Cabinet of Curiosities

A Penny For Your Thoughts

James II ‘gunmoney’ shilling 1689

When James’s II arrived in Ireland in 1689 to prepare for the showdown with his estranged son-in-law King William, in what would manifest as the Battle of the Boyne the following year, he was somewhat strapped for cash. Wars are a costly pastime and as a means of paying his army he ordered that coins be struck from base metals. Defunct cannons were melted down in numbers for this purpose and is the origin of the name ‘gunmoney’ for this series of coins. In fact other metal objects including church bells were also used. In denominations of crowns, halfcrowns, shillings and sixpences, the coins were struck in mints in Dublin and Limerick. The plan was that his supporters would exchange them for silver coins once victory had been secured. Unfortunately for the Stuart king, this never came to fruition and the men who had fought for him were left out of pocket. The coins were initially devalued, and then later completely banned, by King William and his wife Mary. The coin here is a James II shilling and was struck in October 1689. The obverse of the coin features his profile and bears the Latin inscription ‘JACOBUS II : DEI GRATIA’ – ‘James II : by the Grace of God’.

From the leafy banks of the River Boyne on July 1st 1690, our attention is now drawn to a military engagement in quite a different league 226 years later in France. The first day of the Battle of the Somme took place on July 1st 1916. Fourteen divisions of British troops held a 23 km long front. The 120,000 soldiers waited anxiously in their trenches for the order to ‘go over’.  If the Allies had been successful in pushing through the German lines this would have been a decisive action in the war. Unfortunately, it failed. On the first day alone there were over 60,000 British casualties, of which 20,000 were killed. The Battle of the Somme dragged on for another five months. The British Army sustained a total of 420,000 casualties by the end of the offensive, with a figure of around 500,000 for the Germans. It was a staggering price to be paid in human terms for the mere six miles of ground that had been gained. This 1912 penny was recovered from the Somme Battlefield. It was struck by a bullet which, although inflicting damage, did not pass through the coin. A split second in this world conflict frozen in the dented metal and carrying with it a gossamer-fragile hope that it may have saved its owner. A lucky penny perhaps!

A ‘lucky’ penny !
Copper ore, Allihies, Co. Cork

Copper has been mined in Ireland since the Bronze Age around 2,400 BC. A green patina forms when the metal weathers and so its presence in a rock body was easy to spot by prehistoric prospectors. Early metalsmiths blended copper with small amounts of tin to produce the alloy bronze, from which a wide range of tools, weapons and other everyday items were made.

Fuelled by European colonial expansionism between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, a lucrative trade in slaves developed from which vast wealth was generated. Ships with cargoes of guns, cloth and base metals, to be used for buying slaves, journeyed from Europe to Africa. With their human cargo stowed, the same ships then sailed across to the Americas where the poor unfortunates were sold to plantation owners. The final leg of the journey saw the ships return to Britain and other European countries laden with coffee, cocoa, sugar, cotton and tobacco. This combined route is referred to as the Triangular Trade.

Manilla slave token, mid-19th century

In 1843 a slave ship called the ‘Duoro’ sank off the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, on its way to the western coast of Africa. In its hold was a large consignment of ‘manillas’, a type of slave token. Local chiefs were involved in the gathering of fellow Africans who were then exchanged on a barter system for a range of different commodities, one of which was the manilla. These bronze ‘bracelets’ were made in Birmingham and exchanged by the traders for slaves. They were worn as jewellery or a sign of status and also melted down for their metal. This manilla was recovered from the wreck of the Duoro.