Hornell’s Coin Collection and the Numismatic Scene in Colonial India

8 minute read

James Hornell was a British maritime historian, collector, and fisheries specialist who served as a marine biologist to the Government of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Madras (now Chennai) in South Asia in the early 20th century. In these posts, Hornell spent a long time in India forming a considerable collection of nautical items such as models of rafts, fishing floats, lines, etc. Many of these are now in the collections at MAA.

After retiring in 1924, Hornell joined the St George’s Expedition to the South Seas. He also served as a fisheries advisor to various countries. He collected items during these voyages and gave them to the British Museum. Hornell’s collection in the British Museum and at MAA match his interests in nautical navigation. But the collection at MAA also contains a little less than 100 coins, whose source is also Hornell. Hornell’s records don’t provide us with any clues that would indicate his interest in Numismatics. What might have prompted him to move beyond his usual interests? Why did he donate these coins to the MAA? Let’s try to find out.

Hornell and His Collecting Interests

Many British civil servants and military officers stationed in colonial India took up coin collecting as a passion. These coins were attractive to scholars as crucial sources for writing and constructing India’s history. The prevailing colonial understanding at the time was that India lacked a written history. British writers did not trust Indian textual sources to provide accurate dates and times. This made it difficult to establish dynastic time ranges. Coins then became a viable and useful alternative, as they could help correct these gaps.

As the discipline of numismatics advanced, these collectors developed their areas of expertise. Dedicated collectors and even museums tried to complete their coin collections. They tried to obtain every specimen of a series. A collector might try to get all the coins issued by the Mughal kings in India. This would include specimens from each of their mints, for each year and each type.

Figure 1. 17 copper coins manufactured between 1813 and 1846, and used as cash in the Kingdom of Travancore, under the reign of Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma. Tamil Nadu, India. Collected by James Hornell. MAA Z 21148 K.1-17.

Hornell’s coin collection at the MAA does not correspond to this pattern. These coins are wide-ranging. They traverse vast periods, ranging from the ancient, to what might have been quite recent to Hornell’s own period. In other words, some coins date to the time when Hornell was stationed in South India in the 1920s (including those manufactured in 1813-1846 and those used in the late 19th century).

Figure 2. Ten copper coins and tokens used between 1828 and 1891, in Sri Lanka and India. Collected by James Hornell. MAA Z 21148 G.1-10.

They also include coins of different South Asian dynasties (Gandhara, Mauryan/Kushanas, Gurjara-Partiharas, Sultanate rulers and Travancore). This confirms what we know about Hornell, that numismatics was not his calling. Instead, it seems that Hornell stumbled on these coins by chance. Unlike his fellow collectors, he didn’t systematically buy and arrange them into a proper coin collection. The recent issues in the collection must have been easily available to Hornell in the local market or bazaar, as loose change and petty coins. These coins did not hold monetary value anymore but must have remained in circulation in the local markets or bazaars.

Despite lacking monetary value, to Hornell, this loose change meant something more. They were souvenirs from his time spent in India; tokens speaking to the ways of life of ancient Indians; and a record of the systems of exchange functioning in Indian markets. In the absence of any indications in his records, we can’t say for certainty which of these guesses is accurate. Luckily for us, Hornell was not the only collector traversing the markets of Madras (now Chennai) and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) at the time. Other collectors, such as Captain R. H. Campbell Tufnell and Major R. P. Jackson, have left detailed accounts of their coin-collecting endeavours in South India. Their diaries are full of interesting anecdotes about their adventures hunting for coins in the local bazaars.

Coin Collecting in Southern India

Tufnell and Jackson were both military officers stationed in South India. Tufnell was in the Madras Staff Corps, an Indian army branch during colonial rule. He developed a collection of South Indian coins and published a catalogue of the collection of Mysore coins in the Government Museum, Bangalore (located close to Mysore).

We don’t know much about R. P. Jackson, except that he was a retired army officer and was interested in Mysore coins like his predecessor, Tufnell. He also published articles on the coins of the city of Balapur, and that of the nawab of Carnatic, Muhammad Ali, in south India. As I have found in my PhD research, a collector’s geographical base was a crucial factor in dictating the choice of their areas of academic expertise. One simple reason was that to study the coins of a particular dynasty, you needed access to those coins. They were more likely to be found in the same area in which that dynasty had ruled. Both Jackson and Tufnell were stationed in south India. This must have led them to develop an interest in Mysore coins. Mysore was infamous as the capital of the Tiger of Mysore, the mighty Tipu Sultan. It is no surprise then, that given Tipu’s history of wars with the British, (culminating in his defeat and the indiscriminate looting of his capital), British army officers found his coins fascinating.

In Coin Collecting in Mysore, Jackson recalls how he travelled from village to village in a dogcart. He sent his supplies in a bullock cart in advance, as hotels were not available at the time. As a European, local villagers marked his arrival with curiosity. They soon learnt that he was on the hunt for coins and obligated him by bringing out bags of coins. Jackson tells us that these bags contained old issues of coins that were no longer in use, and thus the locals were ‘only too anxious to exchange them for the more useful current coin of the realm.’ It is possible that Hornell also found his coins while travelling across southern India in this manner. Even though Hornell was not actively looking for coins, locals might have offered him older coins as gifts. They must have guessed Hornell’s interest in these older coins because they knew about other coin collectors, like Jackson and Tufnell. Either way, they must have been eager to get rid of their old coins.

