The government and Treasury of St. Helena, in association with the East India Company (EIC), have released a new set of gold coins which chronicles the establishment and history of the East India Company and is entitled the “Empire Collection.”
From its very first voyage in January 1601 until it was dissolved and absorbed into the British Crown in 1874, the East India Company laid the foundation of the British Empire in the East. Through the power bestowed on it by the ruling monarchs of the period, the East India Company became one of the largest bullion traders the world has seen.
Each piece of this magnificent Empire Collection tells the story of the history of the British Empire in the East and features the monarchs’ portraits as they appeared on national or colonial coinage of key ruling English and British monarchs during its establishment. Every gold Proof coin is faithfully designed to reflect the style and appearance of the original coinage of its monarch, creating a heritage series unrivalled in design, detail, and craftsmanship. The series tells the remarkable and unique story of the world’s only trading company with the sole right to issue its own coinage
The 2017-dated, nine-coin gold set is issued by the government and Treasury of St. Helena, who have had a very close and historic association with the EIC. The reverse of each coin depicts a specific English or British monarch—as they appeared on their own national or colonial coinage—who had a very specific link with or influenced the course of the EIC throughout its 274-year history. The obverse of each coin bears the effigy of HM Queen Elizabeth II which was created by the internationally renowned sculptor Raphael Maklouf and used on all British circulation coinage from 1985 to 1997. The following descriptions of the coins are adapted from the website of the East India Company. Hover over each image to enlarge.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 marked the beginning of England’s mastery of the seas and the beginning of an age of colonisation and exploration. Driven by a desire for adventure and money, wealthy merchants, aristocrats, and explorers began searching for new lands. In December 1600, a group of wealthy merchants, under the name Governor and Company of Merchants in London, trading with the East Indies, received from Elizabeth I a royal charter granting them a monopoly on trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan. In 1601, with the full support of the Queen, the East India Company set sail on its first voyage, commanded by Sir James Lancaster. The new commercial entity struggled at first, competing against the already long-established Dutch East India Company (VOC). However, within a few short years, it would see profits grow with factories opening in Bantam, Java, and Surat. The design elements on the reverse of the coin are as follows.
Lettering and beading—Reflecting the style and appearance of lettering found on Elizabeth I’s coinage, the design features irregular beading and lettering.
Red Dragon ship—The Red Dragon set out in February 1601 along with three other vessels, Hector, Susan, and Ascension, carrying with them over £28,000 worth of bullion and £6,000 worth of goods, including wrought iron, crockery, pistols, and spectacles.
Pepper—On its first voyage, the EIC opened its first factory in Bantam. Pepper imported form Java was to play an important part of the company’s trade for over 20 years.
Portcullis—On the insistence of Elizabeth I, a special testern coin was struck by the Royal Mint for the first voyage of the EIC in 1601. Known as “portcullis money,” it was loaded onto company ships in January 1601. They were the first coins issued for the British Empire outside normal English coinage.
Portrait—Inspired by Elizabeth I’s seventh-issue Crown, and designed in the style resembling the minting techniques of the time, the portrait faces the same direction as on all Elizabeth I coinage.
Following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the era of the Stuarts was ushered in with the reign of James I of England. It was a time of gunpowder plots, the Divine Right of Kings, and an insatiable appetite for money. James was an avid supporter of the EIC. In 1609, James I renewed the company’s charter, extending its monopoly on trade for an indefinite period—so long as it remained profitable. In 1612, James I instructed Sir Thomas Roe to visit the Mughal emperor, Jahangir, to secure a treaty giving the company commercial rights to reside and build factories in Surat. Roe began his diplomatic career in India as Ambassador to the court of Emperor Jahangir. In his four years of duty (1614–1618), he furthered the fortunes of the company by building their first official factory in India. The design elements on the reverse of the coin are as follows.
Lettering and beading—Modelled to reflect the style of coin lettering and beading on James I coins at the time.
Rose pattern—Inspired by the design used on the rare “rose ryal” coins of James I, which were introduced during James I’s second coinage. The rose pattern surrounding the portrait and cameo appeared on the reverse of the rose ryal surrounding the royal arms.
Inset cameo of Jahangir—The treaty between the Mughal emperor and James I enabled the company to begin its first official trade with India.
Portrait—Depicting the portrait of James I from his second-coinage double crown, with armoured bust facing right.
Under continuing imperial patronage, the company expanded its trading operations, eclipsing the Portuguese and establishing trading posts in Surat, Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta and securing ports off the coast of China. By 1634, the ruling Mughal emperor extended his hospitality to Bengal, and traded in cotton, silk, indigo dye, saltpetre, and tea. Intense competition with their greatest rival, the Dutch East India Company (VOC), culminated in the first Anglo-Dutch war. During the reign of King Charles II a series of new charters were granted, enhancing the status of the company in India. The right to take and rule territories, to mint money, to command fortresses, to build armies and “make peace and war” was to become the basis for the future rule of the British in India. The marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza delivered the company seven small islands, later to become the city of Bombay. In Britain, tea drinking became fashionable and the start of a lucrative tea trade began. The design elements on the reverse of the coin are as follows.
