World Coins

Power of the English gold guinea in Colonial America

Colonial American column from Aug. 22, 2016, issue of Coin World:

The economy of North America was powerful throughout the 18th century. In war and peace and through thick and thin, American resources were exported abroad while American consumers and merchants acquired goods, slaves and cash in return.

Small change tended to be scarce, as fractional silver coins wore out and coppers either became slick or were fake to start with, but international trade frequently replenished the amount of gold coins in wealthy merchants’ coffers. Those coins, particularly in the second half of the 18th century, tended to be Portuguese or Spanish, often from mints in the New World. But other gold coins were also present. Chief among these were English guineas.

The guinea series began in 1663, during the reign of Charles II. They were named for the chief source of their raw material: Guinea, a region on Africa’s “Gold Coast.” 

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In 1660, Charles II’s brother, who would later become King James II, was placed in charge of the Royal African Company, which was given a monopoly on trade with Africa, including gold, slaves, and other materials.

To honor the Royal African Company, a tiny elephant was placed beneath Charles II’s bust on most guineas struck during his reign. While the elephant disappeared later, the name “guinea” remained with the coin for the rest of its production.

Containing about a quarter-ounce of gold, a guinea was equal in value to 4 and 2/3 Spanish milled dollars in late 18th century America. Guineas were struck almost every year from 1663 to 1799, when production essentially ended, until a final issue was coined for one year in 1813.

Historical references to guineas in Colonial America are plentiful in the papers of the Founders, particularly those who were closely associated with the British military or political establishment.

In 1800, when Martha Washington wrote her will, she left tidy sums of 5 and 10 guineas to various grandchildren, great-nieces, and neighbors.

In 1780, Governor Thomas Jefferson of Virginia offered 5,000 guineas for the head of Benedict Arnold, dead or alive. John Adams received 10 guineas before the trial of the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre and eight more after.

Guineas dated 1776 are particularly popular among collectors today, but earlier types of George I and II should not go ignored, particularly those with the sort of wear that suggests they may have seen an American pocket or two.

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