The 1615-16 Coins of Bermuda (Sommer Islands): The First English Coins of North America
Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #226
A CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
In 1615 or 1616, coins were introduced in Bermuda. Although Bermuda was then called the Sommer Islands, for clarity, it is best to refer here to this place as Bermuda, as continual references to “Sommer Islands” would be distracting. Bermuda was then and still is a British colony. It is thus unsurprising that the first coins of Bermuda were denominated in British units: Twopence, Threepence, Sixpence and Twelvepence. These are the same denominations as the coins of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which were issued later in the same century. Twelvepence equaled one shilling and Twelvepence coins are typically termed Shillings.
Coins of all four denominations are undated; there is no indication on these coins of the year during which they were struck. Historical records suggest that they were struck in 1615 and/or 1616. Although it is likely that they were struck in England to be brought to Bermuda, it is plausible that some or all these coins were actually struck in Bermuda.
In the August 2009 issue of The Colonial Newsletter (NY: ANS), Max Spiegel presents a sound theory that the coins were struck at the Royal Mint in London, the primary mint of the English government. Spiegel emphasizes that the Chief Engraver there had connections to the private companies that operated colonies in Virginia and Bermuda. Even so, this is just a theory.
There were many citizens of England who had the skills to engrave dies and ‘hammer’ coins. It could also be true that the dies were made at the Royal Mint or at a private mint and then the coins were struck in Bermuda. Before and after Spiegel’s article was published, however, most relevant researchers maintain that both the dies and the coins were made in England. My immediate point is that less is known about the origins of these coins than most collectors realize.
Regardless of where they were made or who made them, all Bermuda (Sommer Islands) coins are intensely demanded by collectors, even those with severe problems. These are a topic ‘in the news’ as Eric Newman had one of the best sets of these that has ever been assembled. These were auctioned by Heritage in New York on May 16, among a wide variety of pre-1793 American items from the Eric Newman Collection.
Although Bermuda never really played a significant role in the history of the United States, or in the history of the British colonies that became the original thirteen United States, collectors of American colonial coins often seek the 1615-16 coins of Bermuda (Sommer Islands). The nearest main ‘land mass’ to Bermuda is a cape in North Carolina, and Bermuda was (and still is) a British-American colony. To a minor extent, Bermuda served purposes for the British during the American Revolutionary War and during the American Civil War in regards to British trade with the Confederates (‘The South’).
For many decades, in the 1700s and 1800s, a main purpose of Bermuda was to host a British military base. The location of Bermuda was considered important in terms of military strategy. Now that the United States, Britain, France, and Spain are all allies, and the era of empire-building seems to have passed, a group of British islands off the Atlantic Coast no longer has much geopolitical significance, assuming that the people of Bermuda do not entirely divorce themselves from Britain. If there currently is a British military presence on Bermuda, it must be very small. The political importance of Bermuda in the past, however, relates to the value of Bermuda (Sommer Islands) coins in the present.
There are important historical connections between Bermuda and early settlements in Virginia. There was a time when British possession of Bermuda very much related to the balance of power in North America, from the perspectives of the European powers.
I. Introductory Remarks About The Coins
All four denominations are extremely rare, some more so than others. As most coin collectors cannot afford original Bermuda (Sommer Islands) coins of 1615-16, it is fortunate that there are an array of replicas, novodels and fantasy pieces, some of which appear very similar to the originals. Those that were made in the 19th century tend to be more famous and more avidly sought after by veteran collectors of colonial coins. Many of the replicas, novodels and fantasy pieces are not expensive, though they are not very common. A few pop-up, now and then, often in auctions that feature noteworthy consignments of pre-1793 items.
There are recognized die varieties of 1615-16 Bermuda coins relating to the relative sizes of particular design elements. As no one collects these by die variety, such minor varieties are not significant and are mainly identified to help pedigree specific coins. Very few collectors have assembled sets of all four denominations.
