The Eighteenth Century was a period of formality and symbolism, however varied the
style of coin design. Almost inevitably, one side of a coin featured the head of
a ruler, or a personification of a town or city, and the other side featured a coat
of arms or other heraldic device. There were exceptions, such as the small coppers
issued from Malta, showing the head of St John the Baptist on a plate but, perhaps
fortunately, these were not part of the general pattern.
In 1791, the Sierra Leone Company was founded to organise and manage a settlement
on the western shores of Africa which would be a refuge for Africans avoiding or
escaping slavery. Very soon after its establishment, the new colony found a need
for coinage, and eventually an order for a range of denominations was given to Matthew
Boulton at the Soho Mint in Birmingham. Commencing in December 1792, One Dollar Pieces
in silver and One Penny Pieces in copper were struck. No sooner had these been despatched
to Africa, than the Company decided to convert its accounts to a decimal standard,
and the penny coins were followed later in 1793 by One Cent Pieces in copper, Ten
and Twenty Cent Pieces and Half Dollar Pieces in silver, together with a revised
dollar whose denomination was expressed numerically as '100.'
The designs were all similar, a crouching Lion, ready to spring, on the obverse,
and an inter-racial handshake on the reverse, with one hand unshaded to represent
the white man, and one hand shaded to represent the black man.
It would be difficult to imagine designs less typical of the formalism of the Eighteenth
century, but that was not the only feature of interest of these remarkable coins.
With a denominational structure of One Dollar equalling One Hundred Cents (or Fifty
Pence!) these were among the world's very first decimal coins!
Fortunately for modern collectors, Matthew Boulton was sufficiently impressed with
the designs of the Sierra Leone coins that appreciable numbers were struck for presentation
purposes, including complete sets of proofs in copper. Indeed, more than 200 specimens
of the penny were included in the Soho sale of 1850