Eventually, Jackson, like his predecessor Tufnell, decided to visit the village shroff or the money changer. Obtaining coins from moneychangers was a trusted method to form a collection in colonial India, and indeed continues to be today. As the name indicates, moneychangers helped residents exchange coins to obtain change. As a result, they often had old coins no longer in circulation in their reserves. These reserves became an attractive cache for coin collectors who could get rare and desirable coins for their collection. R P Jackson speaks to the huge variety and amount of coins that could be found at these moneychangers’ shops:

‘Even so late as in 1906 the variety of copper coins piled up in heaps Oil market days in front of the money-changers was astonishing. On examination I have found specimens of the Pathan kings of Delhi, the Bahamani kings of the Deccan, of Auranzebe [sic: Aurangzeb], of Akbar, of Tipu of Mysore, and coins of various villages, besides many others too numerous to mention.’

Charles James Rodgers, another British collector, wrote about his experiences with moneychangers in north India. He portrays them as shrewd and reluctant salesmen. Tufnell also complained that the money changers raised their rates as soon as they realized he wanted the coins for a collection. Although Jackson must have found it disappointing, one cannot help but be impressed by the clever business aptitude of these moneychangers.

In their accounts, British coin collectors also recount their interactions with local Indians in collecting coins. Many of them often portrayed local Indians as ‘ignorant natives’ who lacked an understanding of coins and regarded them just as ‘purane paise’ or old coins. Rodgers wrote that ‘to the money changer coins are only bullion’ hinting at their lack of appreciation of coins as sources for writing history. Jackson also writes in a similar dismissive tone, remarking that ‘an old coin to the native mind was of infinitely less interest than the more useful modern piece.’ He does concede a few years after he visited the local towns in south India, that the situation had changed. Indeed, another anecdote from his memoir tells us about a local Indian who turned the tables on Jackson and gave him tough competition.

The Student Surpasses the Master

After being disappointed by moneychangers’ high rates, Jackson decided to employ a local man. He doesn’t tell us much about him except that he was ‘a very intelligent and smart Mussalman’. Jackson trained him to read coins, so he could go to villages and towns to hunt for coins. The two efficiently divided their tasks. As Jackson writes, leaving the grunt work to his assistant, made matters convenient for him.

‘Thus, the acquisition of Coins was a very easy matter for me, and I was saved the annoyance of bargaining with natives who invariably ask considerably more than the real value, and I had the pleasure of spending many hours during the long hot Indian day examining the collections, identifying, and cataloguing them.’ [3]

The nature of the relationship between Jackson and his assistant is not unheard of in British India. Many British collectors employed local field agents and assistants. Their scholarship and career were dependent on the crucial labours of their local skilled assistants.

On a visit to Daulatabad, (a city near Aurangabad in western India), Jackson decided to enquire about coins in the bazaars. He was surprised as he was told that ‘an eccentric Mussalman on a bicycle…had examined all the money in the village, and taken all away with him what he wanted [sic].’ It’s an ironic tale where the British coin collector is outdone by his local helper. One day, his assistant returned to Jackson dejected. He told Jackson that a ‘sahib’ had gone to the bazaars making enquiries about coins. His enquiries had driven the prices up for the assistant. This story made Jackson step away and leave the task of collecting to his adept assistant.

British collectors’ assumptions about local Indians’ lack of knowledge about the history of coins were also misplaced. Jackson’s local helper succeeded in acquiring information about coins from residents. On occasions, they were ‘even able to give the name of the town or village where they had been coined.’ Thus, British collectors were dependent on local Indians for both collecting coins and obtaining crucial information about their history.


We started this story by trying to investigate Hornell’s coin collection at MAA. We could not find evidence of how he might have obtained these coins. Indeed, gaps in archives like this is a disappointment that historians and curators often have to grapple with. Yet, accounts of coin collectors in the same region from a similar period gave us crucial insights into the practice of coin collecting in south India. We can thus make an informed guess that Hornell might have also obtained his coins from local moneychangers in Madras, who possessed coins from all over India as Jackson tells us. Alternatively, he may have received them from residents who were keen on getting rid of their old issues and would have received good money for it from British men hunting for coins in the area.

Jackson and Tufnell make harsh criticisms about local Indians and their lack of understanding of coins. However, Jackson’s encounter with his local assistant is a telling tale. It shows how British colonial officers in the region depended on their local assistants and helpers to form their collections. The story of Indian archaeology is one of many such Indian skilled assistants whose names are often forgotten in later retellings.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with us

If you'd like to get involved, then please get in touch with us at digitallab@maa.cam.ac.uk.

About the Museum

Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
Downing Street

+44 (0)1223 333516

Visit the MAA Website
Search the Collections


Follow us


If you wish to donate online, then please go to the University of Cambridge campaign webpage.




Subscribe to receive notifications when we post new blog entries: