In the beginning, tokens were handcrafted and die-stamped in local workshops, sometimes owned by the very sugar refinery. Later on, molds were used to cut them in different workshops that produced medals and distinctions, which was very fashionable at the time among the military and colonial officials. The best known token manufacturers were Francisco Buch in La Habana, and Julio F. Sorzano, in Santiago de Cuba.

Furthermore, the more prosperous sugar refineries ordered their tokens abroad. The cases of Eden Park, La Benita, and María Luisa, in Matanzas, outstand. Their tokens, showing the coats of arms of their owners, were minted in Germany around 1882, by Staatliche Münze Berlin. Other sugar refineries, like Asturias in Matanzas, ordered them in the United States. It’s also possible that many tokens of sugar refineries owned by Americans and English were also made in England. Such are the cases of Los Caños and La Soledad in Oriente, the tokens of which contain spelling mistakes derived from the English pronunciation (“Los Canos” without the ñ’s swung dash, and “La Solidad”).

Countermarked tokens:

The countermarks found in the Cuban sugar refineries’ tokens are numerous. Sometimes, these correspond to the initials of a new owner or tenant of the shop or the refinery itself. These letters are difficult to identify, and such task would require a thorough study of the history of each of the regions where they appear. Some examples are those of the Conchita sugar refinery in Matanzas, the countermark of which contains the initials EP corresponding to the tenant Emilio Pérez; at the Encarnación sugar refinery, the countermark CHAVARRI identifies Julián Chavarri, who bought the refinery in 1896, decades after it was founded, etc.

In other occasions, the countermarks represent numbers or figures like stars or suns, which indicate changes in their value. Singular examples are the countermarks “CDIA” and “MDIA”, in the farming estate Bartolomé Pons, associated to the Francisco sugar estate. These seem to indicate “quarter of a day” and “half a day” in order to pay wages for certain working hours. Another significant countermark is that of the Santa Ana sugar refinery in Oriente, which showed the inscription “Vale en efectos o efectivo a los trabajadores de la finca” (worth cash or goods for the farm’s workers”) on the reverse. The 5 cent token was re-minted with a series of small squares blocking the word “cash”, most likely in order to limit the token’s value to the purchase of goods.

Indeed, there are so many variants this phenomenon offered to the sugar industry employers that compiling and analyzing each issue constitutes one of the most fascinating aspects for lovers of a collection that is so closely related to the history of sugar production in Cuba.

Examples of some countermarks that appear on the Cuban tokens

Studying and collecting Cuban tokens:

In Cuba, despite the fact that tokens were used long before the island minted its own currency, few people devoted themselves to collecting them during the first republican decades, at a time when they were relatively easy to obtain because they had just lost their practical value.

An American citizen, H: A: Ramsden, published in 1904 in Barcelona a simple catalogue containing his own collection under the title “A list of tokens & paper notes issued for the use of sugar estates in the Island of Cuba”, which constitutes the most ancient known work on the subject.

Other American collectors, such as Eklund, Rulau, and Pesant, outstood in terms of their passion for our tokens. The pieces of their collections are taken as reference in many recently published works on the matter.

On the Cuban side, one remarkable collector, maybe the most important during the republican period, was Lutero Hernández, from Matanzas, who died in the 1980s. During his time, he managed to put together the greatest collection of sugar refineries’ tokens on the island in addition to conduct a very thorough research regarding the identification and location of the sugar refineries and estates that issued the pieces he possessed.

The Numismatic Museum of the Office of the Historian of Havana treasures an important collection of sugar refineries’ tokens, which either due to lack of space or interest has never been exhibited as a whole. Occasionally, and within the context of general exhibitions, some of these pieces have been brought to the public attention. Their references can be found in the catalogues printed for such occasions.

Although books about such an important industry in Cuba are abundant, few have made reference to the tokens it generated, and those who do deal with the subject incidentally. There is however an interesting booklet by Manuel Moreno Fraginals: “El Token Azucarero Cubano” published by the Cuban Numismatic Museum, which in 43 pages offers a brief summary on the matter as well as some images of the 121 pieces listed.

Last, we shouldn’t fail to mention the works conducted by the researcher Alfredo Díaz Gámez, former specialist of the Cuban Numismatic Museum, who for many years devoted quite some time to studying, classifying, and listing the Cuban tokens. His efforts bore fruits in an extensive work under the title “Información sobre las fichas de Cuba”, which has been very helpful for us in the making of these pages, especially when it comes to classifying and describing the pieces of the collection that are exhibited.


There is no doubt that Cuban sugar tokens – also known as sugar refineries’ tokens – constitute the biggest collection of tokens related to a specific industrial activity, which makes them very significant within the collection of Cuban tokens in general.

Over 600 different tokens are currently known thanks to the references of the main collections on the island. These were issued by approximately 150 sugar refineries or estates, for a period that can be defined between the second half of the 19th Century and the first two decades of the 20th Century.

About the characteristics of their issues, since these were privately minted, without official permission, contract, or supervision, there are no records allowing us to know details such as the name of their manufacturer, the different values of each series, or the total amount of pieces of each specific value that were issued.

Nowadays chances of yet unknown pieces appearing are little, because most of them disappeared almost a century ago, when they were forbidden by the previously mentioned Arteaga Act. Many of the sugar refineries that issued them were destroyed by the rigors of the last Cuban independence war and no longer existed by the end of the 19th Century. Others were absorbed by bigger sugar estates and became huge factories. A great deal of them are still running, but old workers who could help us by remembering the long gone time during which these evasive pieces spread no longer live.


About our pages:

In order to organize our collection in a plausible manner, we have divided it into six pages corresponding to each of the provinces that made up the island at the time when the tokens existed. It is our objective that over time, and resulting from collaborations of our visitors (whose tokens we are willing to incorporate to our pages if they so wish it), we can manage to compile a sort of “Catalogue of the Cuban sugar refineries’ tokens”, very much needed by the collectors of such pieces.

List of the sugar refineries that existed in Cuba:

In order to help collectors and others interested in this matter, in the spanish version of this page, we shall include several lists (extracted from contemporary publications) allowing us to cover all sugar refineries existing on the island in different periods of the 19th Century. These lists also provide information on the district, jurisdiction, and province where the refineries were located, which is interesting data for those trying to identify a particular token in their power.

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