The Norweb Family Collection also had a set of all four denominations and these were auctioned by Bowers & Merena in New York in 1987. The Norweb Family Collection is one of the all-time best collections of U.S. and colonial coins, and this collection also contained tremendous holdings of British and Latin American coins, plus thousands of other items.
Many major collections, especially of American colonial coins, contained one or two Bermuda coins, as complements or curiosities. Some other collectors focus on pre-1776 North American coins relating to British and French colonial activities. In a sense, these 1615-16 Bermuda coins fit logically into a few traditional collecting plans, in the history of coin collecting in the U.S.
There is no evidence that Bermuda coins of 1615-16 ever were spent on the North American mainland and it is unlikely that they circulated outside of Bermuda. These were of ‘British silver denominations,’ yet the silver content of all of them was zero or extremely small.
Because of the significant tin content, and the fact that all items in Bermuda were then typically exposed to very salty air for considerable periods, the surviving 1615-16 coins of Bermuda tend to have been extensively corroded. Even on an especially desirable survivor, some the design elements may have corroded to the point that they are obscured. All the coins, when struck, featured a portrait of a hog on the obverse (front) and a picture of a ship with portholes, sailing on waves, on the reverse (back). A denomination in Roman numerals appeared above the hog. The letters of the legend, “Sommer Islands,” are in the outer fields of the obverse. The borders seem to be beaded, though the beads on some coins resemble dentils.
The 1615-16 coins of Bermuda seem to be the first coins listed on the PCGS Coin Facts site, and are the first ‘American’ coins listed in the longstanding Red Book (“2015” edition) , Breen’s encyclopedia and other references. They are not listed, however, in “2014 North American Coins & Prices” (Wisconsin: F+W/Krause, 2013), which begins with the Lord Baltimore (Maryland) coinage of “1659” and the Massachusetts Silver coinage of “1652.”
The veteran collector-dealer John. G. is not enthusiastic. John is quoted at length in my review of this auction of Newman’s pre-1793 items. He has been referred to as “JG” in earlier articles. John has owned more than a dozen, rare pre-1793 American items, and many, high quality early U.S. coins. For example, he has owned two different Birch Cents.
“These are not American. Bermuda was never part of the U.S.,” JG declares. “You need a passport to go there. Mass Silver and Higley Copper are true Americana; they are part of U.S. history. Bermuda coins are not,” John asserts.
Andy Lustig suggests likewise that “Bermuda coins do not fit in collections of American Colonials; they are British Colonials,” broadly defined. Lustig insists, though, that he very much likes these coins. “During the course” of his career, Lustig has “owned at least ten of them.” Andy traveled to Bermuda and visited four or five museums to view 1615-16 coins of all denominations. Lustig has probably seen more than half of the known Bermuda (Sommer Islands) coins.
II. Historical Background
At some point between 1503 and 1506, the captain of an official Spanish ship, Juan de Bermudez, saw the islands of Bermuda. He did not then land and probably never set foot on Bermuda. Physical obstacles off the coasts of Bermuda and the frequent threat of terrible weather tends to discourage captains and owners of ships from landing in Bermuda. Indeed, there have been countless shipwrecks about Bermuda, which has notoriously dangerous barrier reefs.
In 1511, Bermuda is mentioned by Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, a famous historian. Among his many works is a landmark book that documented discoveries by Spanish explorers. This particular book, which was published in Seville in 1511, includes the first map that indicates an approximate location of Bermuda, “La Bermudas.”
During the 1500s, several ships landed on Bermuda. Others were shipwrecked and their crews reached Bermuda via lifeboats or by swimming. Although the dangers of sailing near Bermuda were widely known by the mid 1500s, Bermuda was one of the few inhabitable groups of islands in or near particular, frequently traversed shipping lanes. So, such shipwrecked sailors were usually rescued. Also, ships often traveled in pairs or groups of three. If one ship was wrecked or disappeared near Bermuda, the crew of a sister ship often knew, hoped or figured that sailors were stranded on Bermuda.
