The other day I was browsing through lots in a coin auction and spotted a very interesting silver restrike 1780 Maria Theresa Taler with clove countermarks from Pemba Island, off the coast of modern-day Tanzania.
Maria Theresa talers (or thalers) feature an obverse bust of Maria Theresa, commonly referred to as the Holy Roman Empress, a reverse image of the double-headed imperial eagle, and silver content of 0.75 troy ounces, at a fineness of 0.833. They were restruck in many locations for almost two centuries, always dated 1780, and circulated widely as trade coins, especially in Arab and African countries. Although I have not examined this particular coin in hand, visible details* suggest that it was minted in London, Bombay, Calcutta, or Birmingham sometime during 1936-51.
In a nicely done website about Theresa talers, Walter Hafner relates that around 1872, Pemba’s governors countermarked talers and rupees with the clove marks, which symbolize the island’s cash crop and contain the Arabic characters for Pemba. Obviously, if my identification of the coin’s mint date is correct, the appearance of the countermarks is very curious, since their documented use predates the existence of the coin on which they here appear! Hafner provides an interesting discussion of the various countermarks and their possible origins.
Pemba Island is one of several islands in the Zanzibar Archipelago, and was variously a part of the Arab Sultanate of Oman and a Portuguese colony before it became a British protectorate in the 1890s, during the period of European expansion into and exploitation of Africa, primarily as an effort to wipe out the slave trade. The British relinquished control in 1963. After revolutionaries overthrew the Sultan of Zanzibar during the bloody Zanzibar Revolution of 1964, Pemba, along with the rest of the Zanzibar Archipelago, became part of Tanzania.
With the possible exceptions of corrugated iron roofs and motor scooters, many conditions on Pemba Island have reverted to those existing before the British arrived. Corruption, violence against women and persons with albinism, female genital mutilation, and trafficking in humans and child labor are ongoing problems throughout Tanzania. Pemba Island boasts several posh private resorts for tourists and a billboard advertises friendly cellphone service, but only 20% of households in Tanzania as a whole have electricity. Sporadic attacks on Westerners, most recently acid attacks in 2013 on two British teenagers and a Roman Catholic priest, make tourism in the Zanzibar Archipelago a dicey proposition. Inadequate agriculture, fishing, and medicinal techniques remain problems: according to this 2008 documentary about Pemba Island, most basic foods are imported and 10% of the island’s children die before reaching school age.
“In this way, both of our nations will be looking after all of our children and we’ll be living out the vision of President Nyerere,” US President Obama said recently in a toast to Julius Nyerere, the founding president of post-colonial Tanzania. President Obama’s remarks took place during a visit to Tanzania in July 2013, at a state dinner in Dar-es-Salaam.
According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, Nyerere’s one-party state “nationalized key industries and created ujamaa, a rural, collective village-based movement of ‘African socialism’ and ‘self-reliance.'” Under Nyerere, Tanzania, which had been the largest exporter of food in Africa, and also had always been able to feed its people, become the largest importer of food in Africa. Many sectors of the economy collapsed. There was a virtual breakdown in transportation. Goods such as toothpaste became virtually unobtainable.
Quite an interesting coin. The uncertainty of its origin and mint date, together with the rare countermark that apparently predates its existence, present a mystery that leads in many directions over several continents and centuries, not always to pleasant destinations. As for the toasted vision, Nyerere himself recognized it was a failure and retired. I hope the vision for the future of Pemba Island, Zanzibar, and Tanzania, as well as the United States, proves to be much brighter than the one toasted in Dar-es-Salaam.
* Obverse: 8 pearls in diadem, shoulder brooch obscured by countermark, “S.F.” signature; Reverse: number of pearls in crown obscured by wear, no signature, “. X” cross/saltire, 1-2-1 tail feather arrangement.
- Pemba (Clove Island): British Colony Countermarked Taler, Heritage Weekly World and Ancient Coin Auction #231342, Lot 64140, accessed 16 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/lluravo
- Maria Theresa Thaler, The British Museum, accessed 16 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/lo82vb3
- The Maria Theresa Thaler 1780, Walter Hafner (main web page is in German), accessed 16 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/lhkqjdg
- Oman, Wikipedia, accessed 18 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/kev7qt5
- Zanzibar Archipelago, Wikipedia, accessed 16 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/mk7hhc5
- Pemba Island, Wikipedia, accessed 16 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/ozhbfro
- History of Tanzania, Wikipedia, accessed 16 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/7owbzrj
- Tanzania: Yes, Satisfying Domestic Demand for Electricity Must Be Priority, Tanzania Daily News via allAfrica, 27 August 2013. Accessed 16 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/l78g2gu
- Terror link to acid attack on British girls? Zanzibar police arrest Al Shabaab militants following identical assault on Catholic priest, UK Daily Mail, 17 September 2013. Accessed 16 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/l5kezg6
- Zanzibar acid attack: An exotic island with too many ghosts, UK Telegraph, 9 August 2013, accessed 16 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/l2a8yrv
- Pemba The Green Island, Fondazione Ivo de Carneri, Youtube, 15 June 2008. Accessed 16 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/kytt5zu
- Obama toasts failed African socialist, Neil Munro, The Daily Caller, 1 July 2013. Accessed 16 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/mwktnf3
- Tanzania: Background and Current Conditions, Ted Dagne, Congressional Research Services, 31 August 2011. PDF accessed 16 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/mb7npmm
- Julius Nyerere, Transformation into socialism, Wikipedia, accessed 16 October 2013 | http://tinyurl.com/locsmts
Postscript: Since the taler in question almost certainly dates from 1936-51, and the only documented instance of the clove countermark being in use was in 1872, it strongly suggests that the countermark is a forgery created specifically to appeal to collectors, whether or not authentic dies were used. (It is rather convenient that one of the cloves obliterates one of the identifying characteristics on the obverse.) Hafner notes that “With the exception of Mozambique counterstamps, there appears to be no known reference to counterstamps on Maria Theresa Talers prior to the late 1960s.”