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Vol. XXXIII No. 23, March 16-31, 2024

The Mints of Madras – Part I

-- by Sriram V

Any person with passing interest in the city’s history will tell you that Mint Street is so named because the Madras Mint was once located on it. And they will also add most helpfully that it is known as Thangasalai Theru in Tamil because gold was melted at the mint for striking coins. Well, they would be correct as far as the English name went but the Tamil explanation could not be more wrong. Tankashala is the Sanskrit term for mint – the root being Tanka which means a stamped coin. And so, Tankashala Theru must be the correct name of our Mint Street. But then it is a Sanskrit word and oh well…etc etc.

Not many may be aware that the facility that once stood at the northern end of Mint Street was the last of many mints our city had. This article attempts to trace the various such coineries that existed here over two centuries. The first few editions were, as is to be expected, inside Fort St. George and the later ones in the city, the last being the best known and at the end of what became Mint Street.

Mints were in fact among the early priorities of the English when they came to Madras. The grant of 1639 giving them this region had a clause that they “shall perpetually Injoy the priviledges of mintage without paying any Dewes or dutyes whatsoever, more then the ordinary wages or hire unto those that shall Quoyne the moneyes.” (all spellings as in original). When C.V. Boraiyya translated in 1802 for Collin Mackenzie a Marathi document on the establishment of Madras in 1639, he made careful note of how a Dar-ul-zarab (house of striking coins) was one of the privileges given.

Left: British India Coins, Madras Presidency Half Pagoda 1808-1811 and on right: Madras Presidency 1-2 Pagoda 1808-1811.

H.D. Love notes that minting was probably among the first activities taken up by the British, for “no complex plant was needed. As soon as the dies were cut, any native goldsmith was capable of refining the metal, casting pellets of the correct weight, and striking the coins.” And in keeping with that, we find that the English got by in initial years by sub-contracting the activity. Gold came by ship from England and the Arya Vysyas converted the metal into coins for a commission of 4 to 5 per cent. The coining seems to have taken place at their own workshops, which was probably located at their residences, all of which stood on Market Street in Old Black Town (the area where the High Court now stands). Apparently, this system continued for a while and a good time was had by all – the Company servants making personal profits, with two notorious dubashes Beri Timanna and Kasi Veeranna being the conduits. But it would seem that even within this circle of corruption the natives siphoned out more than what was their due and by the 1650s it was necessary to have Europeans appointed to supervise.

It is not clear as to when the English took over minting but by the 1660s the mint was within the Fort. In 1675, the Company applied for permission from Golconda, the new ruling dispensation, to strike silver coins and copper pice. This was granted and Golconda tankas began to come from Madras. It was during this period that we have from Talboys Wheeler’s Madras in the Olden Time the description of an accident in the mint which gives us an idea of the process involved. Gold was alloyed with 4/5th part of silver and 1/5th of copper in an earthen pot heated over a wood fire. The alloy was then cooled by pouring it into another pot that contained water mixed with cow dung. On this occasion, there was a tremendous explosion and both pots – the one that contained the molten alloy and the other the water with cow dung – flew away never to be seen again. The molten metal was splattered all over the walls and had to be scraped off. Around 40 of the 170 ounces was lost. It was clearly a very inefficient process, and probably dangerous as well.

But the British were not for giving up on what was a profitable activity, both officially and outside of it. In 1686, they obtained a patent from King James II and established a silver mint inside the Fort, which began issuing coin “of the same form, fineness and device as those current in Mogul country.” By 1692, with Golconda taken over by the Mughals, permission was granted by Prince Kam Baksh, son of Aurangzeb for the mint at Fort St George to strike coins. It is ­interesting to note that the standards by way of iron stamps came from the Mughal court – two each for gold mohurs, pagodas and silver rupees and were received with due ceremonial.

The mint itself needed ­repeated refurbishment, owing to the crudeness of the process. In 1695, a new mint came up on the south-western side of the Fort, near where Charles Street presently is. The earlier one it is recorded was so bad that the workers were conducting operations in the open much to the inconvenience of the soldiers. The new facility was a gold and silver mint but in 1711, the silver part of it was moved to the north-west angle of the Fort while the gold mint moved closer to Fort House, to a precinct called the Inner Fort. This seems to have been the space now occupied by the old Secretariat behind the Assembly building. The silver mint needed reconstruction by 1722 and a ‘house’ was built for it at the same site, with the lower floor designed for storing and weighing the precious metal and the upper as quarters for the Assaye-master. There were grounds around it for workshops for “melters, refiners and coiners.” It is interesting to note that the northwest bastion of the Fort is still referred to as the Mint Bastion though it is sadly out of bounds for those outside of the army.

All these mints, though deep inside Fort St George, were open to the public. Anyone who had gold to be converted to coinage could come and get it done for a fee. At a time when there was no standard currency, coins from other kingdoms and principalities and often those of the same kind but from other mints, had to be melted and reissued as coins that were locally acceptable.

There was however no standardisation as far as the actual process even at the Fort mint was concerned. There was considerable scope for adulteration, as is evident from a letter dating to1742, wherein Sidney Foxall, Mint Master laments over how minting was still a manual process in Madras, as opposed to the Tower of London where gold bars “ran through flatting mills, the money cut with an engine, milled and stamped”. Apart from adulteration at the mint itself, there were problems of sub-standard country mints that produced fakes and brought them into circulation. On more than one occasion, the residents of Madras were warned about coins from Pulicat and at least once, during the 1730s there was a demonetisation exercise of sorts, when coins were called back to be melted and reissued with some security features. It was a complete failure.

The list of mint functionaries also makes for curious reading. Apart from the Assaye-master and his team of Europeans, there was a set of ‘Mint Brahmins’ though their exact function remains unknown. There were also apart from the melters, coiners and refiners mentioned above, goldsmiths and gold washers, apart from those involved in menial tasks such as stoking the fires and cleaning the place.

By the mid 18th century however, changes were afoot and it was time to move the Mint again, this time to somewhere in the city, outside the Fort.

(To be continued next fortnight)

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