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West Indies Coins

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One of the most interesting and unusual series of coins resulted from the shortage of currency in the islands of the West Indies in the latter part of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. It became the practice here to counterstamp coins of various countries to make them legal tender on the islands or, alternatively, to cut them to satisfy the need for small change which in most instances the country owning the island neglected to supply. Owing to the close proximity of these islands to the American continent, it is not surprising that the coin most commonly used for this practice was the eight-real piece, together with its fractions, minted in New Spain, although French and Portuguese coins were also used. The coins were originally brought to the islands by traders or the pirates who were often based in the Caribbean, Jamaica being particularly favoured by the latter.

During the seventeenth century the Spanish dollar of eight reales was generally accepted at 4s 6d, but in some instances it was reckoned at Ss or equal to one English crown. The dollars were divided into fractions, the denominations of which varied from island to island, this being due to the fact that each island's accounts were kept in the currency of the country to which it belonged; Britain, France, Spain or Holland. Usually, the real or `bit' as it was known, was worth between 7ld and 9d, but in some cases it was worth very much less than this, there sometimes being as many as thirteen bits to one dollar.

There is no space here to detail all the various types of cut and counterstamped pieces that have been issued. Foremost amongst them are the coins counterstamped for Jamaica (Nos. 1 and 2) where four different counterstamps were used. No cut coins were necessary on this island as ample supplies of small change were available from Britain.

Martinique was originally a French possession, but during the English occupation commencing in 1797 the dollar and its fractions were pierced with a heart-shaped hole, both the resultant `ring' and `plug' being passed as currency. Nos. 4 and 8 illustrate both a ring and a plug used in circulation, in this case for Guadeloupe, the ring being current for five livres and the plug for twenty sons.

The island of St Lucia where the French system of accounting was also used is interesting in that no ring dollars were made here, all coins being cut and then counterstamped.

Some of the commonest of the counterstamped coins are those that were produced for use in Tortola in the Leeward Island group, sometimes known as `the Saints'. No. 5 shows an example of a dollar of Charles IV cut in half and stamped TIATILLA together with the letter `s' repeated three times.