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The holey dollar

Holey Dollar  

A visitor from Australia asked me recently what I knew about the ‘holy’ dollar and I had to admit that I knew nothing about such a blessed bit of currency and wondered why she asked. Because they came from Madras and will be on display at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, to mark the centenary of their creation in New South Wales, she said. And added that there was nothing ‘holy’ about them; the only thing ‘blessed’ about them was that there was at last some local currency in circulation in the first settlement, even if the coin had a hole in the centre and so was called the ‘holey dollar’.

Described as the first currency issued in what was to become Australia, they were the outcome of Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s attempt to give the colony of New South Wales its own currency in place of the British, Dutch, Portuguese and Indian — both mohurs and rupees — coins that were being used from the establishment of the colony. Facing a shortage of these coins, Macquarie imported 40,000 Spanish silver eight reale coins — popularly known as ‘pieces of eight’ and commonly used as an international trading currency in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific littoral from the 17th Century to the early 18th Century — from Madras and received them in November 1812. To double the number of coins, he decided to have the centre cut out of each coin and to counter stamp both pieces. The outer piece, with the hole in the centre, was given a value of five shillings and became popularly known as the “holey dollar”. The centre piece was given the value of 15 pence and became popularly known as the ‘dump’.

Macquarie identified a convicted forger, William Henshall, for this work after discovering that he had been a metal plater and cutter in England. Provided space in the Government printing press in Sydney, Henshall made the equipment he needed in what became ‘The Factory’, experimenting over several months before getting things right. Each coin was stamped with its new value and ‘New South Wales 1813’. Henshall also incorporated his initial, ‘H’, into a spray of leaves that were part of the counter stamp as well as between the ‘Fifteen’ and ‘Pence’.

Though the original coins were imported from Madras, they had been minted in Mexico. Henshall, considered Australia’s first ‘mintmaster’, delivered the first batch of these transformed coins to the Government of New South Wales on February 25, 1814 and completed delivery by the end of August that year. The Government began recalling the coins in 1822 and finally demonetised the dollars and dumps in 1829. Most of them were melted into bullion, but it is believed around 300 holey dollars and 1,000 dumps survive with collectors.

But ‘pieces of eight’ and Madras? The earliest reference to them in the records goes back to the very founding of the city. Discussing the cost of building what was to be called Fort St. George, Andrew Cogan and the Council in Masulipatam wrote, “…wee say 1500 pieces of eight hath (and to spare) completed one bulwarks; so that by that computation 6000 pieces of eight may complete the whole works…” The pieces of eight, made of silver, were more correctly called “ryalls (reals) of eight” and popularly called ‘dollars’. Large quantities of them were imported in the 17th Century into Madras and other Indian ports and were accepted as legal tender.

A 1685 order from the Company in England instructed Fort St. George that the value of the different coins in circulation should be: Pagodas 10 shillings (s), Spanish dollar 6s, Dutch dollar 5s, the Rupee 3s, a fanam 4 pence, and pice half a penny. All these coins were accepted in South and Southeast Asia and the South Seas into the early 19th Century and were freely available in a major trading centre like Madras. No wonder Macquarie chose Madras as his supply source.


Banding the Anglo-Indians

Your recent reference to the Naval Hospital and the Gun Carriage Factory (Miscellany, July 8) did not mention that these were located in what was called New Town and which was once a major area of Anglo-Indian settlement, messages William Rodrigues. Indeed it was, what with not only the Naval Hospital and Gun Carriage Factory but also Central and Egmore Stations, the General Hospital and the Corporation, all favoured places of employment of the Anglo-Indians of the time, working as railwaymen, mechanics, overseers, nurses and secretaries.

More significantly, this area hosted the David S. White Memorial Hall and the offices of the Anglo-Indian Association of Southern India, the headquarters of the Anglo-Indians of South India. The Hall, the offices and the grounds of the Association were where the Hotel Ramada Chennai and a portion of its neighbour, the CMDA’s second block, have come up. In a small site here, the Association’s offices still remain, I’m told.

Responsible for banding the Anglo-Indians of South India together was David S. White who was an officer in the Directorate of Public Instruction. Curiously, he is better remembered in Bangalore where he established what was once a major Anglo-Indian settlement, Whitefield.

