|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Antiques And Arts News||Home|
Central And South American Coins
It would be impossible to give more than a very general picture of Central and South American numismatics in this present work. However, to understand fully the evolution of the coinage of the various countries, it is necessary to go back to the fifteenth century when Columbus made his first voyage in 1492 and sighted the Bahamas. In all, Columbus made four voyages, in 1492, 1493, 1498 and 1503, and at the time of his death in 1506 the West Indian archipelago, the east coast of what is now Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and portions of Venezuela and Brazil had been discovered.
Vasco Nunez de Balboa reached the Pacific coast in 1513 and six years later established Panama city; it was here that the foundations of the kingdom of New Spain were laid and whence all the gold-hunting expeditions set out, north to Mexico and south to Peru. The conquest of the Aztecs in Mexico during 1519-20 and the murder of Montezuma by Cortes in 1521 strengthened the Spanish rule and when, twelve years later, Francisco Pizarro successfully fought his way to Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire (having murdered Atahualpa), virtually all resistance to the Spaniards ceased.
Prior to the Spanish invasion, no coins as we know them were used. The Aztecs, a society based on bloodshed with human sacrifice, maintained an accurate system of accounts and each and every person was liable for tax, no matter how young or old or infirm they may have been. This tax was levied according to each person's ability to work and practically any article was acceptable as payment for this debt. Perhaps, however, the item that was most generally acceptable was the cacao bean and Fernandez de Oviedo in his Historia Eclesiastica de Nuestro Tiempos, written in 1611, states that, `There is nothing among the natives that cannot be bought or sold with or for these nuts, just as among Christians with gold doubloons or double ducats. Thus a rabbit could be procured for ten cacao beans; two zapotes (the apple-shaped fruit of the Achras sapota tree) were worth one cacao bean; a slave could be purchased for one hundred cacaobeans and a concubine could be engaged for eight or ten beans.'
With such a high value placed on these beans, it is not surprising that some natives became experts in forging them by means of removing the kernel without damaging the skin too much and filling it with earth, thus restoring the nut to its original weight.
In addition to the cacao bean other forms of currency were in use prior and immediately following the Spanish conquest. Pieces of woven cotton called Patolcuachtli; grains of gold or gold dust enclosed in duck quills which enabled the amount enclosed to be seen; copper blades in the shape of knives or similar to the tool used today for trimming the edges of lawns; small circular pieces of tin; stone beads, red shells and small gold ornaments in the shape of animals or eagles-all were in use at this time. The pieces of tin are mentioned by Cortes in a letter to Charles V of Spain but unfortunately nothing else is known of them as this is the only reference to them that has so far come to light.
Until 28 January 1527, cacao beans were counted for the purposes of exchange but following a new ruling on that date and until 24 October 1536, the exchange was effected by measure, the size of the measure depending on the municipality where the exchange took place. Following orders issued in New Spain on 17 June 1555, a hundred and forty beans were to equal one Spanish real, but by 1636 the price of cacao beans had risen rather alarmingly and the City Council of Mexico City was forced to put a fixed value on them so that they could continue to circulate as coins. The cacao bean remained a monetary unit in New Spain until the beginning of the nineteenth century.'
Following the conquest of the Aztecs some convenient form of coinage became necessary; the Spanish had circulated a quantity of coins of relatively high denominations and to alleviate the shortage of small change, private traders in or about the year 1522, caused gold dust to be melted and struck into small discs. These pieces were only marked with the weight and because of the ease with which they could be forged-the gold being debased by the addition of copper-the issue soon became known as tepuzque, the native name for copper. Later, in 1526, these pieces were re-melted and struck with the royal coat of arms and the legend PLUS ULTRA together with the weight and fineness of each coin.
