The Golden Age of Piracy: Rare Coins Minted During the Age of Exploration

Blackbeard and Lieutenant Maynard duelling in Ocracoke Bay, 1918. Pirate Coins Blackbeard and Lieutenant Maynard duelling in Ocracoke Bay, 1918. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Lurking in the treacherous waters of the 17th and 18th centuries, pirates plundered and prospered during the Golden Age of Piracy, which saw unscrupulous merchants raiding ships, sacking coastal towns, and trading with other pirates – all in the search of treasured loot and coins that still tell tales of treasures won and lives lived on the edge of the world.

With the Jolly Roger flying high, pirates and privateers employed to patrol treacherous waters enriched themselves as they hunted the high-seas for loot of gold and silver coins. These pieces of eight (cutting a coin into pieces was a viable method of offering change) were highly prized on pirate ships, and not just for their intrinsic gold value.

Used to pay the crew and buy supplies, looted coins could mean the difference between survival and a watery grave, or between loyal crewmates and a mutinous mob. Today, coins from the Golden Age of Piracy remain treasured. Coveted for their mystique and historical links, pirate coins carry a distant romance, stamped with the history of bygone kings and queens.

More than merely pieces of eight, they are pieces of history imbued with the spirit of the high-seas. To own a pirate coin is to own a piece of the past that carries the legacy of the Golden Age of Piracy; a legacy of murder, danger, and untold riches – in a variety of denominations – waiting to be discovered.

Pirate Booty: The Currency of the High Seas

Spanish Doubloons: The Gold Standard of Piracy

Pirate Coins. Bogota Mint Pirate ~24K Gold Dubloon. Sold for $3,250 via Artemis Gallery (August 2020)

Bogota Mint Pirate ~24K Gold Dubloon. Sold for $3,250 via Artemis Gallery (August 2020).

Desired above all others by kings, pirates, privateers, and adventurers, the gold Doubloon remains the ultimate in shipwrecked and buried treasure. Whether you know them as Doubloons or Escudos, no other coin is quite so legendary.

Originating from the Spanish word for double (they were worth twice as much as two-Escudo gold coins), the Spanish and viceroyalties of New Spain, Peru, and Nueva Granada used gold Doubloons from the mid-16th to the mid-19th century. Made from 22 karat gold, the final Spanish Doubloons were minted in 1849, but their demand and legacy live on.

Dutch Ducats: Coinage of Netherlands’ Maritime Empire

With 800 years of circulation and a mintage of 986.00% gold, the Dutch Ducat was a jewel of European coins. First minted by the Republic of Venice in 1285, which was the centre of international trade, the Golden Ducat become an internationally recognized trade currency thanks to its consistent value.

Reaching a peak in production in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch East India Company used the Ducat in the Baltic Sea region in the trade of grain, and its use continued in the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the 20th century. It remains equally prized today, but without any need to walk the plank for failed plundering attempts.

English Guineas: The Royal Coinage of Great Britain

One of the most important British coins in history reflected the territory’s command of the high-seas during the 18th century. The 22 carat gold Guinea was the currency of the industrial revolution and expansion of the British Empire – and sent the image of British royals around the world.

Taking its name from where the gold was extracted in West Africa, the gold Guinea was one of the first coins to be milled rather than hammered, and was introduced during the reign of Charles II in 1663, who took the thrown following the English civil war and restoration of the Monarchy.

French Louis d’Or: Wealth of the Sun King’s Navy

Referring to any number of French coins introduced by Louis XIII in 1640, the Louis d’or propelled France from the corner of Europe to the far corners of the world.

Used to finance the French Navy under the command of the Sun King, Louis XIV and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Louis d’or funded France’s victories in the Nine Years’ War against the Royal Navy and the Dutch Navy, as it was traded and looted by pirates during a time of significant symbolism of the Louis XIV era.

