By Jesse Robitaille
French explorer Samuel de Champlain and his controversial astrolabe are the focus of the Royal Canadian Mint’s latest numismatic catalogue.
Released on April 6 alongside eight other new issues, the $50 five-ounce Fine silver coin, “Lost Then Found: Champlain and the Astrolabe,” commemorates Champlain’s astrolabe, a centuries-old scientific instrument discovered in 1867 and held by the Canadian Museum of History since 1989.
“Intricately cast in pure silver, a small-scale reproduction of the navigational tool-turned-treasure tops the coin’s reverse, which features Samuel de Champlain’s map of New France,” according to a statement issued by the Mint. “It’s a nod to the era in which the astrolabe was made, used and lost.”
Roughly translating to “star-taker” in Greek, the astrolabe traces its roots back to 170 BCE, according to the Canadian Museum of History. Ancient scientists used planetary astrolabes to measure celestial bodies’ altitudes and track their movements, allowing them to calculate latitude and time. As early as the 13th century, a simpler mariner’s astrolabe – like Champlain’s – began being used for navigation.
“The simple astrolabe consists of an outer disk with the circumference marked off in degrees,” reads the Canadian Museum of History website. “At the centre of the disk is a movable pointer called the alidade. To use, the navigator aligned the horizontal axis of the astrolabe with the horizon. He then pointed the alidade at the sun or polar star and read its position on the outer disk. This measured the angle of inclination of the sun or star from the earth’s horizon. By consulting an ephemeris or astronomical tables with this reading, the navigator could fix his latitude.”
Struck in Fine silver, like the coin, but also plated in bronze, the astrolabe embellishment rising from the $50 coin’s surface has “an almost 3D-like appearance – especially against the engraved map in the background,” according to the Mint.
The astrolabe’s graduated scale is also engraved near the coin’s rim in “great detail,” the Mint added.
With a proof finish, the coin has a weight of 157.6 grams (with the embellishment weighing 10.6 grams), a diameter of 65.25 millimetres (with the embellishment measuring 32.75 millimetres across). The coin has a mintage of 1,000 and is packaged in a maroon clamshell with a black beauty box.
ASTROLABE DISCOVERED IN OTTAWA RIVER
Beginning in 1603, Champlain made about two dozen trips across the Atlantic Ocean.
He first set sail to present-day Canada in May 1603.
“He departed on May 15, 1603, from Herfleur, and sailed up the St. Lawrence as far as Cartier had reached,” reads Elizabeth Cooper’s 1865 book A Popular History of America, referencing fellow French explorer Jacques Cartier.
Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence River for the first time in 1535, when he also reached the Iroquoian capital of Stadacona (near present-day Québec city).
During another voyage to present-day Canada, Champlain founded Québec as the administrative seat of the new French colony of New France on July 3, 1608. He was eventually named the colony’s first governor in 1632, three years before he died in Québec.
The story of Champlain’s astrolabe comes from yet another voyage to present-day Canada in 1613, when he and fellow explorer Nicolas de Vignau traversed the Ottawa River “in search of a passage to China and the riches of the East,” according to the Canadian Museum of History website.
“In his account of the voyage, Champlain begins by providing precise measurements of the latitude, an indication that he used his astrolabe,” adds the museum’s website. “Later he offers a simple description of the area without specifying the latitude, suggesting that the astrolabe was lost, in spite of the fact that nowhere did Champlain report the disappearance of his precious measuring instrument, although he included many other details in his report.”
The astrolabe was forgotten for 254 years – until August 1867 – when 14-year-old farmhand Edward George Lee found “a brass disk in the ground beneath a fallen tree,” according to the 2004 book Champlain: The Birth of French America (translated from French to English).
He and his father, a farmer named John Lee, were “doing clearing work on the shores of Green Lake” (since renamed Astrolabe Lake) near Cobden, Ont.
The year 1603 is engraved on the astrolabe’s 13-centimetre, 629-gram brass disk and metallurgic analyses confirmed it was manufactured in Europe at the beginning of the 17th century; however, its exact origins remain unknown.
The Mint also featured Champlain and his astrolabe on a 2014 gold proof coin, the third issue of the “Great Explorers” series. On the reverse, Champlain holds his astrolabe in his right hand.
COLOURFUL PLATINUM MAPLE LEAF TRIBUTE
The latest RCM catalogue also features the Mint’s annual maple leaf platinum coin, “A Tribute to the Maple Tree,” with a mintage of 300.
The $300 pure platinum coin depicts the bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), which bears the largest leaves of any maple species. It’s also among the tallest of the 10 Canadian maple species representing the country since 1996.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the federal government designating the maple tree as Canada’s national arboreal emblem.
The bigleaf maple, a Pacific Coast species, “furnishes its surroundings with a magnificent canopy that cycles from burgundy leaves in the spring to a final burst of gold in the fall,” according to the Mint. This seasonal transformation graces the coin with selectively coloured yellow and rose gold plating.
“The coin’s reverse proof finish ensures all eyes will be on the exquisitely sculpted leaves that shine bright against a frosted field.”
Struck in 99.99 per cent platinum, the reverse proof coin has a weight of 31.16 grams and a diameter of 30 millimetres. It’s packaged in a red lacquered case with a black beauty box.
ANNUAL COLLECTION BOOK
Marking a first for the Mint, the April catalogue also includes the Crown corporation’s 2020 Annual Collection book, showcasing the coins it issued last year.
“It’s the ultimate coffee table book that will put your love of coins on display,” according to the Mint.
The more than 100-page book – available in either English or French – highlights collector coins, proof sets, commemorative circulation coins, bullion and gift sets while outlining each commemorative theme from last year’s numismatic catalogue.
“Within its pages, you’ll find high-resolution photographs, descriptions and specifications for all our coveted 2020 collectibles that have a special place in collections worldwide,” added the Mint.
The Mint is selling 5,250 copies of the English version and 1,350 copies of the French version.
OTHER APRIL COINS
The Mint’s April catalogue also features:
- a pair of royal-themed coins, “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Lover’s Knot Tiara,” available in Fine silver and pure gold with a mintage of 4,000 and 175, respectively;
- a $30 Fine silver coin, “Imposing Icons: White-Tailed Deer,” with a mintage of 2,500;
- a $50 Fine silver coin, “Multilayered Cougar,” with a mintage of 1,500;
- a 2021-dated 50-cent special wrap circulation roll, with a mintage of 15,000 rolls; and
- a limited-edition special wrap roll, “100th Anniversary of Canada’s Coat of Arms,” with a mintage of 10,000 rolls.
For more details about each issue, visit mint.ca.