Coins of the British Museum - A coin from the East India Company at Fort Marlborough

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29 January 2018
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3-keping-coin-75354.jpg This copper piece offers a window into a period of European expansion in the east, and how the need for money was satisfied (copyright The British Museum
Richard Kelleher spotlights the collection of the British Museum’s Department of Coins and Medals with a coin from the East India Company’s period of dominance of trade in the Indian Ocean.

Richard Kelleher spotlights the collection of the British Museum’s Department of Coins and Medals with a coin from The East India Company’s period of dominance of trade in the Indian Ocean. Brand new coin collecting magazine coming soon!

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish trading posts in India and Southeast Asia, and with the trade settlements they established came western-style money which mingled with local traditions. Soon the English and Dutch followed, desperate to share in the lucrative spice trade. The English and Dutch East India Companies would vie for supremacy over the Indian Ocean trade.

Establishment of The East India Company

The East India Company was established by royal sanction on 31 December, 1600, when Queen Elizabeth I granted a Royal Charter to ‘George, Earl of Cumberland, and 215 Knights, Aldermen, and Burgesses’ under the name, Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies. For a period of fifteen years the charter awarded the newly formed company a monopoly on trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan.

In 1684 the East India Company was expelled from Java and the Malabar coast but within three years found a new base at Bencoolen on the west coast of the island of Sumatra (part of modern Indonesia). In 1714 the Company moved three miles south from their base at Fort York and built Fort Marlborough, which became the principal settlement of the Company until the founding of Penang in 1786. It had a convict settlement attached, whose prisoners (most of whom came from India) worked on the Company’s plantations.

Currency for trading

Both the English and Dutch East India Companies produced money for trade modelled on the dominant coin of the area. By this period the Spanish dollar was the ascendant global currency, and could be found in most parts of the world. Although coins were minted by local Sumatran rulers, the incomers preferred a system based on the Spanish dollar and supplemented by foreign coins with known and accepted trade values; such as those from Dutch colonies and the Indian Presidencies.

The first coins struck in Sumatra by the East India Company were based on the Spanish dollar. The silver half-dollar or two suku coin was struck in 1783 and was equivalent to 200 kepings which were struck in copper in denominations of 1, 2, 3 and 4. Four kepings was equal to one cent.

Coin details

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Our coin has on its obverse the heart-shaped ‘balemark’ of the East India Company. The intials ‘V.E.I.C’ stand for the United East India Company. However, the ‘4’ above is a mystery, it has been suggested that it is an altered Cross, changed so as not to offend non-Christians, but this is not certain. The date 1787 below is divided by an oval leaf ornament. The reverse detail is inscribed in Arabic.

At the top is the symbol for 3, below which is written Tiga Keping (= three kepings) and at the bottom is the Hijra date 1202, which commenced on 13 October, 1787. After 1786 all the Company’s Sumatran coins were struck by Matthew Boulton – the English manufacturer and pioneer of steam-powered minting technology. Boulton established the Birmingham Soho mint which was instrumental in improving the state of the English copper currency in the 18th century.

It was the Sumatran coinage that was Boulton’s historic first contract for manufacturing coins, and although he famously established his Soho mint in Birmingham, this had a water-powered rolling mill, but as yet no mint. The first issue was dated 1786 and there were repeat orders in 1787 and 1798, the latter struck by Boulton’s steam machinery.

The East India Company’s base at Fort Marlborough was never the successful enterprise it was hoped to be. The location did not enjoy ready access to the quantities of pepper that would have made it profitable, and the climate was unpopular to Europeans. In 1824 the English settlements on Sumatra were exchanged with the Dutch for territories in India and Malacca, ending the British presence there.

Further reading

F. Pridmore, The Coins of the British Commonwealth of Nations, Part 2: Asian Territories, London 1962.

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