Coinage (Colonial Spanish America)

views updated

Coinage (Colonial Spanish America)

With gold and silver dominating the export economy of the Spanish Indies, not surprisingly, the minting of gold and silver coins became a significant colonial enterprise. Apparently, the first coins appeared in Española in 1497—crude gold specie fashioned in Santo Domingo as a convenience for the growing population and trade on the island. As the Spanish presence expanded in the Caribbean and elswhere, so too did the stamping of gold coins in Santo Domingo. In fact, by 1520 over 14,000 kilograms of gold in bars and specie reached Seville from the Indies. Moreover, until about 1535, the standard monetary unit in the Indies was the peso de oro, also called a castellaño or peso de minas, with a value of 450 maravedís, a weight of 4.6 grams, and a fineness of 22.5 carats, or one-fiftieth of a mark (marco) of gold.

In 1535, with the successful conquest of Mexico, Peru, and New Granada, Charles I ordered the founding of mints (casas de moneda) in Mexico City, Lima, and Santa Fe de Bogotá. Set up ten years later at Potosí was a Temporary mint, which functioned until a permanent structure was erected in 1572. In Mexico the first coins issued by the Casa de Moneda in 1536 were gold pesos de tupuzque, valued at 272 maravedís. Appearing in 1537, the first silver peso (also called the peso fuerte, patacón, duro, or piece of eight by the English), became a standard monetary unit in the Indies for the next three centuries. Royal edicts also called for the minting of silver coins of a quarter, half, one, two, three, four (tostones), and eight reales, in addition to the peso. The two-real coin was the most commonly used.

Pesos of eight reales oscillated in size between 33 and 40 millimeters. Although they varied somewhat in their inscriptions, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries most coins were circular, with one side depicting castles and lions, separated into four parts by a cross, and carrying an inscription of the value of the coin. On the reverse side were two columns representing the pillars of Hercules with the inscription plus ultra in the middle; on the edge were the name of the monarch in Latin and a name or letter designating the site of the mint—M for Mexico, L for Lima, P for Potosí, and so forth.

Until the seventeenth century coins were fashioned crudely by stamping pieces of silver bars (trozos) with a round-mold hammer, but the coins were seldom perfect circles or of the proper weight or fineness. By 1600, however, better technology, more precise assay methods, and more stringent oversight of mint empresarios by royal officials established the Spanish American piece of eight as one of the most reliable monetary units in the world. In fact at the end of the sixteenth century, merchant contracts in faraway Turkey often specified payment in pesos of Potosí.

Despite the spate of gold discovered or seized during the early years of the Conquest, silver quickly replaced gold as the only metal being minted in Mexico, Lima, and Potosí. In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, only the gold coins of Spain circulated in these placs, at least until 1675, when Charles II once again authorized mintage of gold. In New Granada, however, where gold output vastly overshadowed silver production, crude gold coins stamped in Bogotá or Cartagena and gold dust circulated as a means of exchange in the sixteenth century. By 1627 Turillo de Yebra, a royal treasurer in Bogotá, had begun minting both gold and silver coins, an enterprise which continued in New Granada through the Wars of Independence.

The wide variety of specie circulating in Spain and the Indies during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to the establishment of imaginary monetary units of account to ensure reduction of the myriad currencies to a single common denominator. For this purpose the crown used the maravedí with a real valued at 34 maravedís, a peso of eight reales at 272 maravedís, and a peso de oro at 450 maravedís. In Peru and Upper Peru the peso ensayado of 450 maravedís was another common, imaginary unit of account which existed until about 1735. This imaginary peso ensayado reflected the traffic in silver bars valued at 2,250 maravedís from which 5 pesos of 450 maravedís could be coined. Still another imaginary monetary unit used primarily in the sixteenth century, the ducado, or ducat, valued at 375 maravedís, provided another conversion unit more convenient than the tiny maravedí. Unlike Spain, where copper coins called moneda de vellón circulated widely in various denominations of maravedís, no copper money or maravedís were coined in America, preserving the integrity of the peso de ocho and reales both in the Indies and worldwide.

