By Jérôme Jambu (Visiting Professor, Eric P. Newman Graduate Summer Seminar in Numismatics) for American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……
As American numismatists and collectors of the colonial period know, it is difficult to differentiate coins of the Kingdom of France sent to America from those produced specifically for this region.
It is equally difficult to name these coins, determine their value, and attribute them to a specific place.
There are two main reasons for this: the difficult access of Americans to archives written in French, scattered throughout the country; and the little interest shown by the French people – a large number of whom have forgotten their history in the New World. However, the cross-referencing of available data is necessary to understand these coins and reclassify them, as Sydney F. Martin began (Martin, 2015) one hundred years after Ernest Zay (Zay, 1892).
A couple of examples can illustrate this problem.
First, for more than 300 years, French, Canadian, and American numismatists gave the 5- and 15-sol “Gloriam Regni” coins (Fig. 1), struck in 1670, to “New France” (and particularly to Canada) because of an error of attribution by Le Blanc in 1690, always repeated without being interrogated. Although some of these coins had effectively circulated in this area, we are today sure–due to the recent discovery of unpublished French documents–that they were created specifically for the French West Indies (Jambu, 2021).
The “sou” or “sol marqué” reflects another problem. This designation includes a variety of different coins. In France, the nickname “marqué” was attributed to sols reformed with a countermark in 1640. It was used in the French colonies and today by Americans for several types of sols: those countermarked in 1640, some without countermark, the series produced between 1738 and 1764 (Fig. 2), etc. Furthermore, not one of these coins was created especially for French America — not even the sols reformed in 1640 and those created in 1738, contrary to the opinion expressed by authors on both sides of the Atlantic. They have just been sent to the colonies, when necessary, like so many other coins. French coins in America are not French American coins.
It is because of this type of misinterpretation that we are making a general clarification on this subject.
We are, for example, preparing an article about the sols with ANS curator Jesse C. Kraft. In fact, numismatists should know that all the coins produced and circulating in the Kingdom were, at some time or other, represented in the colonies—and even without being authorized by the king to do so! Of course, the authorities preferred to use “American” coins”; i.e., issued from the Latin continent, such as Spanish silver piasters and Portuguese gold moëdes, recovered in abundance through trade. Nevertheless, in case of necessity and for certain expenses, such as the pay of officers and the navy, France could send its own money, such as in the famous case of the Chameau‘s treasure, which sank off Cape Breton in 1725. This, however, was an exceptional case, not a recurring one.
French coins made specifically for American colonies are in truth very few. They are only small coins. The 5- and 15-sol coins dated 1670 were the first in silver, followed only by the 6- and 12-sol coins dated 1731–1732. These second ones clearly show through their legend, “Isles du Vent” (Windward Islands), they were made for the Lesser West Indies (Fig. 4). Like the previous issue, these were used to break the high-valued piastres with a too-strong purchasing power, and which circulated in abundance. Even though, once again, they may have migrated to other areas, especially because the monarchy had given them a too-low price.
Three other creations are related to copper small change, and they were hardly successful.
The 6- and 12-denier coins for the “colonies” were not made for a long time in Perpignan (1717), due to insufficient material and poor-quality metal. A few were shipped to the continent, in New France.
The 9-denier “Colonies françoises” coins, minted in La Rochelle and Rouen in 1721–1722, are one part of a larger program (Fig. 5): denominations of 4½ and 18 deniers were imagined as well as produced in Bordeaux and La Rochelle. Canada accepted a few of them, though with distrust. Only Louisiana welcomed them before finally returning some to France a few years later. They were better received in the 13 British North American colonies… and subsequently in the Indian Ocean French colonies!
Finally, the “Colonies françoises” copper coins from 1767, despite their vague legend, were only intended for Lesser West Indies and immediately refused. Martinique charged them on ships going to France, and Guadeloupe stored these coins, only to counterstamp and use them during the Revolution (1793). Copper coins did not successfully circulate in the Caribbean, which was accustomed to precious metals, and the continent could hardly be satisfied with it. To understand this, one must keep in mind that French people were particularly mercantilist and bullionist, and abhorred any kind of fiat money, as the state had abused paper money (bills from the Bank of Law in France; card money in Canada).
Coinage had to be silvered in the French American colonies, even a little, i.e., in billon, which explains the success of all kinds of “marked sols”. The government understood this when it decided, in 1763, to mark with a simple crowned C, meaning “French Colonies”, and not Cayenne. For planchets, they used all those “sol marqués” produced since 1738 that were too worn to circulate in France, to make savings (Fig. 6a). This process was called “estampage”, hence the nickname of “sol tampé” in French and “stamped sol” in English.
The success, in a French America reduced to the West Indies after the Treaty of Paris, was instant. They were so successful that new ones had to be made on new blanks from 1780 onwards (Fig. 6b)—the first shipment was reserved for newly-settled Guyana. Meanwhile, the British made considerable quantities of counterfeits in brass (Fig. 6c) during the wars of the Revolution (1797–1798).
All the French royal coins could have been in circulation in the American colonies; American collectors (from the United States, Canada, Caribbean Islands, and Guyana) can regard them all! But if they are looking for coins specifically made for these colonies, there are only a few.
Moreover, many which have been considered coins of French Canada need to be reclassified for specific islands in the West Indies. Indeed, the French Empire was admittedly extensive, but New France was as empty of Europeans as it was sparsely monetarized, and much of it was lost to the British in 1763. Its rich heart was in the West Indies, for which most of these coins were designed and where they circulated en masse.
The author wishes to thank ANS curator Jesse Kraft for assistance in editing the English.
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J. Jambu. 2021. “The Coins Made “for the Islands and Mainland of America” for the French West India Company (1670)”, JEAN 4.1: 1-28.
______. Forthcoming. « Il n’y a point d’endroit dans l’univers où les monnaie aient plus souvent varié ». Monnaies et substituts dans les îles de l’Amérique française (Petites Antilles, v. 1625-v. 1830), mémoire inédit d’Habilitation à Diriger les Recherches, Université Paris 1-Panthéon-Sorbonne, 2021.
M. Le Blanc. 1690. Traité historique des monnoyes de France. Paris: Jombert.
S. F. Martin. 2015. French Coinage Specifically for Colonial America. Ann Arbor: The Colonial Coin Collectors Club.
E. Zay. 1892. Histoire monétaire des colonies françaises d’après les documents officiels. Paris: Montorier.
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