East India Company coins celebrate British Empire
- Published: Jun 19, 2017, 6 AM
The history of the British empire is linked inextricably with the East India Company.
The company, which helped develop a significant amount of commerce as the British Empire expanded, has been reborn in recent years, albeit considerably more modest in authority and scope than the original, and continues to issue coins commemorating the earlier firm’s history.
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The latest project from the modern East India Company is a limited mintage, nine-coin set of Proof gold coins issued in the name of St. Helena that tell the story of the empire and the company hand in hand.
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East India Company merchants essentially created the British Empire, through the monopoly, privilege and power bestowed on them by the British monarchs.
From its very first voyage in January 1601, until it was dissolved and absorbed into the British Crown in 1874, the East India Company laid the foundation of the British Empire in the East. Over time “The Company,” as it became known, rose to account for half of the world’s trade, including cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpeter, tea and bullion. It had its own army and navy and its stocks (shares) were central to London’s financial markets. At one point it ruled over 400 million people.
The newly issued Empire Collection set of Proof .9999 fine gold £1 coins carry the name of St. Helena, the small British Island Territory situated in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.
The coins in the set feature portraits of several British monarchs, faithfully designed to reflect the style and appearance of the original coinage of the time period honored on each design.
The coins carry the common Raphael Maklouf effigy of Queen Elizabeth II on each obverse.
Royal Charter from Elizabeth
In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I awarded a band of merchants the monopoly on trade with the East, and so began a voyage that was to transform the world.
On the insistence of Elizabeth, aboard the first ships were specially struck testern coins — nicknamed portcullis money for their design — meant to demonstrate to the world the power of the British.
One of the new set’s coins features the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I from her seventh issue crown, inset with the Red Dragon, one of four EIC ships that sailed on the first voyage, along with an image of a pepper leaf, which was fundamental to the success of the first voyage, and the crowned portcullis taken from the portcullis money.
A royal charter, renewed
The Stuart Era was ushered in following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603.
The success of the EIC’s first voyage delivered great profits and customs to the sovereign.
King James renewed the company charter and instructed Sir Thomas Roe to secure trading rights with Mughal Emperor Jahangir, beginning official company trade with India.
The distinctive reverse design of the second coin in the set features the portrait of James I, from his second coinage double crown, along with a cameo of Jahangir, inset on a background of the Rose Ryal pattern taken from James I coinage.
Peace and war for Charles II
By the reign of King Charles II, the company had expanded its trading operations, eclipsing the Portuguese, establishing trading posts in Surat, Madras, Bombay and Calcutta and securing ports off the coast of China.
Under Charles II, the company was granted the seven small islands of Bombay and the right to take and rule other territories, to mint money, to command fortresses, to build armies and “make peace and war.”
The Bombay Mint would be the first mint opened by the East India Company in India, and today it is the site of the India Government Mint in Mumbai.
In Britain tea drinking became fashionable at this time, and the start of a lucrative tea trade began.
The design on the set’s coin celebrating Charles II features the portrait of the king taken from his 1668 British silver crown coin.
Competition arises for EIC
Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, King William III lost many of the customary rights of the monarch but crucially maintained authority over foreign policy and trade.
The continuing war with Louis XIV of France meant taxes and customs from trade with the East Indies were essential. William deregulated the company’s monopoly on trade and a new parallel company (officially titled the English Company Trading to the East Indies), was formed encouraging competition for trade with the East.
The set’s coin featuring King William III is inspired by his 1695 crown, featuring the second bust. In the background is Fort William, the main garrison for the British in Calcutta, Bengal.
The company reunifies
Under William, the competition he encouraged resulted in emergence of a second trading company.
However, while competition may have been good for some, it was effectively bad for business, producing conflicts at home and in the East. Queen Anne unified the two parallel companies in 1702, creating a single company that was stronger and more financially secure.
The design on the 2017 set’s coin that notes her role resembles the simple and clean designs often found on the coinage of Queen Anne and feature the portrait found on her 1704 half crown. The heart shape “bale-mark” featured on this coin reflects the emblem of the new company following unification with the little “v” representing the word “united.”
This bale-mark was to be applied to all East India Company goods and was in essence the forerunner of the modern trademark.
Battle of Plassey in India
Considered the most important event in the company’s history, the Battle of Plassey was a colossal victory even though the battle only lasted 40 minutes on June 23, 1757.
It secured company rule in Bengal, the richest of all presidencies, laying the foundation for British rule in India.
Sir Robert Clive rebuilt Fort William in Bengal as the company headquarters, which along with Fort St. George in Madras and Bombay Castle, demonstrated the supreme power of the British in India.
Over the next few decades, the East India Company would become the single largest trading organization in the world.
In this era, the ruling monarch was King George II, and the 2017 set’s coin featuring him its portrait from his 1758 silver shilling. Inset is an image of the Battle of Plassey medal issued by the Society for Promoting Arts and Commerce in 1758 to commemorate the victory.
Crown control of company
Under George III, the first of the East India Company Regulating Acts was passed.
By the beginning of the 1800’s expensive wars and administration had strained the company’s finances, forcing it to turn to the crown for financial assistance.
Parliament and the crown established substantial control over the East India Company. Company land was formally recognized as being under the control of the crown.
The governor general of Bengal, Warren Hastings, was awarded administrative powers over all of British India.
The Charter Act of 1813 revoked the company’s precious monopoly, except for tea and trade with China.
A portrait of King George III on one of the coins in the 2017 set is taken from the 1797 “cartwheel” pence. In the background, the coat of arms of the company and the spade guinea motif represent the struggle between the company and crown over control of the East India Company.
Universal coinage in India
The East India Company continued to rule India with increasing centralization of power.
Parliament reforms and the Industrial Revolution created open markets and machine age goods. The British Empire stretched across most of the world.
In an attempt to unify its territories, King William IV introduced a universal currency in India as a statement of power.
Most significantly, the company lost its monopoly on Chinese trade, resulting in a “Tea Race” as ships from other companies competed to transport tea via some of the most important eastern trade routes.
The design of one of the coins in the 2017 set features the portrait of William IV taken from his 1835 mohur coin, the coin which was to become the highest denomination coin (gold or otherwise) among the East India Company’s coinage in India.
Victoria, Empress of India
The final coin in the Empire Collection features the portrait of Queen Victoria, Empress of India as found on her Imperial issue 1862 mohur along with the intricate pattern from the same coin.
In 1877, Queen Victoria became Empress of India, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the dissolution of the East India Company.
The British Empire was at the height of its power. Queen Victoria, Empress of India, ruled over countries stretched far around the globe, and home to approximately one-fourth of the world’s population.
The Empire Collection coins each weigh 8 grams and measure 25 millimeters in diameter.
The coins are displayed in individual boxes, and presented in a numbered luxury presentation box with engraved certificate of authenticity and a detailed presentation booklet.
The set has a issue limit of 500 sets and retails for £5,995 (about $7,600 U.S., subject to exchange rate fluctuation).
For more details, or to order online, visit the modern East India Company website.
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