My interest in coins and numismatics began organically, almost accidentally. My father was very interested in coins, and would solicit souvenirs from family and friends from their travels to various parts of the world. So the sight and the distinctive ‘aroma’ of coins were with me from my childhood. And the fact that I grew up in the Casa da Moeda (Mint House) inevitably drew me further headlong into the world of coins, reaching a sort of high point at the 2009 festival of Casa da Moeda, the 175th year of its establishment in 1834.
But even so, I am hardly the serious coin collector some people might think I am. I have embarrassingly few really rare coins in my possession, even though in the course of my research into them, I have trawled the shops dealing in them in Mumbai, Lisbon and London, and have visited museums and research centres in Goa, Mumbai, Nashik, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and overseas in Portugal and the UK. I’d much rather track down a coin and look at it first-hand than try to acquire it for myself. If I’m lucky enough to be allowed to photograph its obverse and reverse, and take down other details such as weight and dimensions, so be it. If not, that’s fine too. I’m more fascinated by the stories that lie within them, the history lessons which are ingrained in the circumstances of their birth, so to speak.
My research into Indo-Portuguese numismatics while preparing for the Casa da Moeda festival took me to Casa da Moeda Lisbon, where the staff very graciously helped me as much as possible, showing me their collection and giving me access to their library.
I cross-referenced online a book called “Memorias das Moedas correntes em Portugal, desde o tempo dos Romanos, até o anno de 1856” (A record of Currencies in Portugal, from Roman times to 1856) by Manuel Bernardo Lopes Fernandes (1797-1870). On page 116, it describes a coin called INDIO, a silver Portuguese coin worth 33 reis, minted in 1499, with on one side the cross of the Military Order of Christ encircled by the words IИ HOC SIGИO VIИCES (Latin translation: in this sign you will conquer), and on the other the royal coat of arms encircled by the abbreviated form of PRIMUS EMANUEL REX PORTUGALIAE ALGARVE CITRA ULTRA IN AFRICA DOMINUS GUINEE, IN COMMERCII, NAVIGATIONE AETHIOPIAE, ARABIAE, PERSIAE INDIA (Latin for ‘Manuel I, King of Portugal and Algarve and overseas of Africa and Guinea, and through commerce and navigation of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India’).
The statement is a little grandiose, as the Portuguese sway over many of these dominions was still quite tenuous in 1499. But positive thinking, eh?
The author adds laconically: “Nunca vimos esta moeda”; “I/We have never seen this coin”. There hangs a tale.
The Indio (‘the Indian’), as its name might suggest, is believed to have been commissioned by Dom Manuel I in 1499 specifically for trade with India (along with the gold coin, the português). It was rare enough in 1856, earning it the label of the ‘lost’ or ‘ghost’ coin of D. Manuel, and only one specimen (held at the numismatic collection of the Museu Histórico Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil) was known to have survived. Until now.
A team has found the shipwreck of the nau Esmeralda, part of Vasco da Gama’s armada to India (the annual Carreira da India), off the coast of Oman.
Captained by da Gama’s uncle Vicente Sodré, the Esmeralda, along with the São Pedro led by Vicente’s brother Brás, sank in 1503 following a violent storm. This shipwreck is possibly the oldest colonial vessel ever found, which makes this a particularly exciting find.
The exact site was pinpointed by the sole eyewitness account of Pêro d’Athaíde, one of the other captains in the Sodré squadron, and corroborating accounts by Gaspar Corrêa in his chronicle Lendas da Índia (c. 1550), and others (Barros, Castanheda and Góis).
The circumstances surrounding this shipwreck are interesting. Before sailing back to Lisbon in February 1503, Vasco da Gama had entrusted his maternal uncles Vicente and Brás Sodré with patrolling the Malabar coast and protecting the Portuguese allies Cochin and Cannanore from likely attack by the Zamorin of Calicut. The Sodré brothers not only left the cities open to the attack which came a month later, but went off to the gulf of Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea in search of booty (pepper, cloves, sugar, textiles, rice) on Arab merchant ships. And this they did, murdering all the crew on the Arab ships they encountered and setting them afire, and then keeping the lion’s share of this for themselves, including the quinto real, the royal fifth of 20% of any booty that was supposed to go to the Crown, much to the displeasure of the other captains in the fleet.
Despite being warned by locals about the seasonal tempest brewing, greed prevented the Sodré brothers from seeking safe harbour. While Vicente perished in the tempest on 30 April 1503, Brás survived. He perversely blamed the calamity on their Muslim pilots (one of them believed to be ‘the best pilot in all India’) and had them summarily executed. Brás himself died shortly after, ‘of unknown causes’.
The greed of the brothers Sodré led directly to their demise, their dereliction of duty led to loss of face to the Portuguese with their Indian allies, and the unprovoked cruelty of the brothers led to reprisals against Portuguese interests by their enemies.
The recovered artefacts from the Esmeralda include a specimen of the Indio, the legendary ‘ghost’ coin, which is causing ripples in numismatic circles. Who knows what else might come to light?
But salvage attempts had been made soon after, although by the ‘wrong’ forces as far as the Portuguese were concerned. Some guns from the ships (50-60 berços, two bombardas grossas and one falcão) ended in the hands of Malik Ayaz, governor of Diu, who used them to advantage in giving the Portuguese their first taste of naval defeat in the Indian Ocean, in the battle of Chaul (March 1508). A dose of their own ‘medicine’?
(An edited version of this article was published on 10 April 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)