World’s most famous silver coin

The Maria Theresa thaler, a European coin first struck in the 18th century, continues to be minted and used as currency in some Arabian and African lands, writes B. N. Goswamy

A necklace of coral beads with a silver amulet, a Maria Theresa thaler and an Indian silver rupee. Yemen, 20th century
A necklace of coral beads with a silver amulet, a Maria Theresa thaler and an Indian silver rupee. Yemen, 20th century

Several years back, I was with a silversmith/jeweller in the crowded bazaars of Ahmedabad, looking at a heap of antique silver jewellery which a friend was patiently rummaging through: worn-out old necklaces and anklets, girdles and key chains, lockets and finger rings, all tangled together.

There was charm in the objects, and the breath of time was upon them. One could imagine the rustic necks they must once have adorned, the waists they had hugged. It was a pleasurable search. He was lost in examining them, but also slowly getting used to them, with one predictable object following another, when suddenly something turned up that made both of us look up in surprise.

It was a large silver coin — much larger than our rupee — fairly rubbed, but with the image of an imperious looking woman still clearly visible on one side and an emblem with eagles on the other. There were words in Latin along the edge, ‘Maria Theresa’ being quite legible among them. It was clear that it was a European coin and I, with some awareness of European history, could easily make out that it was an 18th century Austrian coin we were looking at. But here, among silver jewellery in Gujarat?

And then one saw it: a small hook attached at the top of the coin, evidently for a chain to pass through: it had been turned into a piece of jewellery, something somebody had worn round the neck like a locket or pendant. What was it, both of us asked the silversmith/jeweller? It is a ‘malka ka rupaiya’, meaning a "queen’s rupee", he said in a matter-of-fact tone. One could see that he was used to seeing them every other day.

The intriguing presence of a European silver coin in a Gujarat village stayed with me for quite some time, and then it went out of my mind. Till it surfaced again the other day when I chanced upon an article on the coin, A Silver Legend: The Story of Maria Theresa’s Thaler, by a woman teacher and numismatist, Clara Semple.

She was fascinated by what she saw everywhere that she was working in the field as an archaeologist, from the Arabian peninsula to Egypt and Sudan and Tunisia, above all in Ethiopia: the Maria Theresa coin, continuing to be used not only as a medium of exchange, nearly 200 years after it was first struck in far-off Austria, but also as a component of attractive silver ornaments. She followed the trail of the thaler through these lands and through history: how as a completely reliable silver coin it was widely used to pay for goods in the flourishing coffee trade, for instance; how slaves and gold and ostrich feathers arrived on Arabian dhows from Massawa, and cloves from Zanzibar, to be exchanged for Maria Theresa thalers; how, again, the coin was melted ever so often nearly everywhere in these lands for its pure silver content.

For nearly two centuries, the coin was traded throughout Arabia and Africa, in lands which at that time had no currency of their own. By the twentieth century it had become an economic necessity in many countries, attaining such popularity that it was difficult to remove it from circulation even after national currencies came into being in these lands.

The Empress Maria Theresa in whose reign the thaler — the word is pronounced as ‘tal-er’, from which the word ‘dollar’ is derived — was first struck in 1780, was one of the most remarkable figures of Austrian history: first female Habsburg to sit on that proud throne; an enlightened ruler who brought about sweeping reforms; mother of 16 children, among them Marie Antoinette, the future queen of France. When she died in the same year in which the thaler was first struck, Maria Theresa’s son and heir decided — against established practice — that the coin should continue to be struck bearing the effigy of his mother and the same date: 1780. The legend on the exquisitely designed coin naturally stayed, recalling the resounding titles of the Empress: on the obverse "M(aria) THERESA D(ei) G(ratia) R(omanorum) IMP(eratrix) HU(ungariae) BO(hemiae)", and on the reverse: "ARCHID(ux) AUST(riae) DUX BURG(undiae) CO(mes) TYR(olis) 1780", meaning, "Maria Theresa, by the Grace of God, Empress of Romans, Queen of the Hungarians and Bohemians, Arch Duchess of the Austrians, Duchess of the Burgundians, and Countess of the Tyrolian". On the outer edge appeared – a unique feature – the inscription, again in Latin, JUSTITIA ET CLEMENTIA, meaning "Justice and Mercy". The edge, numismatists know, served more than a decorative purpose: it made it difficult to forge; it also prevented it from being clipped by taking thin silver shavings off the surface: a common practice.

There are countless stories and anecdotes connected with the thaler, many of them coming from explorers and travellers who carried it with them to pay their way with the legendary coin, for it was recognised everywhere. In the Arabian and African lands, it got bound with jewellery that was used in ceremonies of birth and marriage, and formed part of dowries. In Yemen and Ethiopia, Clara Semple found the coin being used as an amulet to be worn by children to guard them against the evil eye; in other places it was seen as being possessed of healing power. The Empress’s coin was, it seems, everywhere. And capable of doing almost everything.

It is an astonishing story: a European coin first struck in the 18th century continuing to be used as currency of exchange for more than 200 years in distant Arabian and African lands, and repeatedly being re-struck in the country of its origin. It is stated that, with the exception of a few intervals in the 20th century, the Maria Theresa thaler has been minted continuously since the death of the Empress. The estimate is that as many as 400 million have been struck to date. Not taking into account the forgeries, of course.

Postscript:If you are looking for bargains, you might like to go to a site called alibaba.com on which it is claimed that the advertisers have in their possession ‘230 million pieces of the coin’. These are on sale for ‘5 US dollars each’, but ‘have the re-sale value of 11 dollars each’.

I have my doubts. But, in any case: thalers, anyone?