Learn about Australia's Proclamation Coins

The definition of what constitutes a “proclamation coin” has been the subject of conjecture in Australian numismatics for many years.  Given the not insignificant body of work that covers this section of our numismatic heritage, one would have thought that the term had been more than adequately defined several times over already.

As one that deals with collectors active in this field on a very regular basis, I can confirm that just what defines a proclamation coin remains a question of some concern for many collectors as they become familiar with the field of Australian colonial coinage.

A narrow understanding of what constitutes a proclamation coin is only a concern if collectors draw incorrect conclusions about the flows of capital and the character of trade in colonial Australia as a result, and I believe this is the case at present.The Coinage of Colonial Australia Book

One could argue that by assuming a relatively narrow understanding of the term “proclamation coin”, many collectors (incorrectly) believe that the only specie accepted in trade in colonial Australia were those coins officially proclaimed by the colonial government, and by extension that colonial merchants were accepting of other constraints imposed by the government. Any experienced numismatic researcher is well aware that this was certainly not the case.

Origins of The Term

So where did the term “proclamation coin” originate from, and why has it been so broadly accepted? Given the results of my research on this so far, I assert that the origin is uncertain, although it seems to have entered common usage late in the 20th century.

  • Hyman in 1893 certainly did not make any reference to the term; instead referring to “foreign” coinage in the Sydney Gazette and elsewhere;
  • Dr Arthur Andrews did not use the term in 1921, and instead discussed the “Coins Current in the Early Days of Australia”;
  • Heyde did not even cover the period in his modest title “Coins” of 1944;
  • The term is absent from the 1954 catalogue of the Sir Reginald Marcus Clark collection prepared by the auctioneers James R. Lawson (Pty Ltd);
  • John Gartner did not cover the period in his “Australian Coin Catalogues” of 1964 & 1965;
  • Hanley & James did not use the term in their book “Collecting Australian Coins” of 1966;
  • Roger McNeice does not mention the term in his work “Coins & Tokens of Tasmania” in 1969;
  • Spalding did not make use it in his work “The World of the Holey Dollar” in 1973;
  • Dion Skinner first makes space for the series in the “Rennik’s Australian Coin and Banknote Guide” in the 7th Edition of 1973, perhaps building on an article that appeared in the Australian Coin Review in October, 1964i, entitled “Australia’s Proclamation Money”.
  • Estella Robinsonii (in 1978) and Greg McDonaldiii (in 1983) & both made use of the term (in the correct context) in their respective publications; confirming that the term “proclamation coin” had entered common usage by the late 1970’s, becoming almost a de facto descriptor of all coinage that circulated in colonial Australia.
  • In his 1981 work “Coinage and Currency in New South Wales”, Dr Bill Mira obviously correctly defines the use of the term “proclamation currency” as denoting “all those (coins) specifically listed by the authoritiesiv”. Although the term should include all coins covered by official proclamations, this treatment is in application unfortunately somewhat impractical.

No definitive list of Proclamations and General Orders issued by the colonial governors of NSW is readily available to collectors: a survey of the archives of the State Records of NSW confirms the existence of 12 currency-related pronouncements issued between 1788 and 1825. At least one proclamation is known earlier than November; 1800: that setting the official value of the Spanish dollar at five shillings in September 1791v. NSW State Archives staff believe that this document, as well as many others from the period, were destroyed during the Rum Rebellion and the Interregnum period following it.

This lack of official documentation ensures that the acceptance of a relatively broad definition will be limited. Furthermore, the decrees that have survived covered the same coins on more than one occasion: a definitive list then becomes difficult to compile, even when the facts are at hand.

Refering to the Ten Coins Listed By Governor Kings Decree 1800

In my opinion, the most practical application of the term “proclamation coin” is to use it to refer to the ten coins listed by Governor King’s decree of November 19th, 1800, and to those ten coins alone. Although it was neither the first nor the last pronouncement regarding currency issued between 1788 and 1825, Governor King’s edict of 1800 was easily the most comprehensive, and certainly the most widely referred to. If this understanding is adopted, novice numismatists will be able to use it as an entry point into the admittedly complex field of Australian colonial coinage.

1787 Shilling

How then can novice collectors more easily understand the full scope of coins seen by the early colonists of Australia? For, as Dr Arthur Andrews write in 1921: “Many foreign coins as well as British issues were current in Australia during the early years of settlement …. almost any coin passing for the value of its metal content when at all near purity.vi”

The economic historian, Edward Shann, in his book “An Economic History of Australia”, argued that it was “the free activity of the free” that was the driving force behind the economic development of colonial Australia.

If this point of view is correct, Shann’s statement indicates that it was the preparedness of the colony’s first merchants and traders to accept risk that saw the colony grow from penal settlement to eventually become a self-sufficient settlement.

As Governor King had laid out the values at which ten specific coins were to be accepted in trade, a colonial merchant enjoyed zero risk in accepting them: their value had been set by proclamation. I believe the majority of the transactions that involved specie would have been conducted along these lines, however there is little of Shann’s “free activity of the free” in this understanding.

