Rhode Island Ship Medals From
The Sydney F. Martin Collection Part I
Struck in odd compositions, with legends in an obscure language, referring to a little-known event during the American Revolution, the Rhode Island Ship medals have always been enigmatic and little understood. In truth, they’re not all that complicated, and they readily fit into the broader theme of European medals of their era.
They’re medals, not coins, but they’ve been an important element in early American coin collections since at least 1863. Though the usual origin story of the Rhode Island Ship medal in America revolves around the exorbitant $40 price achieved for one graded “rather poor” in the June 1864 George Seavey sale by William H. Strobridge — a story told breathlessly in the October 1867 issue of the American Journal of Numismatics — the truth is that wasn’t even the first appearance of one in an American auction. In fact, Strobridge himself had offered one just six months earlier, in December 1863, when an example in the Lilliendahl sale brought $1.25. Lot 759 in that sale was described as “THE RHODE ISLAND MEDAL. Obv. a large ship; rev. a fleet of vessels and soldiers. A very rare medal, eaten by rust, still by no means poor. Brass; size 21.”
Once the Seavey specimen brought $40 — almost twice what a nice silver Libertas Americana medal might bring — the hunt was on for more. The October 1867 AJN, which reported the high price was due to two “unlimited” bids running into each other, noted that W. Elliot Woodward knew of an American who visited Holland soon thereafter and “found no less than fifteen specimens in various metals.” Despite the temporary market flood this created, Woodward estimated a total American population at the time of only 25 medals or so.
While the author of the 1867 AJN piece and plenty of others have gotten the meaning and context of the Rhode Island Ship medal wrong, Mike Hodder got it right. These are pretty straightforward political medals, propaganda medals if you will, intended to influence Dutch sentiment in a conflict they followed relentlessly: the American Revolution. Though the legends are in Dutch, the workmanship and composition resemble plenty of other English medals of the era that were made cheaply and intended for a mass market audience.
In 1778, American ground forces and French naval forces teamed up to try to dislodge the British from their dugin position at Newport, Rhode Island. It was the first such coordinated effort between the new allies. Though the plan seemed sound, with Comte d’Estaing off the coast of Aquidneck Island and John Sullivan (and Nathanael Greene) commanding the ground troops, things changed quickly once troops started moving. First Sullivan didn’t communicate a push to take the high ground. Then d’Estaing’s fleet was so badly damaged by a storm that he had to tell his allies on shore that he was heading to Boston for repairs and they’d have to fend for themselves. Despite the big plans, the Americans felt abandoned and were forced to retreat, leaving the British at Newport more secure than they were before.
It was an embarrassment, and the maker of the Rhode Island Ship medal wanted to make sure the largely pro-American Dutch knew about it before they advanced toward a financial or military alliance. So the maker produced a medal that showed Admiral Richard Howe’s flagship, the HMS Eagle, standing strong and firm with an appropriate motto: DE ADMIRAALS FLAG van ADMIRAAL HOWE 1779. The Eagle is depicted at anchor, sails furled, still and confident in its position. The contrast drawn between obverse and reverse would be a contrast between Howe’s strength and resolve and the Americans’ lack of it. A stylized map of Aquidneck Island, where Newport is located, is depicted in easily recognizable form. The British fleet is visible at the left shore of the island, in Narraganset Bay, while American boats are seen lined up on the right shore of the island to cross the Sakonnet River to escape to the mainland. American troops are seen, muskets shouldered, marching toward their boats, with a peripheral legend of D’vlugtende AMERICAANEN van ROHDE YLAND Aug’t 1778. The implication was clear: the British are steadfast, and the Americans are retreating cowards.
But cheap medals are made cheaply, and that means mistakes happen. When the die sinker produced the piece, he added the word “vlugtende” — meaning “fleeing” — to the piece to drive home what the Americans were doing. Murphy’s Law was discovered well before the 18th century, though, and the die sinker added it in the wrong place, beneath Howe’s anchored flagship instead of beneath the scene of the scampering Americans. Oops.
The mistake, given the rarity of the vlugtende variety, was discovered almost immediately. Rather than melt and restrike the medals that had been struck thus far, the minter instead removed the incorrectly placed word with a single chisel stroke directly from the soft-metal medals. It’s easy, but repetitive and time consuming. Some chisel strokes took out the whole word, others left portions of it slightly visible at the margins. Another remedy was settled upon: the addition of a floral spray into the die atop the word “vlugtende,” neatly covering it. Production was continued, and today’s numismatists can see the letters l, t, and d of “vlugtende” pretty clearly among the floral decoration.
The three varieties are now known as Betts-561 (with vlugtende), Betts-562 (vlugtende removed), and Betts-563 (ornament below ship).