The Rhode Island Ship Token of 1779: Introduction

The origin and significance of the Rhode Island Ship Token has long been obscure. It is now thought the idea for this medal was conceived during the second half of 1779, sometime after Spain joined France in declaring war on Britain. The medal was minted in England for distribution throughout the Netherlands, most probably, during the second half of 1780. It commemorated a victory of the British Admiral Richard Howe. During the summer of 1778 Major General John Sullivan, commanding some ten thousand American troops, with the aid of about four thousand French troops under Admiral Comte d'Estaing, tried to take Newport Rhode Island from British control. On August 20, 1778, Admiral Howe defeated d'Estaing's fleet and then headed for Conanicut Island, situated just off the coast of Newport, where the Continental troops were stationed. Hearing of the British advance, the Continental troops were forced to flee from the island and abandon their attack plans.

The obverse of the token depicts Howe's flagship while the reverse shows the American troops fleeing Conanicut Island. These items were sent to the Netherlands as propaganda. The Dutch were sympathetic to the American cause, and the British did not want them to sign an armed neutrality treaty against Britain. In 1779 Russia was protesting the British practice of searching neutral ships on the high seas for items the British considered to be contraband, that is, supplies destine for the rebellious American colonies or any of the allies. At the time the British had blockades against France and Spain, as well as the American colonies, and were boarding all neutral vessels on the high seas that were suspected of trading with any of those countries. In the summer of 1780 Russia persuaded Denmark and Sweden to join in a League of Armed Neutrality against the British inspections; they also made several overtures to Holland to join. In fact, the Dutch island of St. Eustatius in the Caribbean was a center of clandestine (that is, unrestricted) trade with America. Michael Hodder suspects the Rhode Island Ship token was distributed in Holland during the period from the Summer through mid December of 1780 to discourage the Dutch from joining the League. It was hoped this token, showing the hopelessness of the American cause, would influence the Dutch decision. Apparently the propaganda was ineffective, for the Dutch joined the League on December 20, 1780.

Although made in England, the legends on the token are in Dutch. Originally the engraver mistakenly included the word "vlugtende" (fleeing) on the obverse of the coin under the flagship. Clearly this was meant to be on the reverse of the token which depicts the fleeing Continental troops. This error was soon discovered and had to be remedied, as one could easily interpret the obverse to mean the Admiral's flagship was fleeing! The obverse die was recut so that a wreath design replaced the offending word under the flagship. Also, the word "vlugtende" was scrapped off the remaining undistributed stock of the token that already been made.

These tokens were made of brass with a few examples know in pewter. Pewter examples survive for the variety with with vlugente erased but no wreath and for the variety with the wreath. Often Rhode Island Ship tokens are found in circulated condition, suggesting they were used as coins rather than kept as commemorative medals. There is no evidence that these tokens ever circulated in America. The example below is a 1936 brass reproduction struck by the Robbins Company in Attleboro, Massachusetts, for Horace M. Grant, a Providence, Rhode Island, coin dealer. Copies were made in bronze and silver and can be distinguished from originals by the initials "H.M.G." on the waves below the Howe ship.

Last revision: December 28, 1998


See: Michael J. Hodder, "More on "An Illustration of a Rhode Island Ship Token in a 1785 Japanese Book," The Colonial Newsletter  27 (March 1987, serial no. 75) 980-981 and his "Were There Three (or More) Rhode Island Ship Tokens with Vlugtende on the Obverse?" The Colonial Newsletter  30 (March 1990, serial no. 84) 1129-1135; Michael Hodder, in the "Letters to the Editor" section including his letter and comments by the editor, Angel Pietri, under the title, "The Rhode Island Ship Token (medal) Story Continues: The Dutch Threat," The C4 Newsletter, A quarterly publication of the Colonial Coin Collectors Club, vol. 6, no. 2 (Summer, 1998) 8-12. For examples of most varieties see The Garrett Collection, auction by Bowers and Ruddy, part 3, October 1-2, 1980, with three brass varieties as follows: the vlugtende below the ship as lot 1325, with vlugente erased but no wreath as lot 1326, the wreath variety as lot 1327 and finally one of a few know examples of the wreath variety in pewter as lot 1328, pp. 53-54; and The John L. Roper.2nd Collection of Colonial & Early American Coins, auction by Stacks, December 8-9, 1983, with three brass varieties as follows: the vlugtende below the ship as lot 170 (ex-Garrett), with vlugente erased but no wreath as lot 171, the wreath variety as lot 172, and two varieties in pewter, a pewter example with with vlugente erased but no wreath as lot 173 (ex-Merkin sale of 1968) and a pewter example of the wreath variety as lot 174, pp. 59-60. On the 1936 Grant reproduction see, Richard D. Kenney, Struck Copies of Early American Coins,  Sanford J. Durst: New York, 1982 (rpt. of 1952), p. 14.

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Section Contents Rhode Island Ship Tokens

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