Turtles, various kinds of birds, and some forms of plant life served as food for voluntary and involuntary visitors. At some point in the 1500s, Bermuda was well populated by Spanish Feral Hogs, which are similar to domestic pigs.
The ancestors of the hogs of Bermuda may have come off a Portuguese ship that crashed at Bermuda in 1543 and/or they could have come from other shipwrecks. One theory is that operational Spanish ships deliberately released them on Bermuda for the benefit of sailors who may find themselves there in the future. It is more likely, in my view, that they came from wrecked ships that were supposed to bring hogs to Spanish colonies or to other Spanish ships as re-supplies of food.
On Dec. 15, 1593, a French ship, under the command of Captain de la Barbotiere, was wrecked off the coast of Bermuda. There is evidence that the survivors ate many hogs found on Bermuda. Interestingly, they used resources found on the island to build an eighteen ton boat.
In 1606, King James I of England granted a charter to the Virginia Company to colonize a specific area in North America. Settlers arrived in Jamestown, “Virginia” in 1607. In 1609, a fleet of ships sailed to bring supplies and more immigrants to Virginia. A hurricane caused the flagship, Sea Venture, to stray to Bermuda and to be wrecked on a barrier reef.
All the people on board the Sea Venture survived this shipwreck. They lived on Bermuda for weeks or months. Although all were required to leave for Jamestown, Virginia, three people defied orders and insisted upon staying on Bermuda. They were arrested two or three years later.
Also in 1609, Admiral Sir George Sommers investigated Bermuda and collected information about the islands. His last name is spelled in more than one way in various historical documents: Somers, Sommer, Sommers, Summers, etc. For simplicity, it is just spelled ‘Sommers’ here, as the name “Sommer” appears on the coins, though ‘Somers’ is probably the most correct spelling. Evidently, he was extremely interested in Bermuda.
In May 1610, all those on Bermuda traveled to Virginia, except the three guys who refused to cooperate. In Nov. 1610, Admiral Sir George Sommers headed back to Bermuda from Jamestown for food, which had been continually in short supply in Virginia. Somehow, he died on Bermuda. Sommers’ research lead to the second known map of Bermuda, which was much more detailed than the first.
In 1611, officials of the Virginia Company planned to colonize Bermuda. They named Bermuda the “Sommers Islands,” after the recently deceased Admiral Sir George Sommers.
In Nov. 1611, the first performance of The Tempest, a play by William Shakespeare, was staged. Shakespeare’s story, while mostly fictional, seems to be partly based on accounts by two of the people who were shipwrecked while traveling on the Sea Venture in 1609.
In 1612, ships with immigrants landed and Bermuda was colonized. Records indicate that the colonists found very large numbers of hogs. In 1613 and 1614, additional ships with immigrants arrived. In Nov. 1614, the Virginia Company ‘wrote off’ its investment and gave the colony to the English government, “The Crown.” In 1615, some English investors who were shareholders in the Virginia Company started a new enterprise, the Sommer Islands Company (which was spelled “Somers Isles Company” in some records). This company was formally approved by King James I.
In 1615 and/or 1616, the first coins of Bermuda, “Hogge Money,” were struck. They were almost certainly circulating in 1616 and continued to circulate until at least 1624. It was against the law to export or otherwise remove these coins from Bermuda. As they are of silver denominations and contained little or no silver, few people in Europe would have wanted them, anyway. Besides, they were needed in Bermuda where there was a shortage of coins.
The Shilling was a standard English denomination, for many centuries. Twelve pennies equaled one shilling. Five shillings equaled one Crown. Twenty shillings equaled ‘one pound sterling.’
Eric Newman’s Bermuda (Sommer Islands) Shilling is the best 1615-16 Bermuda coin of any denomination that I have ever seen. Its quality is far beyond that of ninety percent of the other survivors. Indeed, I was stunned; I could hardly believe that this piece exists.
