Around the World: Coins of British Honduras oft overlooked

Great Britain finds a Colonial toe-hold in Latin America
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 12/16/16
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When considering coins of the British Empire, collectors often think of those from British India, or perhaps those of British West Africa, or of Australia, or even those of Hong Kong or various Pacific Islands.

Not as many think quickly of the coinage that served Britain’s holding in Central America, British Honduras. Yet this small colony on the Caribbean was part of the globe-spanning British Empire for more than a century, and in that time issued coins sporting the visages of four different British monarchs. 

British colonialization

When the British monarchy got serious about building a colonial overseas empire, Spain and Portugal had already been in the business for centuries. Admittedly, by the 1600s, England was well along in the game, however, claiming land in North America that would ultimately become Canada and the United States. 

But Central and South America had long been carved up between the two nations on the Iberian peninsula. One can argue that the Treaty of Tordesillas, giving Spain all the land west of a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, and Portugal all the land to the east, remains one of the most famous and largest land deals of all time. 

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After all, it basically chopped the world in two for Spain and Portugal. It was negotiated between those two countries with the help of the Vatican and Pope Alexander VI, largely so that there would be no war over newly found lands west of the Atlantic.

The area that would become British Honduras had long ago been part of the Mayan Empire, and became part of what was called New Spain. But it was never heavily colonized until British business concerns saw some potential in extracting raw materials, largely mahogany. The timing turned out to be good for British business, because newly independent Mexico was at war with the Maya who still lived in the area. Status as a crown colony was formalized in 1871.

With colonial status and British rule came all the trappings and details of being part of a well-run, global empire, including a monetary system.  A decimal system based on 100 cents to a dollar was implemented. 

From the first issue of 1-cent pieces in 1884 all the way until what would become the final issue of any British Honduran coin in 1973, the lowest denomination was a 1-cent piece made of bronze, while the highest coin denomination was a 50-cent piece, originally a silver piece weighing in at 11.62 grams, roughly equivalent to United States half dollars of the day (the Seated Liberty half dollars weighing 12.44 grams after 1853). All denominations of 1-dollar and higher were produced as paper money. 

Understanding the coinage

For many collectors, an interest in the coins of British Honduras may begin with something as casual as finding a single handsome example in some dealer’s bargain bin, or perhaps with a visit to this tropical Caribbean vacation spot with its blue waters and Mayan ruins. As far as the dealers’ bins, many of the colony’s more recent coins were minted in base metal compositions, and are extremely affordable. As for trips to the country, well, it’s using its own coins now. But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here. Let’s put this system into some order.

First, the cents. British Honduras 1-cent coins were first issued in 1885, and then issued intermittently through 1973. They started out as bronze coins that would do a U.S. or Canadian large cent proud. 

Four years of cents sport Queen Victoria on the obverse, which probably helped make her the most popular figure and image on coins, at least for her time. 

The 1-cent pieces of Kings Edward VII, then George V, then George VI take a collector all the way up to 1951. 

A single issue of 1954 is the first for which Queen Elizabeth graced the obverse, a change that turned out to go along with a drastic reduction in size. The issues from 1956 to 1973, the small cents as it were, complete the denomination, this time struck in a scalloped shape.

Next, the larger coins. Larger denomination British Honduran coins have one thing in common — they all began as silver issues, even the little 5-cent pieces of 1894. Along with the small 5-cent coins, which had only a 0.0346-ounce silver content, were 10-cent, 25-cent, and 50-cent pieces dated 1894, and all showing a crowned Queen Victoria on the obverse and the value on the reverse. A date set of just the 1894 issues might serve as a good starting point for what could become a larger collection from this small colony.

Coins lose silver over time

As the 19th century ended and the 20th century unfolded, some of the colony’s denominations had their precious metal content degraded or completely removed. 

The 5-cent pieces were the first of the coins of British Honduras to see their silver removed, as the issue of 1907 (only the second year the denomination was minted) was made of copper-nickel. 

This composition served for the issues under Kings Edward and both Georges, until 1942, when the composition changed to nickel-brass, until the end of the series.

The three higher denominations fared somewhat better in retaining precious metal content. The 10-cent pieces were produced in silver up until 1946, when they were changed to copper-nickel. The 25-cent pieces saw the switch to copper-nickel in 1952. And the big 50-cent pieces hung onto their silver until 1954. After those dates, each subsequently was produced in copper-nickel to the colony’s final days.

For a collector who wishes to assemble the coins of British Honduras into one set, an obvious line or border is the point at which the coins went from being minted in silver to being produced in a base metal, copper-nickel alloy. All of those made in base metal are going to be very inexpensive, with the possible exception of the few Proof examples produced as far back as 1894. But even those Proof coins are not particularly costly for the avid collector today, simply because the modern collector base for such coins is not all that large.

Collecting approaches vary

A bigger challenge would be trying to assemble the silver versions of each of these coins, and in higher circulated or Uncirculated condition when possible. 

As mentioned, there is not too much to gather when it comes to the 5-cent piece, but some of the larger denominations will require a bit of patience. 

For example, the 25-cent pieces and the big 50-cent pieces were coined in 1894 and 1895, then again in 1897 and 1901, then with King Edward’s royal image in 1906 and 1907, then with George V’s face in 1911 and 1919. The 25-cent pieces each contain 0.1728 ounce of the precious metal, while the 50-cent pieces have exactly twice that much, 0.3456 ounce in them.

Thus, even worn examples are pegged to the price of silver (which is $5.18 per 50-cent piece when silver trades at $15 per ounce), and it’s fair to expect a premium for any examples preserved in grades at About Uncirculated or any level of Uncirculated. But that’s the heart and soul of the challenge — patiently searching for each coin in a grade that still has some eye appeal.

The independent nation that arose from the colony of British Honduras is Belize. 

The first coins to proclaim “Belize” on them, back in the 1970s, still also bore the image of Queen Elizabeth on their obverses, but the days of a colony known as British Honduras had passed. 

One legacy of that time is a wonderfully easy and engaging series of coins waiting for the interested collector. 

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