Despite the continual debasement or devaluation of the currency in Spain, the Hapsburgs did not pursue a similar policy in the Indies. From 1535 to 1728 the piece of eight was valued at 272 maravedís, had a silver content of 25.561 grams, and weighed 27.468 grams. In 1728, however, Philip V lowered the silver content to 24.809 grams. Then later in 1772, Charles III decreased it still further to 24.433 grams, and finally in 1786 to 24.245 grams. Thus, the fine silver content of a peso decreased by about 5 percent over the course of the eighteenth century, or expressed another way, the amount of fine silver contained in one peso de ocho was 0.9306 from 1535 to 1728, 0.9167 from 1728 to 1772, 0.9028 from 1772 to 1786, and 0.8958 from 1786 to 1825.

At the same time the Bourbon regime began reducing the silver content of American coins, it transformed the mintage system in the Indies. Bourbon monarchs set up new mints in Santiago de Chile, Guatemala, Guanajuato, Guadalajara, and Popayán. Later, during the Wars of Independence, casas de moneda emerged in Mexico at Durango and Zacatecas and at Cuzco in Peru. Moreover, throughout the Indies, private mint operators, formerly supervised by royal assayers and treasury officials, gave way to royal control and management of all mint activity.

In another reform, the Crown also ordered mintage of new coins with ridged edges and with the bust of the king inscribed on the specie. Although silver specie was issued in the same denominations as before, the Bourbon bureaucracy hoped that the new silver coins with the ridged edges would stop the practice of shaving or clipping. In Bogotá and Popayán, mint officials began stamping gold escudos of eight, four, two (doblón), or one escudo (escudo sencillo). At the same time, mints at Potosí, Lima, and Mexico City increased their output of gold coins. In still another move to tighten metropolitan control of colonial coinage in the late eighteenth century, mint officials in the Indies were required to send samples of their coins to Spain every six months for inspection and assay.

During the Wars of Independence (1808–1825) royal casas de moneda continued to operate, at least until they fell to rebel forces, but mint activity declined sharply. In 1812 the mint in Lima, for example, coined 3,876,000 pesos (456,000 marks) of silver and 575,000 pesos (4,228 marks) of gold; in 1821 the same Casa de Moneda minted approximately 476,000 pesos (56,000 marks) of silver and 272,000 pesos (2,000 marks) of gold. In Mexico in 1808 various mints stamped almost 25 million pesos in silver coins and a bit over 1 million pesos in gold; in 1821, however, mint output amounted to only 5,600,000 pesos in silver and 300,000 pesos in gold, evidence of the devastation wrought by the struggle for independence.

See alsoCharles I of Spain; Mining: Colonial Spanish America.


Humberto Burzio, "El 'peso de oro' hispanoamericano," in Historia 1, no. 4 (1956): 9-24, and "El 'peso de plata' hispanoamericano," in Historia 3, no. 12 (1958): 21-52.

A. M. Barriga Villalba, Historia de la Casa Moneda, 2 vols. (1969).

Julio Benavides M., Historia de la moneda en Bolivia (1972).

Manuel Moreyra Paz Soldán, La moneda colonial en el Perú (1980).

Additional Bibliography

Beltrán Martínez, Antonio. Introducción al estudio de la moneda hispanoamericana. Zaragoza: Gobieno de Aragón, Departamento de Educación y Cultura, 1997.

Gilboy, Frank F. The Milled Columnarios of Central and South America: Spanish American Pillar Coinage, 1732 to 1772. Regina: Prairie Wind Pub., 1999.

Menzel, Sewall H. Cobs, Pieces of Eight and Treasure Coins: The Early Spanish-American Mints and their Coinages, 1536–1773. New York: American Numismatic Society, 2004.

Proctor, Jorge A. The Forgotten Mint of Colonial Panama: A Look into the Production of Coins in America during the 16th Century and Panama's Spanish Royal House for Minting Coins. Laguna Hills: Jorge A. Proctor, 2005.

                                          John Jay TePaske