British West Indies 1/16th dollar 1822 – An Anchor in Australia..?

I haven’t dealt with a beaten up old coin for a little while due to updating the site (and presenting late Aussie florins) so it made for a nice change of pace and subject to check out this little coin…it’s in a good date range for ‘early Australian’ currency, but, you know, from the other side of the world…hmmm…

The post is longer than anticipated, so here are page links:

the coincolonial administrationcolonial moneyroutes to Aus‘early Aus’ currencyreference material

Small change Anchor money

It’s close to a threepence in size, just a little heavier at around 1.74g and has a silver fineness of .892.

At a denomination of 1/16th of a dollar, it’s the smallest of 4 types, the largest was a half dollar.

Collectively these pieces are known as ‘anchor money’ due to the design on the reverse.

All of this anchor money was produced in Britain in a short timeframe – 1820 to 1822 – with mintages well under 300,000, barring the exception of the type shown here, the 1/16th dollar (something like 860,000 ended up being issued).

Colonial lucre

Apart from the composition and design, it’s interesting because it came out at a time of uncertainty and upheaval in British colonial coinage generally.

England had exercised great interest in the Caribbean since the time of Oliver Cromwell. The region was of vital importance to the British as a source of sugar and destination for slaves, forming one apex of the extraordinarily lucrative trade triangle that connected Europe, Africa and the New World.

The likelihood of huge profits not only pushed the risks involved well into the background, but likewise justified the enormous human suffering created, at least from the point of view of the traders and shareholders.

It’s a familiar and oft repeated story of relevance to today, but let’s not go there now…

Financial oversight

So, returning to the coin or rather its times: by the 1820s the British had added greatly to their empire, but in most if not all of their acquisitions, they neglected to adequately address the question of money. What I mean is that little to no coinage was provided, nor were the far flung locals allowed to mint any!

What colonists were expected to use as a medium of exchange was either not recognised as an issue to begin with, or more or less ignored by whoever was in charge which, it turns out, was about as clear as mud.

“The British Colonies were initially administered jointly by the Secretary of State for War, and the Board of Trade, who were focused on their own interests, not necessarily the Colonies themselves. From 1795 all the attention was aimed at the war with France, especially under Lord Hobart, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies from 1801. This resulted in the Colonies being neglected.”

https://history.blog.gov.uk/2014/12/08/administrators-of-the-british-empire/

Silver support

On the financial side such neglect resulted in Spanish dollars becoming currency in many places as far apart as the West Indies and Australia, since during the period from, say, 1650 to 1800 or so there was a plentiful supply of New World silver and the 8 Reales coin went practically everywhere, gradually becoming known simply as a dollar.

It seems that in the West Indies, anchor money came about as a complement to the use of Spanish dollars by providing fractional coinage for everyday use. (That seems a bit weird, it was normal practice to chop up the larger coins into bits as needed…perhaps the authorities wanted those large coins kept whole for, shall we say, their own purposes…whatever happened, no dollar sized anchor money was made.)

Better than a paper promise

Anyway, as an easily recognisable small coin of known value and consistent quality these threepence equivalents would have been quite desirable to people from all over the place, simply as ready cash – ready to spend, no problem with acceptance…and all without having to resort to credit arrangements written on dubious looking bits of paper.

If the coin ever made it down under, it would have been snapped up eagerly, not least because, in response to the latest instalment in a series of ongoing currency disasters, 1822 saw Australian authorities initiating the process of moving to an official ‘dollar system’ .

Acceptable, just maybe not feasible

Still, as in all things coins, it’s a question of supply and demand and here it is the supply element which is extremely dicey – could this coin have made it all the way to the ends of the earth ?

I mean, Australia would have had to be pretty much the last stop on a long journey.

Of course it’s extremely unlikey and we’ll never know, but it was possible…in theory, at least!

Possibilities

We can imagine a member of the crew of some sailing ship leaving the West Indies with the coin in their possession, bound for New Orleans, perhaps. 1821-1824 saw the cotton export industry undergoing a significant boom and the Gulf of Mexico was not so far away as to preclude picking up a shipload before heading to England.

Depends on the season, really, and equally our sailor with an almost new and probably shiny coin – which, if that were the case, means it would have only recently landed from England (!) – heads back to Europe courtesy of a cargo of sugar…

The coin in the photos is quite beaten up, which is quite supportive of the story so far.

Frankly, if it ever left the West Indies by boat, it was a prime candidate for being exchanged in return for a beer or shot of rocket fuel at any of the stops along the way to the South Seas.

It may have been destined to leave Europe for China on a tea clipper after having circulated around the local pubs and chop houses for who knows how long.

Then again, it could have spent time lingering through a sequence of exotic destinations, including at least any or even all of Cape Town, Bengal, Madras and Batavia…

What a survivor! Not lost, bent, melted down or chopped in half…finally making landfall miraculously in one piece on the coast of New South Wales or Van Diemen’s Land. Heroic stuff.

Requirements

Now some would say that in order to properly qualify as a part of early Australian currency it would have had to arrive on southern shores realistically before 1826 because that’s when British silver specie for colonial use began arriving.

That puts a bit of a crimp on things, unlikely as they were to start with – not a whole lot of time between being made in 1822 and sent out to the West Indies and then completing the distance to Oz…

Surprising consequence

However, the facts are that one unintended effect of the arrival of the long awaited sterling supply was to drive out the dollars, which in turn produced another widespread coin shortage since there wasn’t yet enough sterling to go around and dollars were being shipped out much faster than sterling was coming in…

the Gazette announced dolefully “the quantity of silver specie is reduced to a mere sound . . . we may consider there’s an end to dollars as our circulating medium”

Sydney Gazette,6 September 1826., from Butlin SJ (1968) “Foundations of the Australian Monetary System 1788-1851” chapter 6 footnote 144

The lack of small silver meant that more often than not, anything similar would do nicely instead. Coins like this 1/16th dollar piece really presented no issues – apart from the obvious one of actually getting to the continent in the first place – right up until the 1850s and maybe later.

At least one private firm met the shortage by making their own silver threepence bits – Sydney’s Hogarth & Erichsen silver 3d trade token of 1860 – but that’s a story for another time!

Happy Collecting!


Many thanks for reading!

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References

Following are the sources for material in this post (apart from the coin itself!):

  • The Foreign Trade of the United States From 1820 to 1840 Author(s): Worthy P. Sterns Source: Journal of Political Economy , Dec., 1899, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Dec., 1899), pp. 34-57 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1817595

Page Links:

the coincolonial administrationcolonial moneyroutes to Aus‘early Aus’ currencyreference material

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