British Coins and their links to the West African slave trade – Graham Birch

The topic that I address in my blog piece is to ask the question: “In the light of the current anti-racism protests, should numismatists be concerned about the obvious slave trading associations of certain British coins in their collections?”. 

I then go on to examine the origins of the metals which went into the “Elephant” and “Elephant & Castle” guineas (Royal African Company link) as well as the silver coins minted with SSC on the reverse (South Sea Company link). 

3 thoughts on “British Coins and their links to the West African slave trade – Graham Birch

  1. While the gold supplied to the Mint by the African Company had nothing to do with the slave trade this is not the case with the silver. There was no obvious source of silver in West Africa. However, the monies received by the Company for the sale of slaves in the West Indies could not always be invested fully in goods for England/Britain. On some occasions there was a surplus which was remitted either in Bills payable in London or in specie. That specie would have been the Spanish American silver received for the slaves. There was not often such a surplus and silver coins marked with the Company’s provenance mark are known only for 1666, 1681 and 1701.
    When handling these coins it is a sobering thought that the silver they contain is likely to be some of the actual profit from the slave trade but it is precisely this sort of connection with the past that makes coins so fascinating.
    It seems unlikely that many of the demonstrators today would have sufficient historical knowledge to make the connection so our coins are probably safe. Nevertheless if any Society members should feel uncomfortable owning them I would be happy to relieve them of that burden by donating £5 to any named charity for each item received in VF condition or better (particularly the 1701 halfcrown).

  2. Dear Peter,
    As you imply, the Elephant or Elephant and Castle silver coins are something of an enigma. You may be right that they are re-minted Spanish colonial silver picked up in the Americas/Caribbean. But why would the Spanish silver need to be re-struck? It would have enjoyed a ready market in London and the East India Company were hoovering up any scrap silver that they could get hold of. Do you have some evidence that the Company re-minted Spanish coins?

    An alternative explanation could be that the silver arose from impurities in the gold dust brought back from West Africa. The gold dust was never 100% gold and the chief impurity would have been silver. This means that silver would have been a by-product of the refining process when the gold dust was converted into coinage alloy. I should imagine that most of the time the value of by-product silver would have helped to defray the cost of refining. However if a particularly silver-rich batch of gold dust was processed then there would be some silver bullion to spare and perhaps it is this metal that was saved up and then struck into coins.

    Trace element chemistry of the coins would probably tell us the answer if somebody did the analysis.

    Hoblyn in his paper on the silver coins (1877), thought that the coins were sent out to the West African forts for local use. Here they would have circulated in isolation – away from the rest of the contemporary silver coinage. This would explain the universally poor condition in which they are found.

    Like you I don’t really think that the protesters will be coming after our coins.

    • Dear Graham,
      There is very little hard evidence concerning the African Company’s silver.
      Hoblyn’s comments were based on what Hawkins had recently said about them (that they were issued specifically for colonial use) but the only evidence quoted is that they are of “uniform poorness”. In this he was mistaken as some of them do turn up in quite reasonable condition.
      The suggestion that they resulted from impurities in the gold dust brought back from Africa is an interesting one but without evidence this must remain a suggestion.
      The only evidence I have concerning this silver is from published sources and these are mainly:-
      K.G.Davies, “The Royal Africa Company”, 1967 (who delves quite deeply into the Company’s records)
      F.W. Pitman, “The Development of the British West Indies 1700 – 1763”, 1917 (the work does look a little at what happened before 1700).
      Curtis Patnam Nettles, “The Money Supply of the American Colonies before 1720”, 1934..
      Between them these publications make it plain that payment for slaves was mainly in sugar (but tobacco, rice and pitch from the mainland colonies). From Barbados and Jamaica though they often received pieces of eight and many of these were sent home. Davies notes that over a forty year period £66,000 worth of Spanish American silver was imported, mainly from Jamaica. Most of this (he notes) was sold privately but in theory the remainder that was not sold in this way could have been sent to the Mint (where they were already sending their gold).
      Davies notes that the silver coin received in the islands was clipped and overvalued and there is plenty of evidence elsewhere to confirm this (e.g. Robert Chalmers, “History of Currency in the British Colonies”, 1893). The poor quality of the coin imported may have been sufficient incentive to send whatever could not be sold privately to the Mint to be re-coined.
      If there was any mention of silver receipts from the Company in the Mint records it would certainly have come to light before now. The only source not yet searched for this particular piece of information is the Company’s own records which Davies notes are incomplete but may nevertheless yield some useful information.
      So, for the moment, there seem to be three suggestions for the origin of the Company’s silver.
      1. That it was struck for colonial use (Hoblyn).
      2. That it was a useful by-product of the West African gold.
      3. That it was the residue of the silver which we know was brought back from Jamaica and Barbados.
      My own preference is option three but as there is no hard evidence for any of them the elephant and elephant and castle silver coins must remain an enigma.

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