Introduction to Shipwreck Treasure Coins
Article by Augi Garcia - Edition: Dan Sedwick
For most people the word shipwreck represents old sunken Spanish galleons, dismasted and rudderless in hurricane seas, their panicked crews helpless and praying as the ships slam into reefs that rip open their fragile hulls and send chests of gold and silver to the bottom. Indeed many Spanish galleons returning to Europe from the Americas met this tragic fate. By some estimates a third of Spain’s treasure ships never made it home. A lot of treasure is still waiting to be recovered!
But Spanish galleons were not the only treasure ships plying the cruel seas. The Dutch, English, French and Portuguese (among others) all sailed treasure ships to and from the New World and the Orient, and all suffered horrific losses in the process. The long voyage from Europe to the Orient in particular was as important to the European economies as the Spanish-Caribbean connection. Many Dutch and English treasure ships (known as "East Indiamen") perished on that route.
Between 1492 and the early 19th century, Spain extracted billions and billions of dollars' worth of gold, silver, precious gems and other treasures from the Caribbean, Mexican and South American colonies. Treasure and other trade goods were loaded at the new Spanish ports in Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and the Philippines, then shipped to Spain in large armed fleets of galleons.
The Spanish colonial mints at Potosí, Lima, Cartagena, Bogotá and Mexico City (plus a few others) labored day and night to produce the irregularly shaped gold and silver coins commonly referred to as macuquinas (crude hammered coins) or “cobs." It is believed the word "cob" is the simplification of the Spanish phrase "cabo de barra," meaning "end of the bar," as the blanks, or planchets, for these coins were actually sliced off the ends of silver bars straight from the mines, this is just another theory and not archival documation support the meaning. The planchets were then trimmed to prescribed weights and struck between crude dies, thus no two cobs are ever exactly alike! That is what makes these "macuquinas" unique and really interesting to collect. Ironically, the Spanish Crown put its colonial mints to the trouble of striking coins only to have much of the coinage shipped to Spain and immediately remelted and restruck as Spanish coins. The point of coining the silver and gold in the New World was to better monitor and control its shipment. Some of the gold and silver coins (mostly the smaller denominations) were of course retained in the New World to serve the function of a local coinage.
Cobs were minted from the early 1500’s until the mid-18th century, when the mechanical press finally introduced modern milled coinage to the Spanish colonial mints. The era of milled coinage began first in Mexico in 1732, then about twenty years later in South America. Milled coins consist of two distinct types: Pillar dollars (and lower denominations), which display a very attractive and main design consisting of two pillars outside of two globes, struck in silver only and ending in 1771-2; and bust (or portrait) dollars (and lower denominations), which show the portrait of the current king as the main design, starting in 1772 in silver and in in 1732 in gold. All types of Spanish colonial coins were minted in denominations of 8, 4, 2, and 1 escudos in gold (plus the diminutive ½ escudo in the bust series only) and 8, 4, 2, 1, ½ and ¼ reales in silver. Copper coins were also occasionally struck in denominations of 4, 2, and 1 maravedis. The gold coins were commonly referred to as "doubloons" and the dollar-sized silver coins as "pieces of eight." It is worth noting that while cobs and portrait-type coins were also minted in Spain, only the New World mints struck pillar dollars. Pillar dollars are therefore widely considered to be the first "dollars" of the United States of America, which prescribed "Spanish milled dollars" as official currency until 1857. The milled "pillar dollar" should not be confused with the "early pillars" and "pillars and waves" designs in cobs.
By a royal statute first promulgated in the reign of Charles I of Spain, the official weights of the silver reales were as follows:
(Diameters vary depending on the mint, year and assayer.)
The production of silver cobs from irregularly cut blanks of silver (planchets) meant these ideal weights were rarely achieved. Silver cobs were often up to 3-4% underweight, and occasionally overweight. With the introduction of milled silver coins, weights became much more standardized. When you talk about "treasure coins," though, keep in mind that underweight silver coins are very common due to corrosion from salt water and erosion from 300-400 years at the bottom of the sea. Gold coins, however, are almost totally unaffected by the sea, and in fact come up from shipwrecks in much better condition than specimens that spent centuries in circulation instead.
Both cobs and milled coinage are found on treasure wrecks, depending on date the ship was lost. Here is a list of some of the most famous shipwrecks (mostly Spanish, but some Dutch and English), with an overview of the type of coinage recovered from each wreck:
We can summarize the common types of Spanish coins recovered from shipwrecks as follows:
Macuquinas or cob coins:
Virtual Shipwreck and Hoard Map
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