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The Coinage of Malta

The Mint of Malta

Little is known of the first mint in Malta before the time of Grand Master La Vallete. And even for some time afterwards, only fragments of information have been unearthed. Bosio, in his 'Storia della Sacra Religione' wrote in the year 1684 that the Master of the Mint in 1566 (shortly after the Great Siege) was a Fleming named Simon Prevost. He engraved and struck the special coins and medals which were placed in a copper urn under the foundation stone of the new city of Valletta.

The site of the first mint of the Order of St. John in Malta is also unknown. Numismatic historians, however, believe it was probably first located at either Fort St. Angelo or in Birgu (Vittoriosa). Shortly after 1573, the Mint was transferred to the tower of the Grand Master's Palace in Valletta. After 1604, it was installed in St. Sebastian Street in Valletta, today known as Old Mint Street. In 1778 the Mint was moved again, this time to the "Conservatoria" (today the Royal Malta Library), still in the capital city of Valletta, and remained there until it ceased to function in 1800.

Under the rule of the Knights, the Grand Master himself was responsible for appointing the Master of the Mint who, in turn, had jurisdiction over all goldsmiths and silversmiths operating in Malta.

Between 1722 and 1727, Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena (1722-1736) struck no less than 200,000 Zecchini pieces but these quickly began to disappear from circulation as, through prejudice or lack of expertise in the art of finance, they were issued at well below their real value when compared with foreign gold coins whose value had risen on the market. Large quantities of these Zecchini were exported, mainly to Naples and Sicily where gold was rated at a higher value than in Malta and where they were subsequently melted down at a profit. Vilhena had in the meantime also made a complete alteration in the silver coinage by issuing new denominations and because the silver standard had also been raised it became just as profitable for speculators to export the Order's silver coins.

To check the constant flow of the coinage of the Order outside Malta the Mint was ordered to stop striking Zecchini and in 1730 a strict prohibition of the exportation of local gold and silver was imposed. These measures were partly successful until Vilhena's death in December 1736. However, two years after the election of Grand Master Ramon Despuig (1736-1741) it was again found out that the 2 Scudi and Scudo silver coins were being exported by speculators or melted down by the local silversmiths. In spite of the reimposition of heavy fines and harsher penalties for those who either exported or melted down the coinage, silver coins continued to disappear from circulation. In March and April 1738 Despuig withdrew from circulation all silver coins of the Order and coined them into new coins of inferior fineness thereby making it unprofitable for speculators to export them. Though this drastic measure saved the Order from a total disappearance of the silver coins of the Knights from Malta and increased the amount of the coinage, it also resulted in the extinction of a large number of Vilhena's beautifully executed silver coins.

In March of the succeeding year, again through lack of expertise in financial matters, the Order committed the grave error of arbitrarily raising the value of foreign coins and leaving the rate of the Island's standard coin, the Zecchino, at the old rate. An immediate exportation of the Order's gold and silver coins took place and within a short while Malta's currency practically consisted of its over abundant copper token coins which at that time were worth about 100% less than their nominal value.

On his election, Grand Master Emmanuel Pinto (1741-1773), faced with a great shortage of gold and silver coins, quickly struck a good amount of Zecchini but these were afterwards replaced with new denominations of 10 and 5 Scudi gold pieces (Single Louis and Half Louis - Lwig u nofs Lwig) as the former coins proved to be unpopular due to their inferior fineness. Although Pinto also introduced new denominations in silver including the 30 and 15 Tari pieces (L-Uqija u Nofs Uqija) he was unable to restore confidence in the Order's currency. In 1762 or 1763, unable to find a remedy he sought the competent advice of Zanobio Paoli, a former Master of the Mint in Florence. When Paoli arrived in Malta he found the local Mint in a deplorable state and in an elaborate ' 'Trattato della Zecca' ' submitted soon after his arrival, he made various recommendations including the introduction of new denominations, the striking of new Zecchini of 22½ carats and the withdrawal of the fiduciary copper coins.

Unfortunately no records exist as to what measures were taken to reorganise the Mint after Paoli's report during Pinto's rule. Apart from prolific issues of certain denominations and the introduction of the gold 20 Scudi or Double Louis of Malta (Lwig doppju) in 1764 very little appears to have been adopted from Paoli's report and the local Mint continued to be run at a loss. During the short rule of Grand Master Francisco Ximenes de Texada (1773-1775) matters remained just as bad, for the Commissioners of the Mint in 1774 blamed the Mintmaster for the issue of a debased and discredited coinage. Within the period 1766 and 1776 minting had in fact been very erratic and the accounts for the Mint show a loss of just over 2,446 Scudi.

In 1777 the Treasury of the Order, to reorganise the Mint and to stop it from operating at a loss, decided to adopt Paoli's recommendations with regard to the method of work and the various duties of those employed in that establishment. To restore confidence in the Order's coinage it was also recommended that the standard gold coin, the Zecchino, was to be restored to its original fineness of 22 ½ carats and 3 1/6 deniers in weight and its value regulated periodically according to the rate at which Spanish Doubloons were bought by the mints of Naples and Palermo. The standard silver coin, the Maltese Scudo, was also to be restored to the fineness of 10 ozs. 12 grs. fine silver per pound and the Commissioners of the Mint were also to issue periodically a tariff showing the purchase price of foreign coins Amongst other matters it was also recommended that Pinto's debased Zecchini and the copper fiduciary coins were to be withdrawn.

Many of these recommendations, though approved by Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan (1775-1779) were ignored; for instance Pinto's Zecchini were never withdrawn and the copper pieces were only countermarked against forgery. However, there is no doubt that necessary measures and changes in the Mint's administration were carried out, as the coins of de Rohan are most exact in weight and purity. The financial records of the mint also reveal that this establishment, though losing in certain years, made an overall profit of over 25,000 Scudi over the period 1778 to 1788. Nevertheless, during De Rohan's rule the financial position of the Order deteriorated further and seriously chiefly because of developments occurring overseas. The economic affairs of Malta depended to a large degree on the steady inflow of capital from abroad. Much of these funds originated from ‘responsions’ or remittances in connection with property income from the large number of land holdings in Europe belonging to the Order. During the French Revolution however, much of the income-producing property owned in France was confiscated and many Knights fled to Malta. With little money available, the Order was forced to incur huge debts in Malta and abroad to maintain its operations, and to make up for the loss, it was obliged to coin the silver plate of its galleys as well as much of the silverware in the Grand Master's Palace, the Hospital and other places.

The Mint of the Order continued to function during the two-year reign of Ferdinand von Hompesch (1797-98) who relinquished Malta without any serious effort to defend it from the French who landed on the Island in June 1798.



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