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  Book review

A Silver Legend: The Story of the Maria Theresa Thaler

by Clara Semple

Barzan Publishing Ltd, 2005. Pp.xii + 165. Illus. Glossary. Bibliog. Index. Hb. £19.95. ISBN 0-9549701-0-1.

It was a brilliant idea of Clara Semple’s to devote a book to this offbeat but fascinating subject. She was initially inspired to do so by her interest in the jewellery of the Nile Valley in which she was already a recognised expert. But her new subject entailed years of exploration over a much wider area. The result is a splendidly illustrated account of the Maria Theresa dollar (or Thaler) drawn from many sources as well as her own personal studies. Anyone who has lived in North Africa or Arabia should need no introduction to the Thaler which they must often have seen adorning the necks or the coiffure of Arab women, many fine examples being illustrated here.

And what was this remarkable coin? Its origins are as remarkable as any other aspect of the story. Maria Theresa inherited the headship of the Holy Roman Empire on her husband’s death in 1745 after producing for him no less than sixteen children (amongst them the famous figure in France, Marie Antoinette). She also took up in a big way the minting of the imperial coinage. The Thaler (hereinafter the MTD) bore on one side her own handsome head and her generous bust – allegedly the secret of its popularity amongst Arab men, quite apart from its pure silver content. When she finally died in 1780, the MTD went on being produced all over the place for 200 years, unchanged and still dated 1780, and was distributed far and wide, finding its way to markets as remote as Tokyo and Togo.

The main centres of production were latterly Birmingham and Bombay; and during a final decade (l949–6l) the British Royal Mint struck four and a half million MTDs, indistinguishable from the beautifully engraved original.

It will interest English readers of this Journal that during those two centuries all British explorers in Arabia and Africa found that a plentiful stock of MTDs was essential for their progress, if not also for their survival. Amongst the best known were Sir Samuel Baker and his wife on their intrepid search for the source of the Nile in the 1840s, Richard Burton, Rosita Forbes, right through to Bertram Thomas and Wilfred Thesiger.

In Yemen itself it was the great Danish explorer Carsten Niebuhr who first reported to Europe the hoards of MTDs in Sana’a. Yemen had built up its stocks by discovering the value in Europe of coffee, which it was the first to grow in quantity and exchange for MTDs, as did Abyssinia when coffee growing was developed there. We learn that in 1923 some 32,000 MTDs would be needed to buy 100 tons of coffee beans in Addis Ababa.

Semple has dug up dozens of entrancing stories about the MTD, too many to be mentioned here. It was good to be reminded of the problems suffered by Evelyn Waugh, when covering as a journalist the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, in finding the necessary MTDs to buy a railway ticket from Diredawa to Addis.

Glencairn Balfour Paul