OPINION: Understand our coins, understand our past


02 December 2020
Our hobby offers so much, writes Matt Hill. Each piece sheds light on subjects such as art, geography, politics, literature, and history. Take any coin in your collection and there’s very likely an intriguing story to be told. We’re not simply ticking pieces off a ‘wants list’ we’re preserving and re-telling our past…

In light of the racial tensions we saw come to the fore in 2020, the historical element of our past time seems very topical. In recent months we have seen a growing demand for us to re-evaluate our imperial history – seen most dramatically in protests and in a few cases the pulling down of statues – as firstly America and then the world struggled to come to terms with systemic racism.

Many complain that the British Empire is rarely taught in schools, that we have an inaccurate idea of Empire, and that we simply don’t consider the historical events that influence us all today… we only need to look at our coins to see this difficult past reflect back at us.

Should we collect colonial coins?

Two in-depth articles in issue 9 of Coin Collector touch on this subject as we discover the story of the short-lived British Trade Dollar, in an article from Dr Kevin Clancy, Director of the Royal Mint Museum, and find out about the metal in British coins, which is more often than not from far-off shores where we once held sway. 

So is exploring these subjects and collecting the coins something we should now be avoiding in a bid for equality?

Quite the opposite.

As Professor Ashley Jackson, an expert in the history of the British Empire, says, the key is to acknowledge and address our past.

‘As recent events have underlined very, very firmly, the imperial past of any nation is a hugely controversial field,’ he explains. ‘There is no one-size-fits-all Empire, which was entirely good or entirely bad… some people benefit from Empire, other people clearly don’t… What I think is important is that it’s not so much the debate about whether the Empire was good or bad and trying to rewrite the past, it’s just understanding its importance.’

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Cons can tell us how world history was shaped

The articles in Coin Collector, and the collecting of pieces from any empire is not a comment on the rights or wrongs of imperialism, but could help shed light on our past and explain how world history was shaped. 

It may sound obvious to many readers, but the idea that a coin depicting a British monarch was made using metals from Spain, Africa or India, and that its history could be closely linked to the slave trade, is something many of us might not initially consider.

This simple fact provides us with the perfect example of numismatics recording history for future generations. And we’re very proud to bring you these expert guides here at www.allaboutcoins.co.uk and in each issue of Coin Collector, as we all learn about the art, politics, and history of the world, and strive to make a better future for everyone.

Image caption: a token issued in 1787 for the British Society for Suppression of the Slave Trade featuring the enscription ‘Am I not a man and a brother’ above a kneeling slave, covered with chains.

Share your views

What do you think? Should we avoid collecting coins with connections to the slave trade, for example? 
Let us know what you think by emailing us.

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