The toning is definitely natural, mostly a medium brown, with some greenish tints, not too dark. While there are some weakly struck design elements, this coin has minimal wear. I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with the AU-55 grade that was assigned by the NGC. Most experts figure that the grades assigned to Bermuda coins of 1615-16 tend to be generous in terms of grading criteria employed for most other coins. This AU-55 grade, however, is really not generous. This coin is almost unbelievable.
Many of the surface imperfections are not due to corrosion or mishandling. The planchet was a little rough. The dies had pits and other indentations.
The detail is excellent. The design elements on the reverse are particularly neat, with the hull, the sails, the waves, and even individual portholes, all very visible. This coin is amazingly attractive for a 1615-16 Bermuda coin, and more than attractive in absolute terms.
There are very few contact marks. The green-gray-russet-brown hues on the reverse are appealing. The areas of wear on the obverse exhibit a nice, natural reddish-brown tone. Importantly, the green tones on this coin are pleasing and apparently stable. For the most part, these tones are different from the green tints that come about due to corrosion, which are often seen on pre-1800 coins that have sizable copper content.
According to the Heritage catalogue, this Newman Shilling is 77% copper and 22% tin. This piece sold for $258,500, to floor bidder #117 at or near the back of the room. In my view, this result is slightly strong, and a good value from a logical perspective.
In Oct. 2013, the St. Louis firm of Scotsman auctioned a PCGS graded EF-40 Shilling that had earlier been offered by Stack’s-Bowers in 2011. While that shilling has excellent detail for a 1615-16 Bermuda coin, the Newman Shilling is vastly superior. It seems that Scotsman sold that shilling for ‘$144,037.50.’
On July 31, 2008, in Los Angeles, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded VF-25 shilling for $40,250. The previous lot in the same auction was another Bermuda Shilling, a PCGS graded VF-20 coin, which sold for more than the PCGS graded VF-25 coin, $43,125 versus $40,250. In that auction, the shilling with the lower certified grade has suffered from less corrosion.
This PCGS graded VF-20 Bermuda Shilling appeared again in the Aug. 2010, Heritage ANA Auction in Boston. It then brought $40,250, the same price that the PCGS graded VF-25 piece went for in 2009. Both these pieces exhibit medium corrosion and other problems that are typical of surviving 1615-16 Bermuda coins.
As for other Bermuda Shillings, the PCGS has graded one as AG-03, one as Fine-12, plus possibly a second piece as EF-40. All of the Bermuda 1615-16 Shillings mentioned so far have a reverse design with “Small Sails.”
Another variety with relatively larger sails in the design is termed “Large Sails.” The Large Sails Shillings are much rarer than the Small Sails Shillings, though are worth only slightly more as it would be unusual for any one collector to seriously seek representatives of both ‘Large Sails’ and ‘Small Sails’ varieties.
On May 22, 2007, Stack’s auctioned a non-certified ‘Large Sails’ Shilling that was said to grade ‘EF-40.’ It has numerous problems, though does have excellent detail for a Bermuda Shilling. This ‘Large Sails’ Shilling brought $109,250.
In April 2014, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded Fine-12 ‘Large Sails’ Shilling for $58,750. I did not see it. Evidently, the NGC has graded another ‘Large Sails’ Shilling as Good-04 and the PCGS has graded one as VF-20. Also, there are privately owned shillings of both ‘sails’ varieties that have never been submitted to the PCGS or the NGC.
Bermuda Sixpence coins are categorized as having ‘Large Portholes’ or ‘Small Portholes.’ In my opinion, this does not make any difference. On most pieces, it is difficult to see the portholes, anyway. A collector would be lucky to own one that has a discernible ship.
The Newman Bermuda Sixpence is NGC graded “AU-50.” Given the reality that most surviving Bermuda Sixpence coins have bubbling corrosion and much missing detail, I could understand why graders might become excited about this coin and assign a “50” grade to it. Even so, I found that experts disagree with the certified grade. This coin has the detail of an Extremely Fine grade coin and it has some serious problems. Given criteria generally employed to grade 1615-16 Bermuda coins, it is probably still gradable. It may make sense to downgrade it to VF-35.
