By Richard Giedroyc
Mahatma Gandhi appearing on a British coin? Wasn’t Gandhi from India rather than from Britain? Wasn’t Gandhi a non-violent leader in a successful revolution to make India independent of British rule?
Is it true the British Royal Mint was recently asked by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak to come up with designs for coins that might honor Jamaican-born military nurse Mary Seacole and Russian born spy Noor-un-Nissa Inayat Khan?
Queen Elizabeth II appears on the obverse of all coins of the United Kingdom. While Her Majesty appears on the front of bank notes the backs depict vignettes of Winston Churchill (£5), Jane Austin (£10), Adam Smith (£20), J.M.W. Turner (£20), and Matthew Boulton with James Watt (£50). All circulating coins and bank notes carry a common theme, that being they are Brits of renounce, while none are people of color or from elsewhere in what had been the British Empire or is now the British Commonwealth.
This is where former Conservative parliamentary candidate Zehra Zaidi comes into the picture. Zaidi is leading the charge for the Banknotes of Color campaign, also known as the “We Too Built Britain” campaign. The campaign has spilled over into coin themes as well. No circulation strike British coins have ever been produced on which an individual of color or non-Brit ethnicity has been featured.
On July 26 Zaidi told the British Broadcasting Corporation News (BBC), “Who we have on our legal tender, our notes and our coins, builds into a narrative of who we think we are as a nation. People from all backgrounds helped build Britain.”
Zaidi has been petitioning to have Khan featured on a coin for the past two years. “She was the first female radio operator to be sent to enemy-occupied France,” according to Zaidi. “She was one of only four women in history to receive the George Cross.” (Khan was captured by the Germans and executed at the Dachau concentration camp during World War Two.)
Zaidi noted Walter Tull, Britain’s first black Army officer has appeared on a commemorative coin, but added, “Commemorative coins are not the same as legal tender because legal tender acts as a passport, an ambassador. We must tell the story of inclusive representation as it matters for cohesion and it matters in the narrative of who we are as a nation.” (Tull was born in Folkestone, Kent. His father came from the Barbadoes. Tull’s grandfather was a slave.)
Mary Jane Seacole, neé Grant (1805-1881) may have been born in Jamaica, but she served as the nurse who set up the “British Hotel” behind enemy lines during the Crimean War. In 2004 Seacole was recognized as the “greatest black Briton” in the BBC’s black Briton online poll.
The Telegraph newspaper recently reported the first Indian and Gurkha soldiers to receive the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award in the British honors system, are also under consideration as the subject for circulating coins or bank notes.
Sunak is sympathetic to the call for British numismatic diversity. He recently said:, “As a British Asian of course I know that racism exists in this country. And I know people are angry and frustrated. They want to see, and feel, change.”
On Aug. 3 Sunak announced on Twitter that the previous day he had written to the BRM, “urging them to consider how to celebrate the achievements of BAME [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] individuals on United Kingdom coinage.”
There are still obstacles to the proposed coins to be considered. Proposed coins and their proposed designs must be approved by the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, who in turn petition the Treasury to draft proposals and designs for potential coins. The queen has the final approval authority for any coin or bank note design changes.
The idea of diversity isn’t being embraced by everyone. Zaidi admits, “We never pushed Gandhi.” According to the Times of India Gandhi’s selection has been drawing mixed reactions from currency diversification activists.