As early as the 16th century, foreign traders recorded that tin intended for commerce was cast into tin ingots of fixed weight and used for all major transactions in the bazaar (market place) as a form of currency. The value of each ingot was of little consequence. Most of the tin ingots were cast in Perak but a small quantity were also cast in the neighbouring States of Selangor and Pahang. These tin ingots circulated extensively in Perak, Selangor, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan over a very long period. They were also acceptable in the neighbouring Malay states in the Malay Peninsula as well as in Sumatera. These currency blocks of tin ingots were used for internal and international trade.
The currency denomination of these ingots was based upon the amount of tin that could be exchanged for one Spanish silver dollar (8 Reales). This value varied from time to time and from place to place. The average weight and rate of exchange was 10 Katis (6 kilos 50 grams) to the silver dollar (8 Reales) in Perak. In Selangor the rate of exchange was 8 Katis (4 kilos 840 grams) to the silver dollar (8 Reales). There were also smaller and lighter tin ingots which were used for minor purchases.
Tin mining has been a major occupation in the Malay Peninsula for many centuries. The earliest form of local currency was made of solid blocks of tin metal or ingots of a standard size and weight.
The ingots were minted in the shape of animals and insects, such as crocodiles, elephants, cocks, tortoises and grasshoppers. It is said that these models or shapes were made under the supervision of magicians (pawang) for use as talismans in magical ceremonies. It is also possible that they were used as standard weights to check the correct weight of standard tin ingots and general goods for sale.
Animal weights could have been introduced to the Malay Peninsula from Burma and Siam. As such currency were not widely circulated, some people thought that the ingots functioned as toys or ornaments.
Traditionally, the first ore obtained from a newly opened tin mine was smelted and cast into a pair of shell backed ingots, each of which often bore a mantra or magic prayer in relief on it’s rounded surface. Great supernatural power was attributed to these ingots and they were often used symbolically in place of animal sacrifices.
Over the years the shell-backed ingot acquired a head and front legs which gave it the superficial appearance of the tortoise. Gradually other animals and insects were added and these sacrificial substitutes became an essential part of many magical ceremonies.
Animal money was used in Perak and Selangor around the 18th century. The origin of this form of animal tin currency was greatly influenced by folklore and magic.