The catalogue states that the Newman Sixpence consists of 81% copper and 16% tin. The seemingly cool, bright rich green texture that covers much of the coin is not desirable and is a major concern. Even so, the near completeness of the design elements is very impressive for a Bermuda Sixpence.
The $129,250 result is strong. In general, Andy Lustig concludes that “the prices for the Newman Bermuda coins were strong, but not crazy, understandable.”
I was figuring that a moderate price for this Bermuda Sixpence would be $97,500 in a typical auction, plus a $5,000 to $15,000 Newman premium. The NGC has graded four other Bermuda Sixpence coins, the highest grade assigned to any of other four is EF-40. The PCGS has graded five: two 12s, one 20, one 40 and a 53. The PCGS graded AU-53 Sixpence is clearly superior to the Newman Sixpence, though is clearly inferior in quality to the already mentioned Newman Bermuda Shilling.
The PCGS graded VF-20 Bermuda (Sommer Islands) Sixpence was formerly in the epic collections of John Roper and Jack Royse. It was auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers in Nov. 2012 for $86,250.
A PCGS graded Fine-12 coin was auctioned by Scotsman in Oct. 2013, from the same consignment as an already mentioned shilling. According to the cataloguer for Scotsman, officials at the PCGS note a “provenance to Loye Lauder, whose collection of patterns and colonial coins was sold by Doyle Galleries in 1983; Loye Lauder was an heir to the Lauder cosmetics fortune.”
The Scotsman site seems to indicate that this Fine-12 Sixpence coin brought $46,287.50. Although less than the Scotsman estimate, a $46,287.50 result was moderate, not weak. Some Bermuda coins have considerably more problems than others.
In May 2008, Heritage auctioned a Sixpence that is apparently “bent” and is said to have the details of an AU grade coin. I never saw it. The $43,125 result is not strong. Markets for rare coins were booming in May 2008.
Fewer than forty Bermuda 1615-16 Sixpence survive. A substantial percentage of these, probably a majority, are in museums or other institutional holdings.
The Threepence is the rarest of all the Bermuda denominations of 1615-16. Although the cataloguer lists just seven, I contend that at least a couple more survive. The Heritage cataloguer asserts that the Newman piece is the finest of all the Bermuda Threepence coins that are not controlled by museums or banks.
The Newman Threepence is NGC graded VF-20. It is curious that it is said to be 97% copper and 1% tin. What are the trace elements that constitute the other 2%? Why would the tin content be unusually low? For centuries, the people of Britain regarded Threepence as a silver denomination.
Indeed, the term ‘silver wash’ is often associated with the 1615-16 coins of Bermuda. The point of a ‘silver wash’ is to make a non-silver or low-silver coin of a denomination that is typically minted in silver more emotionally acceptable to people who may spend it or accept in commerce. Copper is red and/or brown in color.
Usually, a ‘silver wash’ contains little or no silver, yet is closer in color to silver than the affected coin would otherwise be if the “silver wash” did not cover its surfaces. There are cases, though, of a ‘silver wash’ literally referring to a true silver plating, a thin coating of silver, on a coin that would otherwise have little or no silver content. In ancient times, many copper coins were plated with true silver and such silver tended to oxidize. While 1615-16 Bermuda coins do not seem to contain silver now, this reality does not prove that none did when struck. The silver in the alloy of the ‘silver wash,’ if there was any, could have oxidized and departed.
A ‘silver wash’ involves plating blanks before striking or plating coins after striking. The plating tends to oxidize and/or erode much faster than the underlying surfaces of the coin. Areas of green-toned tin, which are often attractive, are found on the surfaces of many Bermuda coins of 1616. It is possible that the ‘silver wash’ was entirely tin.
On these coins, experts often have trouble distinguishing desirable green toning of tin-dominated areas from green-colored corroded areas, especially since most surviving 1615-16 Bermuda coins are characterized by both phenomena. Before buying a 1615-16 Bermuda (Sommer Islands) coin, a collector should consult an expert who has examined at least several of these and is familiar with other ‘centuries-old’ copper and tin coins.