On 11 May 1535 a royal decree was issued in the name of Charles V, establishing a mint at Mexico City with orders of strike silver coins in denominations of three, two, one and halt reales. Copper coins were also authorized in the same decree, but it was left to the discretion of the viceroy and the local authorities as to the date of issue. Both silver and copper coins were struck in 1536, but there is definite documentary evidence to prove that the first coins to be struck at the mint and indeed on the whole continent were struck in gold at an earlier date from some of the tepuzque; the issue was extremely small and no specimens are known to exist today.
In 1544 a vice-royalty was established in Peru at Pizarro's capital at Ciudad de los Reyes (Lima) for the purpose of exporting the treasure of the ancient Inca empire and in the years that followed, vast quantities of gold and silver were shipped back to Spain in the plate fleets, one-fifth of which (the King's Fifth) was bound to be paid to the royal treasury. It has been estimated by Alexander von Humboldt that up to 1803 the amount of gold and silver exported to Spain was little less than £1,000 million. In 1565 a mint was established at Lima and some years later at Potosi also.
At first there were only two vice-royalties; those of Mexico and Peru, the latter including the whole of Spanish South America with the exception of Venezuela which was governed by the audiencia of Santo Domingo. Towards the end of the eighteenth century further vice-royalties were established for New Granada roughly corresponding to Ecuador and Colombia, and for the Rio de la Plata, corresponding to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia.
Portuguese interests in the continent were large. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Portugal was the leader of the new era of exploration, such men as Prince Henry the Navigator, Diaz and Vasco da Gama playing an important part in the discovery of the New World. Rivalry between Spain and Portugal in South America necessitated the Treaty of Tordesillas which set up a demarcation line between the colonies of the two countries at 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Island (a line roughly following the long. 50° west). Brazil, which had been discovered (probably by accident) circa 1500 by Cabral had been settled in the coastal regions by private enterprise and in 1532 this area was divided into twelve administrative districts called `Captaincies'. Later these were abolished and amalgamated into a single executive under a governor general (after 1763 a viceroy).
To the Spaniards it soon became obvious that the placing of too much land and authority in the hands of one man, as had been the case in Brazil, was a dangerous practice and left too many opportunities for independence. Steps were therefore taken to remedy this by subdividing the vice-royalties into governorships and captaincies-general, the viceroy, however, retaining powers of intervention. In 1783 the areas were broken down still further into `intendancies', eight of these being established in the vice-royalty of Rio de la Plata and seven in that of Peru.
As the area over which the Spanish ruled gradually increased, so more mints were opened, that of Santa Fe de Bogota, in the vice-royalty of Nuevo Reino de Granada, being opened during the reign of Philip IV (1621-65). Further mints were also set up at San Domingo, Guatemala, Santiago de Chile and at Caracas. Many of the coins issued from these mints are commonly known as `cobs' because of their very crude shape. They are very often practically square and much of the design is usually missing; they are always in poor condition. The reason for the peculiar shape seems to be that the blanks were cut by hammer and chisel from a narrow cast bar of silver and if any attempt was made to make them circular, it was by hammering the edges after striking. This type of coin is known to exist of most reigns from Philip II (1555-98) to Charles III (1759-88). The term `pieces of eight' is a familiar enough expression and although this term can be taken to mean the silver cob eight reales, it is more correct to associate it with the gold eight escudos, also known as a doubloon.
Until the reign of Philip V the gold coins did not bear the portrait of the king, only his name and titles appearing round a coat of arms. Philip, no doubt feeling that his gold coins at least were worthy of his portrait, ordered the type to be changed and subsequently the portrait of the king appeared on the gold coins. It was not until the reign of Charles III that a similar practice was adopted for the silver coins and consequently during this reign coins bearing both the familiar `Pillars of Hercules' and the bust of the king are to be found.