It is when a solid gold or silver coin not in King’s list was offered in trade that the merchant’s entrepreneurial character would have again been demonstrated. One of the first prominent authors on the topic of enterprise, the Irish banker and economist Richard Cantillon, defined entrepreneurs (in 1755) as those “who buy at a certain price, and sell at an uncertain price.”

By accepting a coin not listed in King’s proclamation, a colonial merchant would effectively have been selling his goods at an uncertain price – the liquidity and value of a non-proclaimed coin would have been determined solely by other merchants in the market, as opposed to a government regulation. The question then becomes: Just how often would merchants in colonial Australia have been prepared to accept non-proclaimed coins in trade?

Risks of Relocation

It defies logic that someone that had already risked their livelihood and the well-being of their family by relocating to a penal outpost quite literally on the far side of the world; ploughed their life savings into a completely new business venture and staked significant amounts of their capital on perishable stock would have suddenly stopped accepting risk completely when it came to the form of payment they received.

It defies belief that an emancipated convict that had turned his hand to trade, was building wealth through hard work, wits and perseverance be greatly concerned about accepting specie not on a prescribed list laid out by the Governor, providing of course it was familiar, and of sound weight and purity.

Although accurate and verifiable evidence on this topic is relatively scant, there are records demonstrating that numerous coins outside those proclaimed by the colonial government were encountered by or related to Australian colonists prior to 1825. Some of the more notable records are:

David Collins describes members of the First Fleet paying residents at the Cape of Good Hope in Rix-dollars and ducatoons for board and food while on the outbound trip to NSWviii;

Watkin Tench: describes members of the First Fleet encountering “vintins”and “petacks” when in Rio de Janeiroix;
Coleman P. Hyman ventures his opinion that “it is impossible to know which of the mohurs is referred tox”, meaning coins from either Bombay or Bengal could have been seen on our shores. He also recounts an article in an edition of the Sydney Gazette issued in July 1803 covering the theft of (among other things) “several pieces of silver foreign coinxi.”

Hyman further comments on the relevance of the silver “bit” found in the Dangar collection to the specie of colonial NSWxii, and on this theme, Philip Spalding recounts the story of the exiled rebel Irish General Joseph Holt, who very shortly after his arrival in NSW, received in change “three small pieces of silver in a triangular shape, the value of which I do not knowxiii.” Spalding fails to note the primary source of information for this comment, however it is quite likely that it is to be found in one of the four major works covering the life of Joseph Holt.

Spalding notes the conversion of Spanish dollars into token coinage for use at the Dutch colony of Bataviaxiv, and also the “Ship Guilders” of 1802xv, but does not describe any of these coins being in use in New South Wales.
A Tasmanian Government and General Order dated December 31st, 1825 covered the rate at which certain coins would be provided to British Troops serving in the Colonies, if British silver coinage happened to be unavailable to the paymaster. The coins listed in this Government Order included the French five and two franc; the Sicilian scudo, 40 grains and 20 grains; the dollar of the United States of America and the rupees of Bombay and Suratxvi.

Spalding recounts a well-known tale regarding the first man to be hanged on Australian soil: the young Thomas Barrett. Barrett passed off a forged “quarter dollar” (Spanish two reale) piece while the First Fleet was anchored at Rio de Janeiroxvii.

Spalding surmises that, with the expansion in trade following the appointment of (Lieutenant) John Macarthur in 1790, increased numbers of the prevailing gold trade coins of the day would have been seen on our shores, coins such as: “the Escudos and Reis of Portgual and Brazil…. The world-wide Spanish ‘Dubloon’, the Louis D’Or of France, and later gold coins from several provinces where the East India Company had established trading postsxviii.” He further surmises that “in the pockets of visiting seamen, there must have been silver coins of France and Portugal: the silver ecus of the former, or a cruzado, picked up in Rioxix.”

Roger McNeice notes that there were “large quantities of German Thalers circulating in Hobart Town during the latter 1820’s from the various ships that discharged cargo at Hobart itself.” McNeice cites an article in the Tasmanian Colonial Times dated August 14th, 1829 as evidence of German Thalers circulating in Tasmaniaxx. McNeice also recounts the decision by a committee under Governor Arthur not to legalize the tender of dollars from the United States, clearly indicating that these coins were seen at least in modest numbers in Tasmaniaxxi.

A later notice in the Hobart Town Gazette stated: “the American and Mexican dollars will be taken as usual” by the local banksxxii. The fact that the same notice mentioned that banks objected to receiving (silver) French five francs confirms that these coins were sighted there, and accepted by some within the colony.

A NSW Government and General Order of December 7th, 1816 stated that copper pence dated later than 1800 (and logically prior to 1816) was legal tender at face valuexxiii. This would indicate that the copper pennies of 1806 were seen in NSW, and perhaps by extension the copper halfpence and farthings.

CONCLUSION

This modest list of “non-proclamation” coinage known to be related to the history of colonial Australia has been compiled following a reasonably brief survey of the most readily available sources on the topic, and I am quite certain that a more comprehensive list could be built with a more thorough investigation of general historical works relating to colonial Australia.

As this research is conducted, there is little doubt that numismatists and all Australians will arrive at a more complete understanding of Australia’s first entrepreneurs: that they were men and women prepared to risk their livelihoods at every stage of the business process, including the type of coins they would receive as payment, all for the prospect of an uncertain return.