Old World, New Ideas
Kevin D. Goldberg began collecting European coins as a Middle School student in suburban Philadelphia. Three decades later, he still collects European coins, but now in suburban Atlanta, where he teaches in the Department of History & Philosophy at Kennesaw State University. He earned his Ph.D. in European History from the University of California, Los Angeles, and was a postdoctoral fellow in the International Humanities at Brown University, 2011-2013. Kevin has been planning on expanding his collection beyond Europe for the past decade, but is only now getting around to it.
The Royal African Company and the Morality of Numismatics
The question seems to come up frequently; does the act of collecting politically tainted coins necessarily taint the collector? Occasional flare-ups over the morality of trading Nazi coins or dealing in the coinage of “unfriendly” states like Cuba does add an element of political consciousness into the hobby, but is there anything sinister about it?
While preparing a lecture on the African slave trade this past week, I came across a reference to the Royal African Company (RAC), a London-based mercantile monopoly that bought and sold captive Africans in the decades before and after 1700. I immediately recalled reading a fine article about a year ago by Greg Reynolds about English coinage with the provenance mark of the Royal African Company, and was driven to dig deeper into the operations of the English tradesmen. The deeper I dug, the heavier my heart became.
Gold, the raison d’être of the RAC, was soon complemented by the trade in slaves, fueled in large part by the increasing demand for labor in the Caribbean and the American colony of Virginia. Although the RAC’s monopoly on slaves would soon be erased by the entrance of free market ideals on all shores of the Atlantic (and the ensuing explosion of the slave trade), the horror of its legacy is as visible as the letters R-A-C branded across the chests of its captives.
Thankfully, little remains of the Royal African Company other than the highly prized coins manufactured from its mined gold. Several issues from the Royal Mint of England in the period 1688-1722 bear the “elephant and castle” (or sometimes just the elephant), the provenance mark of the RAC. Elephants are found on shillings, half-crowns, crowns, and gold guineas. Collectors of English coins jump at the opportunity to acquire RAC-marked examples, though the high demand and rarity of such coins warrant a high premium.
Collectors of English (or, after the 1707 union with Scotland, British) coinage are blessed with an array of nuance beyond the traditional scope of ruler, denomination, and condition. One such nuance is the provenance mark, of which the elephant of the Royal African Company belongs. Other provenance marks include “Lima” for silver captured from the Spanish during the naval wars of the 1740s, and “SSC,” designating silver supplied from the infamous South Sea Company. The nuances of British coins offer spectacular thrills for those willing to engage, rather than run from, such complexities.
Collectors of provenance marks must face the question about the morality of RAC coins. The almost-four centuries that separate us from the actions of the Royal African Company have deadened the screams of its victims, but does our collecting of these coins justify the actions of the RAC or somehow further assail those whose lives were robbed? No matter how we independently answer this question, perhaps we all share the obligation to be aware of the blood underfoot the elephant.