In the late 18th century, some studied carelessness on the part of George III’s ministers saw Britain lose many of its North American colonies. One consequence was an urgent need to find a new dumping ground for the country’s convicts.
Of various alternatives, the newly discovered east coast of New Holland (Australia) seemed most suitable. On Aug. 18, 1786, a decision was taken to send a first party of convicts, military and civilian personnel to Botany Bay to establish a colony under command of Governor-designate Admiral Arthur Phillip.
This First Fleet consisted of 775 convicts. They were accompanied by 645 officials, crew members, marines and assorted families. The fleet set sail from Portsmouth on May 13, 1787, consisting of six transport ships, two naval escorts and three storeships.
It arrived at Botany Bay on Jan. 20, 1788, only to find this location quite unsuitable even for a penal colony. The entire kit and caboodle relocated three leagues to the north to Port Jackson, where it set about founding what would become the City of Sydney.
This year, Australia commemorates the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Last Fleet. This consisted solely of the convict ship Hougoumont. It arrived at Swan River Colony, Western Australia, on Jan. 9, 1868, with 280 convicts on board.
For several years, each New Year’s Day has seen the Royal Australian Mint release a distinctive circulating commemorative dollar. This year, the coin honors those last 280 convicts in particular but also the total of 162,000 transported from the UK to “places beyond the seas” between 1788 and 1868.
Apart from a 25.00 mm, 9.00 gram aluminum-bronze uncirculated dollar, the RAM has struck two commemorative proofs: a 25.00 mm, 11.66 g .999 fine silver dollar and a 17.53 mm, 1/10 oz .9999 fine gold $10.
The coins’ common reverse by Tony Dean features a stylized tree. Its verdant canopy is Australia, its roots merge into broad arrows bound to the earth by a chain. The RAM media release that announced this coin points out that some 20 percent of Australia’s current population are descended from those 162,000 transportees.
The uncirculated coin, dubbed the “Rascals & Ratbags dollar” by the RAM, is available with various counterstamps, privymarks and the Canberra Mint mintmark. Those attending this year’s Sydney Royal Easter Show had the opportunity of using the RAM’s traveling press to apply a “S” counterstamp to a Rascals & Ratbags dollar.
Attendees could also purchase the coin in a colored card holder. This holder is worth obtaining in its own right. It features a delightful caricature of Esther Abrahams Johnston, a remarkable woman who went from being a First Fleet convict to New South Wales “First Lady.”
Abrahams sailed along with her baby daughter on the convict transport Prince of Wales. On board, she made the acquaintance of George Johnston, a first lieutenant in the New South Wales Marine Corps.
On landing at Sydney Cove, she became his de facto wife and in due course bore Johnston seven children. Johnston’s rank saw him receive vast land grants that he and Esther farmed.
In due course, Johnston rose to the rank of major. In January 1808, he led the Rum Rebellion that put an end to the governorship of William Bligh. This saw him dispatched to England the following year to defend charges of mutiny. Esther continued to manage their properties in his absence and, upon Johnston’s return to Sydney in 1813, he was allowed to keep his land by Governor Macquarie. A year later, Johnston and Esther married.
Johnston died in January 1823. He bequeathed Esther use of his estate for her natural life. She died in 1846 and was buried beside her husband in the family vault.
Any reader visiting Australia up until Dec. 31 can stop by the Canberra Mint shop and pay money for the privilege of striking a Rascals & Ratbags dollar with a “C” mintmark in a public press sited in the public gallery.
This article was originally printed in World Coin News. >> Subscribe today.
More Collecting Resources
• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1901-2000 is your guide to images, prices and information on coinage of the 1900s.
• Keep up to date on prices for Canada, United States and Mexico coinage with the 2018 North American Coins & Prices guide.