Monday, March 31, 2014

Pirate Coins

“It was a strange collection, like Billy Bones’ hoard for the diversity of coinage, but so much larger and so much more varied that I think I never had more pleasure than in sorting them. English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Georges, and Louises, doubloons and double guineas and moidores and sequins, the pictures of all the kings of Europe for the last hundred years, strange Oriental pieces stamped with what looked like wisps of string or bits of spider’s web, round pieces and square pieces, and pieces bored through the middle, as if to wear them round your neck – nearly every variety of money in the world must, I think, have found a place in that collection; and for number, I am sure they were like autumn leaves, so that my back ached with stooping and my fingers with sorting them out.”
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

The money situation in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy was a mess. Five nations had a presence among the islands. Each had their own coinage, and there was no easy method of exchange. In addition, pirates often traveled to the Indian Ocean, where they raided Arabic, African, Indian and Chinese shipping, and trailed exotic coinage after them as they traveled the world.

Chinese "Cash" coin
Let us begin with the basics – the Doubloon and the Piece of Eight. Both were Spanish. The Doubloon was a solid gold coin, about the diameter of an American nickle and weighing 6.77 grams. The Spanish called their gold coins escudos, and the doubloon was a two escudo piece, nicknamed the “doubloon” because it was a double-one (say it out loud). Other Spanish gold coins were the 1/2, one, four, and eight escudo pieces. One doubloon was worth a little less than an English guinea, or 32 reals, the term for Spanish silver money.

The Piece of Eight, also called the Spanish Dollar, was a silver coin worth eight reals. It was about the size of a Dutch daalder, resulting in the nickname. Famously, the Spanish piece of eight could be chopped into eight pieces and the bits used as currency, or to make change. Even today, some older Americans will refer to a quarter (of an American dollar) as “two bits.”

Pieces of Eight, cut into bits for change
The Spanish were the only ones minting money in the New World, and Spanish money was the coinage of choice for most transactions. However, as the Spanish government regarded itself as the sole “owner” of the both North and South America, they defined any ship that carried even a single Spanish coin as a pirate.

The English were established in North America, and had taken several islands from the Spanish, most notably Jamaica. In addition, a large number of pirates were English. The gold coin of England was the Guinea. It was 22 caret and weighed about 8.3 grams, making it worth about 20% more than a doubloon. As Stevenson notes, there were also double-guineas. The guinea had the distinction of being a coin that was used to pay artists, rather than tradesmen, and to settle debts between nobles. A middle-class family could live comfortably on 50 guineas a year.

Golden guinea, from the reign of William and Mary

The silver coin of England was the Pound Sterling. As the English monetary system is common in novels set at sea, I will list the entire English system, from guineas to farthings.

2 farthings = 1 half penny (ha’penny)
4 farthings = 1 penny
12 pennies = 1 shilling
5 shillings = 1 crown
4 crowns = 1 pound sterling (sovereign)
30 shillings = 1 guinea

It’s at this point that I answer the question, “What’s that in real money?”

The answer is that it’s impossible to say. A housemaid earned £5 a year, and a middle-class family £75. So you might say a pound (£) was worth $2000. But a book cost 1/5 of a pound. When was the last time you saw a $400 book? Postage from Boston to London was 1/20th of a pound. $100 to mail a letter? An African slave could be purchased for £30. How much is a human life worth?

At 6.7 grams, the gold coin of France, the Louis d’Or (gold Louis) was about the same weight as a doubloon. Like most coins of the time, it carried the image of the reigning king, and the image changed when the old ruler died. The French coin was the only one that was called by its king’s name however, possibly because of the long string of Louis’, possibly because the French, with their tradition of fine art, produced some very beautiful images on their coins.

Louis d'Or
The common currency of France was the livre though confusingly, a 1 livre coin was never minted. A Louis was worth 24 livres which in turn was worth 20 copper sols, which were each worth 12 deniers (roughly equal to an English penny)

The Dutch Lion Dollar (leeuwendaalder) was a coin designed specifically to facilitate trade. They were among the most traded coins in Maryland and New York, where their value was set at 4 shillings 5 pence (4s5d) and 5 shillings 5 pence (5s5d) respectively. The image on the coin, a knight with a lion at his feet, was based on the Netherlands’ coat of arms, necessitated because the country was not ruled by a king. Due perhaps to the problematic artwork (and to take a dig at the Dutch) the English sometimes called the coin the Dog Dollar.

The Portuguese gold coin was the Miodore, weighing 4.3 grams. The coin was used in Portugal and Brazil, and also found circulation in Ireland and the west coast of England. It is mentioned in several poems as a pirate treasure.

The Sequin was a corruption of the Italian word zecchino also called a Papal Ducat. It was minted in the Republic of Venice starting in the 13th century. The weight of the coin was 3.5 grams, making it one of the smaller gold coins. At one point it was popular for ladies to decorate their headdresses with dangling gold zecchinos, a fashion which gave rise to the modern word “sequin” meaning a shiny, decorative object sewn onto clothing.

Zecchino or Papal Ducat

Other coins… Indian Mohurs and silver rupees, Chinese cash, Arabic abasit were used almost like trade goods. The question was, when making a purchase, “will you take this?” which would probably be followed by an inspection of the coin. The bartender or shop proprietor might very well bite the coin, in a crude effort to determine the percentage of gold it contained (gold being a very soft metal) and might bring out a set of scales to weigh it and determine its approximate value. Chances are the pirate would not demand too close an accounting.

After all, rum is more valuable than gold. At least when you’re a thirsty pirate.


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