The other day I saw one of Australia’s most famous coins for the first time, Governor Macquarie’s Holey Dollar, on display at a Brisbane Money Expo for numismatists.
The story is well known. In 1813, faced with a serious shortage of circulating coins, Governor Macquarie imported 40,000 Spanish silver dollars, which were then a common currency across the Pacific and East Asia. When they arrived, Macquarie oversaw their conversion into 2 coins, by punching out the centre, and gave them the arbitrary value of 5 shillings for the large outer ring, and 1 shilling and 3 pence (1/3d, or one-and-threepence) for the central ‘dump’.
I know all that already – I’ve written about the holey dollar before, here – but as I don’t approach these things from the perspective of a numismatist, there’s a lot I didn’t know.
For a start, Macquarie was a godsend to later collectors, because he didn’t care where his 40,000 coins came from, so there are holey dollars based on Spanish dollars from mints in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Spain, Guatemala, Chile and Colombia. Nor did he care about how old they were, so there are coins with dates ranging from the 1750s (Ferdinand VI) to the recent past (1810, from the Lima Mint).
Some coins are much rarer than others, and the Dump is rarer than the Holey Dollar. That’s not really surprising. Large denomination coins tend to be hoarded, while small denominations are more likely to stay in circulation, get more worn as a result, and are lost more easily.
Two of the specimens on display at the Expo had the name T KNIGHT stamped across the surface. Apparently this name pops up from time to time on colonial coinage – and nobody has discovered who he was. I made a brief search of Trove in search of him, but it yielded nothing – the name is too common, and the word ‘Knight’ appears in too many other contexts.
My guess is that T Knight used the coins as tokens of some kind, perhaps a pastoralist who paid his workers in tokens for the company store, though why he would use real coins in this way is puzzling, especially since defacing coinage was a serious crime – treason.
I am not now, nor ever have been, a collector. I have no desire to own these coins, or any of the other objects that were on display, I just love them for the stories they tell. Apart from Macquarie’s defaced currency (it’s not treason if you do it to your enemy’s currency) there were plenty of other stories too.
Coins have often been used for propaganda purposes, and there was a coin struck by Charles I during the siege of Newark in the English Civil War in 1646. There were even older Dutch coins found on the Abrolhos Islands off the West Australian coast that come from the Batavia shipwreck.
My favourite was a Spanish silver dollar with a faint etching of Chinese characters – the chop mark of the official at Canton [Guangzhou] who checked that the coin contained the full weight of silver before it was accepted, probably in payment for tea. This practice was known to Europeans by its Indian term, ‘shroffing’, and a neighbouring coin bore a shroff mark. I’ve written about the practice here.
While I am not a collector, I’m always fascinated by collectors’ deep knowledge of their subject. Philatelists have helped me several times over the years, and perhaps we historians need to talk to numismatists more often as well. One of the bit-players in my biography of Walter Davidson, his brother-in-law, Gilbert Farquhar Mathison, worked at the Royal Mint during the 1840s. He seems to have been quite senior, and was involved in the developing science of metallurgy. He travelled to France at one stage to study new methods of assaying gold coins.
After writing a travel book as a young man, he slips off the radar, and I can find almost nothing about his years at the Royal Mint. He’s not in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, for instance. After visiting the Money Expo, however, it occurs to me that I may be looking for knowledge of him in the wrong places.
Gilbert Farquhar Mathison, Narrative of a visit to Brazil, Chile, Peru, and the Sandwich Islands during the years 1821 and 1822 (1825) is online here