THE COLONIAL COINAGE OF SPANISH AMERICA
An Introduction by Daniel Frank Sedwick
Coins in the traditional sense became a reality in the New World shortly after Columbus claimed it for Spain in 1492. Well before the great riches of the New World could be converted to coinage, as early as 1505 the mainland Spanish mints of Seville and Burgos began minting a series of silver and copper coins (now quite rare) specifically for delivery to and use in the colonies. (While technically products of mainland Spain, for practical purposes we list these coins here under Santo Domingo, now within the Dominican Republic on the large Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which was believed to be the primary recipient in this importation for New World use only.) It was not until 1536, at Mexico City, that a new mint would issue the first coins actually struck in the Americas.
These first coins, struck in the name of Charles I (1516-1556), better known as Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, and his lunatic mother Juana, are true works of art. Their simple yet thorough design, which was never used back in the motherland, generally portrays the arms of Castile (castles) and León (lions), flanked by the mintmark and the initial of the assayer, who was responsible for the coins’ quality (or at least their intrinsic value), on the obverse; the other side bears the symbolic Pillars of Hercules above waves (except for the wave-less earliest issues), with the denomination and motto PLVS VLTRA (Latin for “more beyond”) in between. The legends declare in Latin “Charles and Juana, king and queen of Spain and the Indies.” Taken as a whole, the symbolism of these first “pillar-type” coins was practically a battle cry: “There is another land across the ocean, and it belongs to the King and Queen of Spain!”
Further new mints constructed at Santo Domingo and later Lima, Peru, which is credited with having minted the first 8 reales or dollar-sized coin of the New World, imitated the first coinage from Mexico. Not long after his ascension to the throne, Philip II (1556-1598) changed the design of the coinage (in both Spain and the Indies) to the “shield-type” design, which consists of a full Habsburg coat-of-arms on the obverse and a cross with lions and castles in the quadrants on the reverse. As before, the mintmark and assayer’s initial flanks the arms on the obverse. (The Mexican silver coins of this design are always recognizable by the style of their crosses, which incorporate fleurs-de-lis at the four ends.) While this design was in use, a flourish of new mints began striking: First La Plata (for only a few months) and then Potosí, Bolivia (where an entire mountain of silver had been discovered by accident in 1545), followed briefly by Panama City, Panama (a key transshipment point for the treasures of South America), and then Cartagena and Bogotá, Colombia. While the silver outputs of the other new mints were negligible, the Potosí mint churned out many millions of silver coins over the course of two centuries of continuous minting. Only Mexico came close to Potosí in silver production, with Lima a distant third.
Gradually during the shield-type period the quality of the planchets and strike declined. The hand-struck and hand-cut nature of these coins usually rendered much if not all of the legend and even some of the interior detail incomplete, eventually earning these coins the common nickname “cobs.” Ironically this was also the period in which special, round presentation specimens known as“royals” began to be minted (but only sporadically and in very limited quantities). In the year 1607, the first dates appeared on the coins at Mexico, followed by Potosí in 1617.
The first gold cobs of the Americas were struck in the year 1622 at the mint of Cartagena (and at Bogotá shortly thereafter), and they continued the shield-type design with one major difference from the silver: The cross contains only fleurs-de-lis in the quadrants. Similar shield-type gold cobs began to be struck in Mexico in 1680. No gold cobs were ever made at the mints of Panama, La Plata, Potosí, or Santo Domingo.
Via annual treasure fleets of overloaded galleons, the silver of the New World was flowing across the globe at a tremendous rate. Philip II and his successors Philip III (1598-1621) and Philip IV (1621-1665) were unendingly at war and in debt. The riches of the New World barely passed through their coffers before heading for such European banking powers as the Netherlands, whose East India trade soon deposited the silver of the New World into the hands of Chinese merchants. In the 1640s, however, the merchants began to notice that the fineness and weight of the coins being traded were lower than they were supposed to be. In the face of losing the universal acceptance of their beloved New World currency, the Spanish monarchy launched a massive investigation that uncovered several decades of fraud and abuse at the Potosí mint. At least one assayer and even the mayor of Potosí were put to death. The suspect coinage was recalled and either melted or devalued, depending on its intrinsic quality, and new coins were marked with special countermarks to distinguish them from their devalued predecessors. Eventually a completely new design was implemented and refined through several varieties (known as “transitionals”) in 1652 that bore slight resemblance to the original design of the first pillar-type coinage of Mexico.
