Coins and Colonisation

What can a coin tell us about colonisation?
Published on 26 May 2023


Kirsty Parsons, Exhibition Manager

How can a coin tell us more about the relationship between the Bank of England, British colonialism and transatlantic slavery?

In the 1600s, Britain and other European nations violently colonised Caribbean countries and imposed the exploitative system of plantation slavery. The Bank of England provided loans to the British government, which funded colonial wars in the 1750-60s to expand the British Empire. This linked the Bank to transatlantic slavery through its involvement in the wider financial system. Some of the Bank of England’s customers were also heavily involved in colonialism elsewhere, like the East India Company (EIC). Formed in 1600, the EIC focused on the spice trade in Southeast Asia and India, eventually becoming key to Britain’s colonisation of these countries. A lesser-known aspect of the EIC’s history is that the EIC trafficked hundreds of enslaved people, mostly from Madagascar to Indonesia.

Transatlantic slavery and the slave trade supported British colonialism, expanding Britain’s trade links as well as its power and influence by seizing control of other countries. Part of Britain’s colonial rule in places like the Caribbean was introducing British currency. But making new coins was expensive and time consuming. To speed up the process, existing coins from one country could be made into legal currency in another by adding a stamp mark in a process called countermarking. Coins were stamped with special marks to make them a valid form of currency in different Caribbean countries. Most of these coins are Spanish 8 reales, also known as silver dollars or pieces of eight. These were minted in huge quantities in Spanish colonies in the Americas, and were an important trading currency during this period.

The wealth generated through these colonies was often achieved through the labour of enslaved Africans. Let’s take a look at a few examples of our coins on display in our exhibition Slavery & the Bank to see what they reveal about the history of the Caribbean and British colonialism.

Countermarked coin for use in St Vincent, about 1797-1811. Bank of England Museum: T537

In the 1600s, the Garifuna people established a community on the Caribbean island of St Vincent. They were descended from indigenous Kalinago-Taino people and recent African arrivals who had escaped plantation slavery in Barbados. Referred to by British colonisers as ‘Black Caribs’, they resisted many attempts by the British, Dutch and French to settle on St Vincent until they were eventually exiled by the British in 1796. Britain then colonised the island, establishing plantations producing sugar, coffee and cotton which were worked by enslaved people. 

This coin is part of an 8 reales silver coin, which has been stamped with ‘SV’ three times to allow it to be circulated in St Vincent. The coin was deliberately broken, as larger coins were sometimes cut into smaller pieces to create smaller values of currency.

Countermarked coin for use in St Lucia, about 1813. Bank of England Museum: T536

St Lucia was first colonised by the British in 1605, though it was fought over by the British and the French almost continuously until 1814, when British control was fully established. This is a segment of an 8 reales, a Spanish colonial silver coin, stamped with ‘ST LUCIE’ to allow it to be used in St Lucia.

Countermarked coin for use in Jamaica, about 1757. Bank of England Museum: T424

This coin was originally produced for circulation in Peru and was later countermarked for use in Jamaica while it was under British colonial rule. The British captured Jamaica in 1655, establishing plantations worked by enslaved Africans. Harsh working conditions and disease meant the life of the enslaved there was brutal and short. Despite this, by the 1680s, enslaved people made up more than half of the total population.


Countermarked coin for use in Tobago, about 1797. Bank of England Museum: T425

The octagonal hole punched through the centre of this coin reduced its weight, making it equivalent to a British 9 shillings coin. It was countermarked for use by the British in Tobago. The British imposed plantation slavery on Tobago, turning it into a sugar colony from 1763 to 1813. Britain and France frequently fought for control of the island.

Countermarked coin for use in Martinique, about 1719. Bank of England Museum: T535

This silver 2 reales coin was originally produced for circulation in Spain, but was later countermarked by the French for use in Martinique, which had been colonised by the French but was attacked by the British many times throughout its history. Britain’s longest rule over Martinique was from 1794 to 1802.

These coins help reveal the relationship between transatlantic slavery, colonialism, and the British economy. To see these coins for yourself and learn more about the Bank of England’s links with transatlantic slavery, visit our exhibition Slavery & the Bank.