Ottoman Sequins: Coins of the Mediterranean Corsairs

The calm waters of the Mediterranean were ideal hunting grounds for pirates and corsairs. Preying on merchant ships, pirates patrolled the placid sea from the 7th century bc, when Phoenician ships were regularly attacked by pirates.

The Ottoman Sequin is a generic name sometimes applied to gold coins from the Ottoman Empire, as well as to particular Turkish coins, but there is no doubt about Sequin’s place as historical treasure. So much so, wealthy passengers were reported to have swallowed gold coins in anticipation of pirate capture, or thrown them overboard, giving rise to legends of sunken treasure, and thoughts of crippling indigestion.

Chinese Cash: Currency of Eastern Trade Routes

Characterised by their square center hole, the Chinese Qian (or Cash in English) is immediately identifiable, even from distance. Originally cast during the Warring States period, they were used for the entirety of Imperial China, with the last Chinese Qian cast in the first year of the Republic of China in 1912.

The Qian was an ever present for nearly 300 years, as 11 emperors ruled the country over the 250 years of the Qing Dynasty, and all issued coins. In 1616, Nurhachi proclaimed himself ruler of the Manchus and first issued the coins, with the last coin issued by Emperor Puyi in 1911.

Rare Japanese Coins Tempo Koban, ND (1837-58).

Japanese Tempo Koban, ND (1837-58). Sold for $1,500 via Ponterio & Associates (September 2007).

Japanese Koban: Treasure from the Land of the Rising Sun

Beautiful in shape and intricate in design, the Japanese Koban was an oval gold coin from Edo period feudal Japan.

Today recognized for its beauty, the Koban heralded Japan’s development, as for centuries the economy was largely based on rice. The standard unit of measure was the koku; the amount of rice needed to feed one person for a year. The arrival of the Portuguese in the 1550s meant the Koban – which was equal to three koku of rice – became the coin of choice in foreign trade.

The Legacy of Pirate Coins

Serving as tangible symbols of piracy’s golden age, some of the world’s most famous currency is rooted in the thrilling and terrifying history of pirate plundering and treasure hunts.

The Legend of Captain Kidd

Known the world over as one of the most unfortunate pirates to sail the high-seas, Kidd was a privateer with government permission to attack enemy ships during the war between England and France in the 1690s, but while at sea he became an outlaw.

Commissioned to combat pirates in the Indian Ocean, the tide turned after two years at sea when piracy was criminalized. So, when Kidd and his crew attacked the Quedah Merchant in 1698, he became an outlaw for his booty of gold Guineas likely depicting King James II, and latterly Mary II and William III. He was hanged and today the Captain Kidd pub in London sits on the site where his corpse was displayed for three years, allowing patrons to enjoy warm British beer in a location of gruesome historical significance.

The Pirate Republic of Nassau

Today, the Bahamas is an idyllic holiday destination. However, it was once a lawless land of buccaneers known as the Republic of Pirates, where a loose confederacy of privateers-turned-pirates patrolled the seas during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Governed by an informal pirate code, Blackbeard was voted by the Nassau pirates as their magistrate. Causing havoc with trade and shipping, the pirates’ reign reached a climax when repeated raids on Royal Navy frigates compelled King George I to send a fleet to bring piracy to an end, offering pardons to all pirates who handed themselves in.

The Lost Treasure of Henry Avery

Dubbed The King of Pirates, Henry Avery was one of few pirate captains to escape with his loot, and without arrest. Avery’s most famous raid was a 25-ship convoy on its way to Mecca that included the treasure-laden Ganj-i-Sawai and its haul of £600,000 of precious metals and jewels – around £97.1million in 2024. It led to the first worldwide manhunt, but he disappeared without trace in 1696.

That was until the discovery of a tarnished silver coin in 2014, which suggested he might have hid in New England, before sailing for Ireland and wealthy obscurity. The unusual coin engraved with an Arabic inscription found at a Rhode Island orchard was minted in 1693 in Yemen and was consistent with the coins seized by Avery. The mystery continues.