Collectors in the United States are well aware of the Trade dollar that was first issued in 1873. There was too much silver being mined in the American West, and this coinage was an attempt to send the surplus silver to the Orient, especially China.
Within a few years, the British and Japanese governments also issued trade dollars. The most famous trade coin, however, was that issued by Austria, the famous Maria Theresa taler – first struck in the latter part of the 18th century, it was the coin of choice in much of the Middle East for more than a hundred years but today is struck primarily for collectors.
Perhaps the most best known international coin was the Spanish silver 8 reales struck at Latin American mints as early as the 1530s. It soon became a worldwide coin and was heavily used in trade between many countries. It was so ingrained in Colonial American commercial affairs, for example, that the Continental Currency of the Revolutionary War carried a statement that the Spanish milled dollar was its basis.
The English, however, issued a set of little-known silver trade coins in the early days of the 17th century that were originally meant for use in the East Indies but, in a strictly technical sense, this included Colonial America. It means, for example, that the largest piece, equivalent to the Spanish dollar, is a legitimate type coin officially issued for the American colonies even though the stated purpose of this coinage was for use in Asian markets. The story begins in the mid-1500s.
During the time of Henry VIII (1509-1547), English foreign trade was mostly confined to European countries and their colonies, especially the Netherlands, France, and the Spanish possessions in the New World. Trade with the Spanish possessions was a difficult matter, however, as Spain did not want foreign ships in their waters, and there were constant naval battles over these commercial affairs.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, the economic picture showed enormous changes. English vessels now went to many far-off lands and the points in between. London was flexing its economic muscles for all to see, especially its European competitors.
At that time, it was common for royalty to partially fund trading expeditions to distant points around the globe. Elizabeth I was no stranger to this activity and provided money for many of the enterprises, some of which openly flouted Spanish laws. At least the Spanish thought so, but this was of course denied by the queen.
In late 1600, a group of merchants petitioned the queen to issue a royal charter for a trading firm under the name of “The Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies.” On Dec. 31, the queen did in fact issue the requested royal charter. This trading entity made its first voyage to the Indies in 1602 but no doubt visited other points on the way.
The major coins used in trading among nations at that point in time were the Dutch Lion dollars and the Spanish 8 reales. The queen became increasingly irritated at having to use either of these, as England received no publicity for her coinage or government in the process.
Part of the problem was the fact that English law made it a criminal offense to export silver or gold coins from the country. Customs officials were especially vigilant on this point, and the trading companies needed official permission to take silver out of England.
Elizabeth ordered the Treasury to consider a special issue of silver coins that would be used on the trading expeditions, especially to the Far East. She preferred that her portrait be used on the coinage, as it was on the gold and silver coins issued regularly by the London Mint. There was considerable discussion along these lines, but in the end the Treasury persuaded her that a portrait could not be used.
At this time, the London Mint was issuing a large silver coin, the crown, which was a 5-shilling piece. It carried the queen’s portrait.
The reason for the rejection of the portrait was deference to Moslem sensibilities in the East Indies. Rulers and merchants located in that particular region would simply not have accepted coins with a female portrait.
Elizabeth reluctantly agreed but insisted that English symbolism be clearly shown as a mark of sovereignty. On Jan. 11, 1601, she signed a royal warrant authorizing the coinage of four trade coins: 8, 4, 2, and 1 testern. The name “testern” was simply the English name for the Spanish one real, or one-eighth of a dollar.
The actual date of the royal warrant was Jan. 11, 1600, but this was under the old Julian calendar. In England prior to 1752, the new year began with the spring equinox in late March. January 1600, therefore, actually followed December 1600. The date of the warrant is sometimes referred to at present as Jan. 11, 1600/01, to show that the date of 1600 was “Old Style” while 1601 refers to the new calendar (Gregorian) adopted in 1752.
The official weight of the 8-testern coin was 422.8 grains, .925 fine. This means 391.1 grains of pure silver, which compares favorably with the United States silver dollar of 1794-1935; the latter has a pure silver content of 371.25 grains. The 4-, 2- and 1-testern coins were in proportion.
The silver crown (5 shillings) then being struck at the London Mint was not suitable for international trade because it weighed 465 grains, .925 fine. This meant that each crown was equal to 8.8 testerns and of no practical commercial value, given the use of Spanish silver around the world.
The trading firm was given permission to export up to £30,000 in silver each year for 15 years, and it is assumed they did in fact do so. However, the first trial coinage of testern pieces was to be for only £6,000. We do not have a breakdown of how many there were of each denomination, but it may safely be assumed that the bulk of the coinage would have been of the largest piece – 8 testerns – for convenience in the East Indian trading arrangements.
If the entire £6,000 was in pieces of 8 testerns, there would have been about 26,000 coins. It then seems possible that perhaps 15,000 to 17,000 8 testerns might have been struck with the remaining silver being used for the lesser denominations.
Each of the denominations bore more or less the same devices and inscriptions. The obverse has the crowned arms of England surrounded by the Latin legend O : ELIZABETH : D. G. ANG. FR ET HIB. REGINA, which translates as “Elizabeth, by the Grace of God, Queen of England, France, and Ireland.”
The crowned letters E and R are in the field and are abbreviations for Elizabeth and Regina (Queen). The claim to the French throne dated back to Edward III in 1337 and had appeared on the coinage beginning in 1344; it was not until the Treaty of Amiens under George III in 1802 that this meaningless claim was abandoned.
The figure “O” at the beginning of the legend is the London privy mark for the year 1600, which in this case means 1601, as the coins in question were actually struck in January 1601 by the modern calendar.
The reverse has a portcullis, the ancient symbol of the gate to a palace or fort, surrounded by the Latin legend O : POSVI : DEVM : ADIVTOREM : MEVM, which means “I Have Made God My Helper.” The figure “0” is again the privy mark for 1600/01 and means the same as the figure on the obverse. The reverse design has caused collectors to name this series the “Portcullis Coinage.”
The moneyers at the London Mint took particular care with these coins. They were meant to show that this mint and government were capable of quality work.
All of the Portcullis coins are today relatively rare, but the smaller denominations are perhaps the easiest to obtain. It would be a remarkable accomplishment to put together a high-quality set of these four coins.
The 1602 trading voyage to the East Indies was a success, but the leading ship captain reported that these special English trade dollars and fractions were not readily accepted in the Indies, even if the queen’s portrait did not appear. Later voyages by this company to the Indies were undertaken in 1604 and 1608, but the special testern coinage was not carried on either of those two trips.
Even though the testern series of coins were specifically made for the East Indies, it is still a fact that the weight and fineness of these pieces made them acceptable anywhere the Spanish dollar was used, and this certainly included the American Colonies after 1607, when permanent settlements were established.
The drawings of the coins with this article were originally prepared in the 1740s for a book on English coins written by Martin Folkes. The two coins are each about the size of the United States silver dollar.
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