White was a founder member of the first Anglo-Indian association, the Eurasian and Anglo-Indian Association founded in Calcutta in 1876. Then, for some unstated reason, he broke away and founded in 1879 the Anglo-Indian and Domiciled European Association of Southern India. Today, there are eight other associations in South India and, together with what White founded, they teamed together in 1892 as a federation of Anglo-Indian associations mainly in Southern India. Some of its members also belong to the now Delhi-headquartered All India Anglo-Indian Association, but the majority are with the southern federation. The All-India association grew out of the 1876 association thanks to Henry Gidney’s leadership in the 1920s.

What the reason for the schism responsible for the break-up in Calcutta was I’m not very clear, but it certainly continued because of the attitude of Frank Anthony who succeeded Gidney who had been trying to effect a patch-up. Anthony had no time for those who were called Feringhis, were mainly dark of complexion, and spoke Malayalam, Tamil or Konkani. These descendants of the Portuguese found no favour with Anthony who refused to accept them as Anglo-Indians and turned down the applications of their associations to join the All-India Anglo-Indian Association. This only strengthened the Federation in the South that had its roots in White’s association and spread in South India.

White himself helped to establish the associations in Mysore and Coorg and persuaded the Maharajah of Mysore to grant nearly 4,000 acres east of Bangalore to establish an Anglo-Indian settlement. Whitefield in time grew with several from the Kolar Gold Fields adding to its numbers.

Today, the number of Anglo-Indians in Whitefield has diminished, but it is still more than in White’s home beat, New Town, now a forgotten name in south Vepery.


Activism over business

My reference to Maskelyne Thottam (Miscellany, July 8) had a reader wondering whether I could provide any information on Saddalu Street, across the way from the erstwhile thottam and Perambur Barracks Road. From what little I know about the street, it takes its name from Gazulu Sidloo Chetty, who presumably lived in the area. In the 1830s, he owned a large indigo, dye and cloth business, a venture big enough for him to be invited to become the first Indian member of the Madras Chamber of Commerce.

It was in September 1836 that the Madras Chamber was formed with 18 Europeans from the leading British firms in the city and the plantations attending a meeting held at Binny’s for the purpose. Governor Sir Frederick Adam welcomed the forming of the Chamber and its decision to include as additional Members a couple of Europeans from outside the world of commerce, but stated that he would have “felt additional satisfaction had he observed the names of some of the principal native merchants of the Presidency enrolled amongst its members.” Sidloo Chetty was made a member within a few days of Sir Frederick’s observations and, the next year, C. Tiruoocawmi of C. Tiroocwami Nayak & Balakistna, which had something to do with stevedoring and ship chandling, was invited to join the Chamber. But it was the man who followed in his father’s footsteps in the 1840s, Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty, who became the best known of the early 19th Century Indian businessmen. It was, however, social and political activism, not business, that made him a well-known name even beyond the Province, even though he was a Member of the Chamber.

His activism — at the expense of the business he succeeded to — started with the founding of the Madras Native Association in 1852, perhaps the first Indian political association. A couple of years later, be bought a failing Madras journal, renamed it The Madras Crescent and published it from 1854 as a bi-weekly challenge to the voice of the missionaries , The Record. He had even earlier started a Tamil journal that strongly expressed the Madras Native Association’s and Lakshminarasu’s views on the missionaries. Together with advocate John Bruce Norton he succeeded in preventing the introduction of The Bible as a textbook in Government schools.

The Crescent was a pioneer in investigative journalism and it was in that spirit that Lakshminarasu persuaded a British parliamentary backbencher, Danby Seymour, to come to India and see for himself how the local cultivators were treated by the landlords. Seymour, shocked by the landlords’ actions he had seen when taken around by Lakshminarasu, raised several inconvenient questions in the House of Commons that led to the Torture Commission being established in 1854. The Commission’s findings did not do much to improve the situation, but Lakshminarasu had established himself as a champion of the workers.

When the Governor, the Marquess of Tweeddale, found that The Crescent’s investigative stories benefitted much from a mole in the Government that fed it a steady stream of confidential information, Government and British advertising in it stopped and the paper closed down.

Lakshminarasu promptly started The Rising Sun and succeeded in launching a petition that had 14,000 signatories demanding direct governance of India by the Crown. That was in 1858. Though what he requested did not come to pass, the Crown began to play a greater role in India.

Under the new dispensation Lakshminarasu became, in 1863, the second Indian to be appointed a member of the Madras Legislative Council, succeeding the first, V. Sadgopacharlu, on his death. Lakshminarasu’s journal came to an end the same year.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 2:24:26 AM |

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