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How Madagascar bandits helped to modernize the mint of St. Petersburg

Russian monarchs thought broadly, but often dependently. For example, Peter the Great adopted from the British East India Company not only the scheme for building shipyards for St. Petersburg, but also the strategy of expansion to Asia and Africa. In chess, copying the moves of a stronger opponent will never lead to victory, but in politics this method can sometimes give unexpected results.

Peter’s plan for the colonization of India did not materialize. Russia was not even able to gain a foothold in Madagascar for a long time, which it chose as a springboard for naval expansion. But 70 years later, in the last years of the reign of Catherine II, the failure of the Madagascar campaign unexpectedly led to the breaking of the British embargo on the export of steam engines and the modernization of coin production in Russia.

The north of Madagascar in 1726, when Russian ships under the command of Abram Gannibal approached it, was ruled by pirates. Three thousand well-trained soldiers of the Russian regular army, hardened in the battles of the Northern War, coped with them in a week. Pushkin’s great-grandfather hoisted the Russian flag on the reclaimed territory and addressed a letter to the leaders of the tribes that controlled the central and southern parts of the island.

“Our Emperor, Peter Alekseevich, is pleased to provide you with protection from encroachments on your land: England, Holland, France and other European powers. And also, it pleases the great emperor to share with you and your subjects the fruits of Russian progress. In return, our generous emperor asks you to accept Russian citizenship. If you agree, you will also be granted a title of nobility and a gift of land in Russia. According to your further desire, you can either go to Russia and comprehend Russian traditions, or stay here and help the administration we have established in managing the island”.

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The leaders were forced to agree. Peter signed a decree on the creation of the Russian-African Company (again, by analogy with the East India Company). He appointed Hannibal as its head and ordered that the Russian colonial peasants be given 2 hectares of Madagascar land free of charge. The island did not become a springboard for advancing to India. It did not bring significant economic benefits, and with the death of Peter the project began to fade and gradually came to naught.

In 1786, during the reign of Catherine the Second, it received an unexpected continuation. Information reached the Russian imperial court that the private Soho mint in Birmingham received an order for 100 tons of coins to be circulated in Sumatra, from where, shortly before, the British managed to oust the Dutch business. Catherine, in turn, decided to revive

Russian Madagascar, only not through the “protection” of the leaders, but through dominance in the field of finance. Collaboration with Soho co-owners Matthew Bolton and famed inventor of the steam engine, James Watt, helped the Empress be among the first to learn of their successful idea to increase the productivity of a screw coin press using steam power. One Bolton machine could mint up to 120 coins per minute, which was four times the most advanced manual press at that time.

Catherine, of course, could not resist the temptation to put the same machine tools at the mint of the Peter and Paul Fortress. The unwillingness of the British crown to take out progressive technologies outside the country interfered. At that time, Russia was actively increasing the supply of sailing fabric, timber, hemp and grain to England, therefore George the Third could not firmly refuse the Russians in a deal with coin presses, but he slowed down the process in every possible way.

During the life of Catherine, only advertising samples of copper ten and five kopeck coins were obtained. The minting of Russian coins of mass production using steam presses was established only in 1807 under Alexander the First. However, even such a delay did not prevent the Russian mint from earning a reputation as one of the most advanced in Europe.

One of the Russian interns at the Soho mint, Ivan Liesel, in 1811 made a scaled-down model of the world’s first steam-driven screw press. He gave it to the Museum of the Mining Cadet Corps (now the Mining Museum), where it is exhibited to this day.

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