Tea plant—During the reign of Charles II, tea became an important commodity. Its popularity at home created an increasing demand, which was quickly satisfied by the company’s imports.
Make Peace and War—The title makes reference to Charles II’s charter aimed at strengthening the power of the EIC. These acts provided the company with the rights to autonomous territorial acquisitions, to mint money, to command fortresses and troops and form alliances, to make war and peace, and to exercise both civil and criminal jurisdiction over the acquired areas.
Double C—The double C mark appeared on Charles II English coinage during his reign and can be found merged into Mughal coins minted by the company, especially silver fanams and Sumatra copper cash coins.
Bombay Mint—The Bombay Mint was to become the first mint opened by the EIC in India. Today it is the site of India Government Mint in Mumbai.
In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, William III lost many of the customary rights held by previous English monarchs. He did, however, continue to possess direct control over foreign affairs as well as of the treasury and the armed forces, including where and how British merchants could trade. The continuing war with Louis XIV of France meant royal coffers were low. William needed vital customs and taxes from the East India trade to continue to fund the war. Company shareholders returned to Britain with great wealth, building sprawling estates in the countryside and creating a wealthy merchant class. By 1694 the precious monopoly on trade with the East was deregulated, allowing any English company to trade with India, effectively putting the EIC’s monopoly up for auction. A new, “parallel” company titled the English Company Trading to the East Indies emerged and was granted a royal charter by William III. The design elements on the reverse of the coin are as follows.
Fort William—Named in his honour, Fort William became the main garrison for the British in Calcutta. The old fort was relocated following the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The coin design features the portico and a plan view of the new fort, built by Robert Clive, costing approximately £2 million. Today the fort is used as the headquarters of the Indian Army.
Cinnamon plant—For many years, cinnamon was produced in one region, Ceylon. A highly sought-after spice, it held a prized position on European merchant ships. By 1767, the EIC was to establish a cinnamon plantation in the district of Kerala. This estate became Asia’s largest cinnamon estate.
Portrait—This portrait of King William III is inspired by his 1695 crown, second bust. Facing the same direction as on his coinage and designed to reflect the minting techniques during his reign, it also has single-row beading and lettering complement the design.
Following the death of William III in 1702, the throne passed to Mary’s sister, Anne. The encouragement of the new state-backed, parallel company under William had caused conflict both at home and in India as the battle to dominate trade with the East continued. In September 1702, Queen Anne issued a new charter in a move to unite the old and new companies. It would lead to the emergence of one stronger and united company which was more financially secure. By 1708, both companies had officially merged to form the “United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies,” which was later to become commonly referred to as the EIC. What was to follow during the next decades was a constant see-saw battle between the company and parliament, as the British government sought to restrict and control the company’s growing power. By 1720, fifteen percent of British imports were from India, almost all passing through the new United Company. The design elements on the reverse of the coin are as follows.
United EIC balemark—The company “balemark,” a heart-shaped symbol surmounted by a 4, was introduced following the unification of the company in 1702. It was applied to the company goods for easy identification, eventually representing the integrity and the quality of its wares. In essence it was the forerunner of the modern trademark. The base formed an orb or heart-shaped figure which signified good luck. The company’s initials are incorporated into the base and signify ownership. The VEIC lettering stood for “United,” using the Latin V as a U.
Portrait—This left-facing portrait of Queen Anne is designed to reflect the portrait found on her 1704 half crown. The detail on Anne’s coinage was often much cleaner than that for previous monarchs, which is reflected in this design.
By 1756 the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War diverted British attention towards consolidating all its territories against the growing French threat. In India, Sir Robert Clive was tasked with defeating the Nawab of Bengal, Sirajud Daulahand and his French allies. In 1757, following the Black Hole of Calcutta incident, Clive triumphed at the Battle of Plassey, capturing the French fort, Chandanagar, and securing Calcutta. Considered the most important event in the company’s history, it was a colossal vistory even though the battle lasted only 40 minutes. It secured company rule in Bengal, the richest of all presidencies, laying the foundation for British rule in India. Clive rebuilt Fort William as the company headquarters, which along with Fort St. George in Madras and Bombay Castle, demonstrated the supreme power of the British in India. Over the next few decades, the EIC would become the single largest trading organisation in the world. The design elements on the reverse of the coin are as follows.
Battle of Plassey—Considered the most significant event in India, the success of Sir Robert Clive during the Battle of Plassey became a turning point in company history. The compensation awarded to the British following the battle included the crucial awarding of diwani rights—the right to collect revenues and decide civil cases. Company rule was officially acknowledged in the Bengal presidency and its control over India was cemented.
