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Pillar dollar, 8 reals and minted in Mexico. At the top there is a small hole, probably used to sew the coin into clothing.

Black Market Bounty: Experts Find Coins Sewn into Clothes at Shipwreck

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Maritime archaeologists have made an astonishing discovery off the Kent coast in England. While investigating an almost three-hundred-year-old shipwreck they found some coins that had been sewn into clothing.  This is the second important maritime archaeological find in Kent, recently. A Tudor ship was also found on some mudflats in Tankerton Beach some weeks ago. The latest discovery is one that is exciting experts and offering an insight into the lives of ordinary people in the 18 th century, demonstrating the rich maritime heritage of Kent.

The Rooswijk

The find was made near the wreck of the Rooswijk on the bed of the English Channel. Both the crew and the ship descended to the bottom of the sea off the coast of Kent, sinking after striking a notorious sandbank, Goodwin Sands, that the BBC reports it is known as ‘the great ship swallower’. The Rooswijk sank in the winter of 1740 and all its 237 passengers and crew were lost. The ship's cargo of silver bullion, iron, and cut stones, that was destined for the East Indies, was also lost.

Diver at the Rooswijk excavation site. (Image: © Historic England/RCE)

Diver at the Rooswijk excavation site. (Image: © Historic England/RCE)

Experts know a lot more about this ship than the remains of the Tudor vessel found at Tankerton Beach. The ship belonged to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that controlled much of modern Indonesia at this time. It set off with a cargo of silver to purchase spices and other luxury goods in Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies. The ship was skippered by Daniël Ronzieres and was crewed by Dutch, German and Swedish sailors, some of whom have been identified through the VOC archives in Amsterdam.

Rooswijk by Ralph Curnow. (Image: Artists in Cornwall)

Rooswijk by Ralph Curnow. (Image: Artists in Cornwall)

A profitable exchange

Maritime archaeologists, members of the Rooswijk1740 project, discovered a haul of silver coins some 85 feet down on the seabed.  Many of the silver coins had holes drilled so that they could be sewn into clothing.  There were not only Dutch coins but also ducats from the Spanish Netherlands. But why were they secreted in clothing in this manner? The answer would seem to be that these monies would have been prohibited from being taken to the Dutch Indies.

The discovery of coins hidden in clothes and also prohibited foreign currency suggests that the crew and passengers were engaged in smuggling to the East Indies. There was a great demand for silver in the colonies and the speculation is that the passengers and mariners were trying to make a profit by selling the silver coins for higher than their face value in Batavia, the capital of the East Indies. The coins were probably sewn into the clothes of those on board to ensure that they were not detected during regular onboard inspections. Historians have long known that there was an illicit trade in silver in the Dutch company’s possessions and believe that up to 50% of the money being transported to the East Indies was smuggled.

Spanish Piece of Eight, or Spanish Pillar Dollar. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Spanish Piece of Eight, or Spanish Pillar Dollar. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The history unravels piece by piece

Some other artifacts have also been uncovered in the wreck, including a pewter jug.  Two small human bones have also been identified and it is believed that there will be more remains found at the site.  Personal items have also been uncovered and these include a nit comb and a container for cheese.  Several well-preserved boxes and barrels have also been found by marine archaeologists.

The Rooswijki1740 project is a partnership between Historic England and the Netherland’s Cultural Agency. According to the Daily Mail, the leader of the project, Dr. Martijn Manders has said that, 'The Rooswijk is special because it tells us about ordinary people of that time’ The find also helps experts to understand the personal experiences of those who were lost at sea on a January night, almost three centuries ago.

The team from the project have been working on the site since last summer.  According to the Daily Mail, ‘the team is working towards the stern of the ship’ and expect more finds. Items and materials recovered from the wreck are being stored at a warehouse in Kent, where they will be preserved and recorded. It is expected that some of the most interesting items will eventually be put on public display in the Netherlands.

An open weekend on 11-12 August in at the Port of Ramsgate, will allow the public to view many of the artifacts excavated this year.

Silver coin from the East Indiaman (VOC) Rooswijk. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Silver coin from the East Indiaman (VOC) Rooswijk. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A thriving black market

The discovery of the coins sewn into clothing confirms that many employees of the VOC were engaged in illegal activities and that it was almost certainly extensive. Just like today, trade in currency could be profitable. The silver coins are also allowing us to understand ordinary people and their experiences almost three hundred years ago.  The second important find in Kent, in recent weeks, is demonstrating the rich maritime archaeological heritage of that area of England.

Top image: Pillar dollar, 8 reals and minted in Mexico. At the top there is a small hole, probably used to sew the coin into clothing. Source: © Historic England/RCE

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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