BIGGLES FLIES WEST
By Captain W. E. Johns
II. THE DOUBLOON (Pages 47 - 56)
At the "Jolly Shipmates" coffee tavern, Biggles orders “sausage and mash for four, a pot of tea and plenty of bread”. Dick opens the letter and a gold doubloon drops out. (The doubloon - from the Spanish word “doblón”, meaning "double" - was a two-escudo or 32-real gold coin weighing 6.867 grams (0.218 troy ounces in 1537, and 6.766 grams from 1728, of 0.917 22-carat gold). In the New World, Spanish gold coins were minted in one, two, four, and eight-escudo denominations. The two-escudo piece was called a "pistole"; the large eight-escudo coin was called a "quadruple pistole" or, at first, a double doubloon. English colonists would come to call it the Spanish doubloon. The two coins shown in the pictures between pages 50 and 51 were ones in the possession of W. E. Johns. His gold doubloon was minted in Peru in 1717 during the reign of Philp V of Spain. This coin was sometimes called an onza (ounce), the coin weighing just one ounce of pure gold. It could also be called a piece of eight, as it represented eight escudos. In 1717, these rough hand-made coins are called “cobs”. It is the rear of this gold coin (the reverse), with the Cross of Jerusalem, as opposed to the front face (the obverse) which is the gold coin embossed on the first edition of Biggles Flies West). The other coin shown in the pictures is a pure silver coin representing eight reales, which was the coin more usually meant when talking about “pieces of eight”). Dick doesn’t know what it is but says it isn’t a sovereign. Biggles says “I fancy any numismatist (Numismatists include collectors, specialist dealers and scholars who use coins in object-based research) would give you several sovereigns for it”. (A sovereign is a gold coin of the United Kingdom, first issued in 1817 with a nominal value of one pound sterling. Still issued today, it is made of 22 carat gold and weighs 0.2354 troy ounces – a troy ounces being the measure of weight primarily used for precious metals. It is thought to take its name from “Troyes” in France rather than the ancient city of Troy). Biggles says “I believe I am right in saying that it is a doubloon”, Spanish currency in the days when buccaneers and pirates sailed the seas. Biggles tells Dick to put the coin and letter out of sight, bearing in mind where they are. Biggles explains about the history of "boucaniers" (from 'boucan', the French word for cured beef) and how buccaneers became Pirates. The Spanish tried to drive them out of Hispaniola and the buccaneers moved to the island of Tortuga. Here, they built boats and began making raids against the Spaniards. “Rumours of the great quantities of gold being captured from the Spanish galleons got abroad, and the toughest toughs in the world headed for Tortuga to join in the fun. Another colony sprang up at Port Royal, in Jamaica”. The buccaneering business was forgotten and the one-time buccaneers became pirates pure and simple. “Knowing that if the Spanish caught them they’d be burned, and if the English caught them they’d be hanged, they fought like devils, neither giving nor asking quarter”. (Between pages 50 and 51 are photographs of both sides of a Spanish doubloon and a silver coin representing eight reales - a piece of eight. The caption to the photographs says they are from the original coins in the possession of the author. The first edition of Biggles Flies West features a gold coin embossed on the cover – a “doubloon”. It was a replica of Johns’ own coin which he used to carry with him to show anyone who was interested in pirates. It was a gold cob, worth 8 escudos and minted in Lima, Peru in 1717. To buy a real one would cost around $9,500, if you could even find it for sale. An identical coin come up for auction at a specialist coin site in the USA and sold for that sum on 29th April 2015). As they leave the tavern, Dick steps out into the road and is almost run over. Our heroes then get a cab home but the taxi driver drives like a maniac and crashes at the corner of Mount Street, not far from Biggles’s rooms. Luckily our heroes are unharmed. The driver can’t explain what has come over him. He swears he isn’t drunk. A policeman arrives and take him away. Biggles says “That’s two narrow escapes inside half an hour. If this sort of thing goes on I shall soon begin to think you’re a hoodoo, Dick”. Back in Biggles' flat, they settle round the fire. “Biggles lit a cigarette”. Dick asks Biggles to read the letter from his father out aloud.