Tunisia – an outpost for African gold
Long before the first 20 franc gold coins were introduced in the Tunisian economy, the country had an extensive and captivating history related to this precious metal. It began when Phoenician traders colonised Tunisia’s coast sometimes around 1100 BC, and established the memorable city of Carthage. This city became the centre of a great maritime empire and one of the dominant powers in the Mediterranean. According to ancient authors, Carthage was considered one of the richest cities in the known world that flourished because of its extensive trade in gold, silver, tin, iron and slaves.
As the legendary warrior of Carthage, Hannibal, failed to conquer Italy after occupying its territories for 15 years, a series of wars between the Romans and the Carthaginians ended with the total destruction of the city of Carthage. Nevertheless, the city was rebuilt and together with the territories of Tunisia, was incorporated into the Roman Empire around 50 BC where it flourished and became one of the most important cities of the Empire.
Following the Arab conquest of Tunisia in the 7th century, Carthage was once again levelled to the ground, never to be rebuilt again. Instead, a close neighbour to the fallen city, Tunis - capital of today’s Tunisia, took centre stage and became an important Arabian trading outpost and naval base. During Arabian rule that lasted until the 16th century, Tunis prospered and became an important hub in the Trans-Saharan gold trade.
The Trans-Saharan trade route connected the Mediterranean countries in need of gold with sub-Saharan Africa where this metal was abundant. Camel caravans transported the gold to trading outpost like Tunis, where it was exchanged for salt, beads, cloth and other materials. This trade was of especial interest to Northern Islamic states and Spanish and Italian merchants that needed raw gold to mint coins. The land-based “gold route” was in place until the 1500s when Portuguese sailors established the more efficient sea routes between West Africa and Europe.
With the decline of Trans-Saharan trade, Arab influence diminished, which enabled first Spanish and then Turkish dynasties to gain control of Tunisia’s territories. By the early 1700s, Tunisia had become virtually an independent country administered by local Beys (chieftains) under the domain of the Turkish Empire. The most prominent of the Beys came from the Husainid Dynasty that ruled over Tunisia for more than 250 years until 1957. The Tunisian 20 franc gold coins carry the calligraphic signature of two of these chieftains, Bey Ali III from 1891 to 1902, and Bey Muhammad IV from 1903 to 1904.
Tunisia becomes a French protectorate
In the 19th century, the ruling Bey sought to overhaul the Tunisian economy by borrowing heavily from Europe. The funds were spent lavishly on the country’s infrastructure, on expanding public projects, on upgrading the military, and on the Beys themselves for their personal use. With the funds borrowed at unfavourable terms, and coupled with poor returns on the investments they made, the debt and interest payments became unmanageable.
By 1869, it was clear for the cash-strapped Bey government that the only option left was to declare Tunisia bankrupt. With the country in default, an international financial commission, led by France, Britain and Italy, took control of Tunisian finances.
It was of no surprise that, following the takeover of Tunisia’s financial affairs, the three European powers that shared the same colonial mindset began a decade-long furtive quarrel over the rights over Tunisian territories. Italy justified its claims to Tunisia by pointing out that it had more investments in the country and that its nationals constituted the majority of European settlers living in Tunisia at that time. France, on the other hand, saw Tunisia as a natural extension of its African possessions, given that it bordered with Algeria, which at the time was a French colony. Finally, Britain, which possessed the island of Malta near the Tunisian coast, did not want to have a single nation controlling the Strait of Sicily (the water-lane between Tunisia and the island of Sicily).
At the Congress of Berlin in 1871, Britain and France made a secret agreement that designated France’s right to Tunisia in exchange for Cyprus that would fall under British influence. In 1881, a small Tunisian tribe raided French Algeria and became a pretext, or a “political window of opportunity”, for the French to invade Tunisia with more than 35,000 men, prompting the Bey to come to terms with the French. A treaty was signed that stipulated that the Bey continued as the head of state, albeit limiting his authority to internal affairs only, whilst all other aspects of policy were handed over to France, making the country a French protectorate. Following France’s invasion of Tunisia, Italians with substantial interest in the country protested, although they were not prepared to risk a military confrontation with France.
Franc gold coinage rejuvenates the Tunisian economy
In 1884, as a first step to put Tunisia’s economy back on track, the French provided 125 million gold francs to pay off Tunisian state debt. A little while later, Tunisian 20 franc gold coins, in conjunction with other French gold, silver and copper coins, were introduced into the economy with the goal of promoting trade and stabilising the country’s monetary system. The infused coinage, in conjunction with crucial infrastructural investment that included the construction of railways, highways, and seaports, coupled with the building of new mines that for the first time profitably extracted a plethora of different minerals, and the expansion of the agricultural sector, put the economy on the road to growth.
During Tunisia’s time as a protectorate, extensive improvements were made to its social infrastructure that included the erection of schools, public buildings, sanitation facilities, hospitals were built, and clean water was supplied. Although being a French colony brought many benefits to Tunisia, it was clear that the European settlers were clearly privileged in contrast to the local population. This discrimination fuelled opposition to colonial rule that culminated in a crescendo of resistance that led to Tunisia’s independence in 1956.
Tunisie 20 franc gold coins - part of Europe’s first monetary union
Since Tunisia was a protectorate of France, it was logical for the Tunisian 20 franc gold coin to have the same size and metal composition as French gold coins. This uniformity and the fact that France was a member of the Latin Monetary Union meant that the Tunisian 20 franc gold coin was freely interchangeable with coinage of other countries that were part of this union.
The Latin Monetary Union was Europe’s first major currency union, founded in 1865 by Italy, France, Belgium and Switzerland. This union was an attempt to unify those countries’ money into a single uniform currency. The founding members of the union agreed on a uniform fineness and weight of their coinage, which was set to equal the French silver and gold franc, and they agreed to interchange each other’s gold and silver coinage at parity, irrespective of whether it carried another design, effigy or name. The ratio of the two precious metals was likewise standardised, with 4.5 grams of silver being equal to .290322 grams of gold, a ratio of 15.5 to 1. The standardisation facilitated and simplified trade among the member countries and was seen as an appealing concept, leading other European countries to join as well. Although the union came with numerous flaws, one of them being that individual governments over-issued paper notes above the stipulated fixed ratio that was set between paper notes and circulating precious metal coinage, they were all the consequence of poor human judgement rather than the failure of the uniform precious metal coinage itself. Nevertheless, the union expanded until the advent of World War I, and came to a formal end a decade later in 1927.