Although much of the surfaces of the Newman Threepence are covered with corrosion, the underlying problems seem to have been neutralized and this Threepence seems to be relatively stable. There is some green verdigris on the reverse, though there is more such verdigris on many other surviving 1615-16 coins of Bermuda. The quality of this Threepence coin is much greater than expected.
The light reddish-tan hog, with a green spot on its tummy, is almost delectable. Moreover, the hog is exceptionally well detailed with a fierce facial expression. The other design elements on the obverse are murky. The hull of the ship has more detail than I would have expected. The tan and blue tones on the reverse are somewhat appealing.
Though not truly gradable, I found myself liking this coin. It has a neat overall ‘look’! It appears much better in actuality than it does in published images.
The $205,625 result is weak. If it is true, as the cataloguer indicates, that the Norweb and Carnegie pieces are now in institutional holdings in Bermuda, there are few privately owned Bermuda Threepence coins for collectors to hope of obtaining.
In Oct. 1987, the Norweb Threepence sold for $70,400, while four other Norweb Collection 1615-16 Bermuda coins sold for less than $6000 each. One of Norweb’s two Bermuda Shillings sold for $39,600 and it was catalogued as grading “EF-40.” Even if the Norweb Threepence is superior to the Newman Threepence, and I am not asserting that this is so, it seems that moderate market levels for both now would be more than $225,000 each.
The Norweb Massachusetts NE Shilling brought $13,200 in 1987, less than one-fifth the price of the Norweb Bermuda Threepence. Without seeing the Norweb Massachusetts NE Shilling, it can be fairly concluded that, if it was auctioned in 2014, it would be extremely likely to realize a price between $270,000 and $425,000. (In regards to the Norweb I Sale, I am citing prices realized that are listed on the PCGS site.) I was figuring that the Newman Bermuda Threepence would realize at least $250,000.
Some researchers categorize the Twopence coins in accordance with the size of the star below the hog, ‘Large Star’ and ‘Small Star.’ The difference is slight and I am ignoring die varieties here.
Although the Twopence is not nearly as rare as the Threepence; it is a Great Rarity, fewer than twenty-five survive, including more than a few in museums. The Newman piece is NGC graded VF-25. It is a little more attractive than the Newman Threepence, though the Newman Twopence was struck on a notably flawed planchet (prepared blank).
The reddish highpoints are very appealing and the Roman numeral two is remarkably bold. The Newman Twopence has considerable detail. The facial expression of the hog is apparent. The sails are nearly complete, as is most of the hull. Many border beads are defined as well.
The reddish highpoints contrast well with green toned tin in the fields. This is another early Bermuda piece that turned out to be much better than I expected it to be. Three of the four Newman Bermuda coins were pleasantly surprising.
The VF-25 grade is fair enough. This coin was not well struck and much of the missing detail was never there. The $64,625 result is hard to interpret.
On May 22, 2007, Stack’s auctioned a PCGS graded VF-25 Twopence. It was earlier auctioned by Bowers & Merena in New York in October 1987, as part of the Norweb Collection. The $86,250 result must have been considered strong in 2007.
Another PCGS graded VF-25 Twopence was auctioned by Bowers & Merena in 2001. That coin was earlier sold by Heritage in 1999.
In March 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded Fine-15 coin for $51,750. In Jan. 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded AG-03 Twopence for $18,400.
Could a collector who missed the Newman sale assemble a set of four 1615-16 Bermuda coins, one of each denomination? Well, an owner of a Threepence would have to be willing to sell. Shillings and Sixpence coins tend to be offered fairly often. A suitably affluent collector could acquire one of each within a few years, without pushing the bidding to astronomical heights.
Again, I suggest replicas and fantasy strikings for most interested collectors. These are not expensive and many are curiously appealing. Also, a vacation in Bermuda to view many genuine coins in museums might be an excellent idea.
©2014 Greg Reynolds