This new design, commonly referred to as “pillars-and-waves” and unique to New World coinage, incorporates several iterations of the most important elements that seemed to be absent on many of the earlier shield-type coinage: date, assayer, mintmark, and denomination. The obverse of these new coins displays a new cross-lions-castles, much like the earlier reverse, but with bars at the ends of the cross (“Jerusalem” cross) and with the denomination at top, mintmark at left, assayer at right, and date below. The reverse, from which the name is derived, bears the Pillars of Hercules above a series of waves with PLVS VLTRA across the middle, but also with mintmark-denomination-assayer across the top and assayer-date-mintmark across the bottom. (Curiously the waves on coins from Potosí, high in the mountains, always bow up the middle, whereas the waves on coins from Lima, down by the sea, always bow slightly down in the middle.) The reverse legend contains the name of the mint and a third date. With so much repetition it was believed these coins would satisfy all the requirements of accountability that would doom any future assayer who tried to get away withfraud. Emphasizing the rustic beauty of this new design was a new series of specially heart- or pomegranate-shaped coins struck from presentation “royal” dies at the Potosí mint, and these so-called “hearts” are among the most prized and valuable coins of Spanish-American numismatics. Also rare and valuable are the 1659-60 emissions of the Lima mint, which had resumed operation under the orders of the Viceroy of Peru (but not the king). These special pillars-and-waves coins are known as “Star of Lima” coinage due to the prominent star (Lima’s distinctive symbol) in the design. For whatever reason, all Mexican cobs and the gold cobs of Colombia were not subject to the new requirements and continued with the shield-type design. As a result, a new series of Peruvian gold cobs from Lima (starting in 1696) and Cuzco (1698 only) were effectively the only pillars-and-waves type gold coins issued (the Star of Lima gold cobs of 1659-60 are represented by just two 8-escudos specimens, one of each date, which probably never circulated).
The simple beauty of the Bolivian “hearts” and Peruvian gold cobs stood in contrast to the nadir of the Spanish monarchy. Charles II (1665-1700), who at age 4 came to the throne upon the death of his father Philip IV, was weak and deformed, the product of several generations of inbreeding within the Habsburg dynasty. Unable to produce an heir, Charles II willed his monarchy to a grandson of the French King Louis XIV, touching off several years of war within Europe. The new king, Philip V (1700-1746), was the first Bourbon king of Spain, and his coinage is easily distinguished from prior coinage by the inclusion of three fleurs-de-lis in the center of the arms. Although Philip V abdicated in favor of his son Louis I in 1724, the new king died in that same year and Philip V returned to the throne. New World cobs with the name of Louis I in the legend are generally rare, even though the mint of Potosí struck them for three years (1725-7).
Generally, as time wore on, the execution of design of all cobs deteriorated, to the extent that some of the silver cobs being minted were merely lumps of very uneven thickness, or odd-shaped slabs with weak detail. While quite expedient, cobs were simply becoming unacceptable for modern commerce. In 1732 a new design began in Mexico, and with it a new concept: “milled,” or machine-struck coinage. Each milled coin was to have fully readable details on round planchets with embellished edges that could not be cut away without detection. This was the era of the silver “pillar dollar” and its fractions, and in gold the first New World coins to bear a portrait of the king.
The pillar dollar, perhaps the most popular and arguably the most beautiful of all Spanish colonial coinage, is reminiscent of the pillars-and-waves cobs in that it bears pillars above waves on the reverse. Between the pillars, however, are two globes, representing the Old World and the New World, with the motto VTRAQUE VNUM (“and we are one”) in the legend. The reverse, as on the cobs, bears the arms of Castile and León, but this time in a crowned shield. The pillar dollar was unique to the Spanish colonies but gained worldwide acceptance—a true “trade dollar” that was even legal tender in the early United States until 1857.
