Rupees on the Shore

Posted on 4/16/2019

Two shipwrecks a century ago contained cargo with well-preserved Government of India and Hyderabad Rupees.

Trade has been a key cornerstone of India’s history, with its spices and exotic goods desired around the world. Countries set up trade routes to supply Europe with its growing demand for spices and goods from India.

East India Trading Company was the first company to establish a trade route for England, but Spain, Portugal and the Dutch had already been well established before East India Company sought its own trade. East India sought to gain favor with the reigning Mughal Empire of India and establish a foothold with factories. This would be England’s first step into making India a colony.

The East Indian Company spread throughout Asia in the late 1700s, becoming a behemoth of trade and power while India was dealing with infighting between its states. The Princely States of India were made up hundreds of different rulers, all of which were in control of their own state. East India Company had a massive army that made it a desirable ally to the local rulers of India.

The Company began gaining administrative privileges over India’s states and imposing taxes, all with the local rulers' blessing. In 1857, the Great Rebellion broke out due to some of India’s states thinking the British had gained too much influence over them. Britain subdued the rebellion and aimed to establish a stronger local government to quell future problems. The Government of India Act of 1858 was passed.

The era of British Raj, meaning British Rule, had officially begun. The act dissolved the East Trading Company and transferred all its rights to Britain, officially establishing a local British government. The British set up a very similar banking system to England, which required all money issued to be backed by precious metals.

At the height of World War I, in 1918, a ship by the name of the S.S. Shirala began making the journey from England to supply a growing British India. Shortly after leaving its port, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship in the English Channel, sinking it.

The Shirala was carrying cargo, some of which included signed 1 Rupee notes and unsigned 5 and 10 note rupees. After being sunk, some of the cargo was reported to have washed up on the shore of southern England. Banknotes were among the wreckage on shore, but an exact number of how many is unknown. The prefixes of the 1 Rupee notes were not different from some of the 1 Rupee notes already in circulation. The 1 Rupee notes on board the ship were signed, making them legal tender.

Shortly after the sinking of the boat, England withdrew all 1 Rupee notes with prefixes A, K, L M and R, as these were known to be on board.

During World War I, England needed silver desperately. The Nizam, or the ruler of Hyderabad, gave Britain 2.5 million pounds of silver to help support the war effort during its severe shortage of silver. In turn, Britain allowed Hyderabad to issue its own currency, making this the only Princely State to have its own currency during British Raj. The shortage of silver is also what brought about the half, 1 and 2 rupee banknotes, having the Government of India issue banknotes instead of silver coins.

After the war, Hyderabad began printing its own notes to be used in its state with its newly granted permission from England. One ship by the name of the Egypt began sailing from London to Bombay in 1922 carrying gold, silver and banknotes for Hyderabad. It collided with another ship mid-route and sank 400 feet to the bottom of the ocean. The Egypt remained lost until 1930.

Once found, a recovery operation for its sunken cargo began. The majority of its precious goods were recovered by 1935, with the gold and silver recovered totaling over £1,000,000. A unique part of the recovery was finding banknotes from Hyderabad that were well preserved, considering they had been at the bottom of the ocean for over 10 years. An assortment of 5, 10 and 100 Hyderabad Rupees were salvaged, totaling over 1,000,000 in Hyderabad Rupees!

India - Princely States / Hyderabad, Pick# S265a, ND (1920) / FE1331, 10 Rupees, front.
PMG Graded 35 Choice Very Fine
Click image to enlarge.

These notes show the difficult task Britain had with supplying its local government in India and supporting the needs of its people. Ultimately, the British Raj came to end in 1947, when India gained its independence. The country was split into Pakistan and India.

Owning a piece of sunken treasure that is paper is quite rare, which makes these notes exceptional. The notes from the Egypt come up in auction occasionally and normally sell for less than one thousand dollars, making for an easier entry level compared to other wrecks.

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