An interesting anomaly occurred at the beginning of the reign of Charles IV. Ten days after the death of Charles III on 14 December 1788, the Spanish cortes issued a royal decree empowering the mint officials in New Spain to continue using the dies of Charles III coins with the addition of another digit to the numeral, thus causing the coins to bear the portrait of Charles III and the title of Charles IIII. Coins of this type were struck in 1789 and 1790 until new dies bearing the correct portrait were cut in Madrid and transported to the mints in New Spain. During this transitional period, some of the dies in New Spain were altered to the correct reading of Charles IV.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century several revolts broke out against the Spanish rule, the general feeling of unrest being accentuated by some of the sons of wealthy Creoles who had been educated in Europe where there was also political unrest. Knowledge of the recently formed Constitution of the United States of America and the results of the French Revolution helped in causing dissatisfaction with Spanish rule in South America. Champions of the fight for liberty such as Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla in Mexico, Juan Martinez de Rosas and the Carrera brothers in Chile, Narino in New Granada, Monteagudo in Buenos Aires and other more familiar names such as Simon Bolivar and San Martin, each played an important part in the fight for liberty. Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and Ferdinand was held prisoner by the French whilst Joseph Napoleon was at the head of the Spanish government. The Spanish-American colonies refused to acknowledge Joseph with the result that no coins or medals were struck for the latter in that continent.
In 1810 a revolution broke out in Mexico led by Hidalgo and Don Jose Maria Morelos y Paron and during the years 1811 to 1814 many coins were issued in the name of Morelos. Since they were produced in whichever part of the country the army happened to be, they were of necessity only very roughly made, usually by casting. The coinage was primarily only a copper one, some specimens in silver are known to exist, but Morelos's authority for the issue of coins, dated 13 July 1811, does not provide for these and some doubts as to their authenticity must therefore be entertained. The usual type for these coins is a roughly formed letter M above the value, i.e. 8.R. (eight reales) within a scroll-like border and on the reverse an arrow strung in a bow above suD. The eight reales is the denomination most frequently met with, but smaller denominations exist; the four-real pieces that sometimes turn up are forgeries. Some of the coins exist in gold, but as no historical data is available to authenticate them, it is impossible to say exactly when they were coined. Possibly, since the majority of these pieces seem to be of the period, they may have been intended for distribution as gifts among the Morelos supporters, only coined as and when gold was available. Some are no doubt forgeries of a later date.
Following the death of Morelos in 1815 the uprising was crushed and the situation restored more or less to normal although the feeling for independence was still retained. In 1820 there was an uprising in Spain and the situation in Mexico flared up again until General Augustin Iturbide, enjoying again the favour he had lost in 1816 for charging the authorities a percentage for guarding silver trains, formulated a plan for the independence of Mexico under Spanish rule. The authorities were forced to accept these terms and consequently in 1822 Iturbide declared himself emperor and struck coins in his own name. Ten months later he abdicated and Mexico became a republic until the empire of Maximilian which lasted from 1864 to 1867.
In South America the liberation of the continent was due primarily to two generals, Bolivar and San Martin, who in 1816 converged with their armies on the heart of the Spanish-American empire in Peru from the north and south respectively and with the expulsion of the remaining royalists of Charcas by Sucre in 1826, the liberation was complete. In that year, six independent governments were set up; Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, La Plata and Paraguay and from then on the continent began to fall into the political divisions with which we are familiar today.
With the advent of independence each of the new states issued its own coins based on the decimal system and over the years many of the coins bear the portraits of their country's liberator. In Mexico coins bearing the head of Hidalgo or Morelos, Simon Bolivar on those of Bolivia and San Martin on those of Argentina are examples of this. A very common obverse design for Latin American coins is the head of Liberty and is to be found on both crown-sized and smaller coins.
A wide variety of metals have been used for the coinage. Silver, of course, is a common medium, but nickel, cupro-nickel, copper, bronze and brass are frequently used. Gold is used to a lesser extent and perhaps the commonest gold coin in the whole series is the large Mexican fifty pesos which was first struck in 1921 to commemorate the centenary of Independence. Large quantities of these coins were struck between 1921 and 1931 and from 1943 to 1945, and today these pieces change hands at prices very little in excess of their bullion value.