Three new mints began operation in the pillar-dollar era: Guatemala City, Guatemala; Santiago, Chile; and Popayán, Colombia. Guatemala, however, apparently had the pillar-dollar dies (and bust-type dies in the gold) but not the apparatus, as the Guatemala issues from 1733-53 were all handmade and crude, and therefore are considered cobs. The pillar dollars of Santiago are extremely rare, and those of Popayán are probably fictional. Also made at Mexico during the beginning of the pillar-dollar period was a two-year series (1733-4) of transitional 8 and 4 reales known as “klippes,” as they were machine-struck with the shield-type cob design but cut to proper weight by hand, usually resulting in squarish shapes. Not all the mints changed over to pillar dollars at once, and in fact the Potosí mint continued striking cobs until 1773, even after a replacement for pillar dollars had been chosen!
Replacing the silver pillar dollar in 1772, in an effort to sneak in a reduction in fineness to alleviate Spain’s mounting financial chaos, was the “bust-type” or “portrait” dollar, which displays a right-facing bust or portrait of the king with date below on the obverse. The reverse is very similar to the old pillar-dollar obverse except that pillars were added outside the shield.
The bust design had already been in use for gold coinage beginning in Mexico in 1732, under Philip V at first and then Ferdinand VI (1746-1759). The bust-gold reverse does not bear pillars but instead (in the 8 escudos at least) displays the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece. The reverse legend, originally INITIUM SAPIENTIAE TIMOR DOMINI (“the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord”), was changed under Ferdinand VI to NOMINA MAGNA SEQUOR (“I succeed great names”) and then finally to IN UTROQ FELIX AUSPICE DEO (“each happy in its own place with God’s guidance”) under Charles III (1759-1788) and his successors.
At each of the New World mints, a popular curiosity resulted from the fact that the motherland was a whole ocean away: the use of the old king’s bust under the new king’s name for the first few years of his reign, at least until some kind of portrait of the new king was available to the local die-engraver. Interestingly the gold coins from the mint of Santiago show the portrait of Charles III all throughout Charles IV’s reign (1788-1808), and then the portrait of Charles IV all throughout Ferdinand VII’s reign!
Santiago’s “error” bespoke the troubles back in Spain, where Charles IV abdicated under pressure from Napoleon, who soon replaced the Spanish successor Ferdinand VII (1808-1833) with Napoleon’s brother Joseph. By the time Ferdinand had regained the throne in 1814, the movement for independence in the Americas had begun, and within eleven years all the former Spanish American colonies except Cuba and Puerto Rico (which had not struck any coins anyway, save for a Cuban siege token in 1741) would become independent republics. Throughout the reign of Ferdinand VII, however, and even during the various local wars for independence, each of the colonial mints produced coins with the portrait and name of the Spanish king. A blossoming of provisional mints opened in Mexico, which heretofore was represented only by the Mexico City mint, and the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco in Peru began striking anew in 1824. One year later, in 1825, the very last Spanish coins of the Americas were struck at Potosí, up in the mountains, where the tide of independence had finally risen to close the chapter on nearly three centuries of Spanish rule in South America.
- This article has been first published in Standard Catalog of World Coins Spain, Portugal and the New World: Spain, Portugal, and the New World Publisher: kp books; 1 edition (January 15, 2002) written by Daniel Frank Sedwick.
Note: Various Mexican provisional mints (Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas, Guadalajara, and Guanajuato were the main ones) began striking under Spanish colonial control around 1810, but in this catalog these issues are included under a special section within Mexico entitled “War of Independence.”
 Including transitional klippes (8 and 4 reales only) 1733-4.
 Special “Star of Lima” coinage (silver and gold).
 Includes “transitional” varieties of 1652
 “Cob” coinage
 “Cob” coinage
 A single, dubious specimen
-Reproduction of the articles in whole or part is strictly prohibited without written permission of the author/s.
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