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Tortoise Coin
Malacca, Malaysia, circa 15th century

In the mid-1400’s, Malacca (Malaysia) rose to become a prosperous and powerful center of international trade, attracting Javanese, Indian, Arab and Chinese sea-merchants. During this period, gold, silk, tea, opium, tobacco, perfumes and many other items from nearby countries and as far away as Europe and South America changed hands.
In response to this growing trade, Malacca began making her own coins, such as the medium size tin tortoise shown here that was minted in the 15th century Malacca Sultanate era by Ming Chinese who had migrated and traded here. Its tortoise shape and the Chinese characters on its back reflect the influence of the Chinese, Buddhist and Hindu cultures. These Chinese characters of double happiness are surrounded with lotus and symbolize fortune and money or wealth coming to the owners. To augment this fortune, the medium size tortoise coins measured 6cm wide (6, a lucky number, represents good luck to have meals, food to eat) by 9cm long (9 represents long life and good health).

Malacca’s fame grew and in 1511 the Portuguese, coveting the important spice trade monopoly, took control of the empire. In turn, they were conquered by the Dutch in the 1600’s who were later conquered by the British. The British remained in control until Malaysia obtained her independence in 1957.

The tortoise (turtle) was also an ancient European design that dates back to the first trade coins minted in Aegina (Greece) in the 6th century BCE. Aegina was a formidable trading nation that used the image of the sea turtle, which was plentiful in the Mediterranean waters, to symbolize her sea power. In 457 BCE, Aegina was conquered by Athens at which time she changed the design of the sea turtle to a land tortoise to represent her change in fortune. After this, in an attempt to establish monetary uniformity, Athens forced Aegina to take Athenian `owls', then later issued an edict ordering all `foreign' coins to be handed in to the Athenian mint, thereby coercing her allies to use the Attic standard of weights, measures and money.



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