Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Money matters

· August 23rd, 2017 · No Comments

Today’s post is from Katherine Smoak, author of “The Weight of Necessity: Counterfeit Coins in the British Atlantic World, 1760-1800” (William and Mary Quarterly, July 2017).

by Katherine Smoak

When I started the research for the larger project from which my recent WMQ article is drawn—a history of the practices and politics of counterfeiting in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world—I had been committed to the idea that the materiality of money mattered.  But when I first submitted my manuscript to the Quarterly, I had actually never seen the coins about which I was writing.  I had spent months following the coins in the archives, trying to reconstruct the trade routes that carried counterfeits from manufacturers in North America and Britain to islands throughout the Caribbean.  I had read governors’ descriptions of the dismal state of the coin in circulation; travelers’ remarks on finding foreign, rather than British, coin in the colonies; and petitions and newspaper articles penned by Caribbean residents that insisted they would rather have bad coin than no coin at all.

But I’d never encountered the coins in person—never felt their weight in my hand, never struck them to see if they rang true (as eighteenth-century newspaper notices about newly appeared counterfeits regularly advised readers to do), never inspected the official and criminal defacements and manipulations recorded on their edges and surfaces.  Colonial money, as it turns out, can be difficult to come by.  It’s ephemeral: colonial governments regularly destroyed old paper notes (as well as their counterfeits, for obvious reasons); silver and gold coins could be melted down.  And what does survive is eagerly sought by collectors and numismatists, making it incredibly valuable. At the time of writing, a Spanish dollar minted in Mexico City in 1742 had a reserve price of $6,000; a 1720s Portuguese joe (minted in Rio de Janeiro), a coin I discuss at length in the article, is expected to sell for between $40,000-$60,000!

Luckily, the American Numismatic Society has a large collection of just the coins I was interested in, so as I awaited my readers’ reports, I set out for New York to finally look at the money that had occupied me for so long.  After all I had read about the poor state of coin that circulated in the Caribbean, I shouldn’t have been surprised by what I found at the ANS … but I was.  The French copper coins used by enslaved men and women throughout the eastern Caribbean were little more than copper disks, with the faintest of impressions.  Looking at the simple coins, it was not hard to see why Birmingham manufacturers, skilled in the arts of making buttons and metal toys, started sideline businesses in wholesaling forgeries of those coins to officials bound for the Caribbean.  Higher value gold and silver coins were missing their milled (the grooves on a coin’s edge, meant to prevent coin clipping); others weighed far less than they should.  It was one thing to read about the variety and poor state of money that circulated in the British Atlantic and contemplate the possibilities that opened up for counterfeiters.  It was quite another to see it for myself and imagine how difficult it must have been for Caribbean residents to sort the real from the fake given the motley condition of the money that circulated.

Seeing the coins for myself thus enriched my understanding of complaints from someone like Andrew Cochrane Johnstone, the governor of Dominica, who claimed that up to a third of the Portuguese joes in the region bore only “some resemblance to the Portuguese Coin that bears the same name.”[1] But I was also struck by the miniature histories recorded on these coins.  The official stamps and defacements of a colony, designed to certify a coin met local weight requirements and to try to retain it within that colony, recorded the ambitions of colonial governments to chart a monetary policy (even as they violated metropolitan directives).  The existence of multiple colonies’ stamps on the same coin charted their failures.  And the coins neatly encapsulated the messy and entangled histories of war and trade in the Caribbean—the gold joes I spent most of the day looking at were Portuguese coins, minted in Brazil, bearing the marks of British colonial governments, and circulating in colonies that had most recently been in the hands of the French!

When I returned to the manuscript to revise it in response to the helpful and constructive feedback from my five readers, I also incorporated the insights I gained from working with the coins.  Though my analysis didn’t radically change, it was enriched from having spent some time grappling with the materiality of the money.  My day at the ANS was a good reminder that even for those of us who aren’t primarily scholars of material culture, working with objects can bring a richer understanding of the past.

[1] Johnstone to Duke of Portland, Feb. 12, 1799, Colonial Office 71/31, National Archives of the United Kingdom, Kew.

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