Portrait—Inspired by George II’s 1758 shilling, this portrait is designed to complement the style of the coins minted at the time and faces in the same direction as on his coinage. The beading and lettering reflect the fashion during his reign.
After the death of his father in 1760, George III was faced with a period of political instability. The company’s new role in India after the Battle of Plassey meant it was drawn increasingly into politics. In Britain, the company gained a reputation of corruption. Under George III, the first of the EIC Regulating Acts was passed. Parliament and the Crown established substantial control. Company land was formally recognised as under the control of the Crown. The governer general of Bengal, Warren Hastings, was awarded administrative powers over all of British India. By the beginning of the 1800’s expensive wars and administration had strained the company’s finances. It was forced to turn to the Crown for financial assistance. The resulting Charter Act of 1813 revoked the company’s precious monopoly except for tea and trade with China. The design elements on the reverse of the coin are as follows.
Coat-of-arms-inspired design—The Battle of Plassey (1757) and the Battle of Buxar (1764–1765) led to the firm establishment of territorial dominance of the EIC in India. The Regulating Acts sought to control the company, which had morphed from a merchant company to a semi-sovereign political entity. The company coat of arms completes the design, symbolising the struggle between company and Crown and the evolving power of the British in India.
Spade guinea—The spade-guinea reference symbolises the role of the famous guinea during this age of trade and conquest. The last circulating guinea type was issued between 1787 and 1799 by King George III. It was referred to as the “spade” guinea after the shape of the shield of the royal arms on the reverse.
Portrait—This portrait of King George III is taken from the 1797 “cartwheel” penny, with the effigy facing to the right as found on the coinage of the monarch.
Company rule in India continued with an increasing centralisation of power. Parliamentary reform and the Industrial Revolution dominated William IV’s reign, with merchants searching for new markets in which to ply their machine-age goods. Open trade produced a widespread spirit of independence. After significant social and political changes in England, the Charter Act of 1833 was introduced. The act gave the company a new lease on life, allowing it to continue to rule for another 20 years subject to the trust of the king. The enactment of the Coinage Act of 1835 decreed a uniform coinage for all the territories under British administration. Newly designed coins with the effigy of William IV on the obverse were issued in India as a statement of British power. Most significantly, the company lost its monopoly on Chinese trade, resulting in a “tea race” as ships from other companies competed to transport tea via some of the most important eastern trade routes. The design elements on the reverse of the coin are as follows.
Mohur coin—Following the 1835 Coinage Act, the EIC adopted the mohur as the highest gold denomination in India’s currency system. Weighing a “tola,” the lion-and-palm-tree mohur has become synonymous with the colonial period in India. Its western design was chosen by the company to reflect the power and strength of the Crown, represented by the striding regal lion, and the exotic landscape of the East, by the palm tree.
Portrait—This portrait of William IV is taken from the 1835 mohur coin. With the portrait facing to the right, as found on his coinage, the design features the same beading and lettering style found on the lion-and-palm-tree mohur.
The continued insistence of the British on transforming the religious beliefs in India caused increasing conflict in the colony. Meddling in religion was simply bad for business. High taxes, the loss of land, and rumours of the use of animal fat in the cartridges of new rifles fuelled the fire. In May 1857, local soldiers or “sepoys” in Bengal, the largest of the company’s army, shot their British officers and marched on Delhi. Compounded by famine and the annexing of several states and rulers, along with years of underlying discontent, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 began. Following the uprising, Victoria’s parliament passed the Government of India Act of 1858, officially ending the EIC’s role in India and transferring its assets and governance to the British Crown. The British Empire was at the height of its power. Queen Victoria, Empress of India, ruled over countries stretched far around the globe, covering approximately one-quarter of the world’s population. The design elements on the reverse of the coin are as follows.
Crown—The EIC set Queen Victoria’s crown with the most precious jewel, Koh-i-Noor, crowning her empress of India. This precious jewel, meaning “Mountain of Light,” was a diamond that was confiscated from Duleep Singh in 1850 by the EIC. It is now on display at the Tower of London.
Portrait—This portrait of Victoria is taken from her beautiful Imperial-issue 1862 mohur, struck at the Calcutta Mint. The crowned-bust effigy faces the same direction as on the original. The portrait is surrounded by the intricate pattern found on the 1862 mohur reverse.
|£1||.999 gold||8 g||25 mm||Proof||500 sets|
Production of the Empire Collection is strictly limited to 500 sets worldwide. Each set consists of nine gold, Proof-quality coins that tell the story of the world’s most famous company. Each complete set is housed in a numbered luxury presentation box with engraved certificate of authenticity, along with a detailed presentation booklet describing the unique ways each monarch shaped the course of the East India Company throughout its 274-year history.
Please visit the website of the East India Company for additional information on this limited-edition gold coin set. ❑