país tiene su moneda, como cada país tiene su idioma;
y del mismo modo que la historia de éste es la base de su
filología nacional, la historia de aquella caracterizada
distingue sus principales rasgos fisonómicos.
Santiago Ramirez IV.
they climb step handless they travel, wandering from hand to hand.
Speechless they give testimony of the sovereign's overwhelming power,
untaught they tell of his superior might.
Ali. (qtd. in Kafadar 86).
use of money expanded with the development of capitalism and the
rise of the state. Money became integrated into society, which endowed
it with significance, defined its appropriate spheres and created
accompanying ritual. The first coins provided a standard unit of
exchange for merchants and consumers. Coins also provided a means
for the government to collect taxes and tribute in a more liquid
form than grain or labor. Political leaders exercised control over
the currency circulating in its realm by defining what money was
valid for government transactions. Thus, coins became part of the
political project communicating to even an illiterate audience.
Political leaders chose their symbols based on locally-resonant
images of power and legitimacy. These images, symbols and words
represented a historically-generated cultural text, but also a cultural
script informing subjects, citizens, enemies and innocent bystanders
of the state's sovereignty.
However, these coins soon escaped the political borders where they
were created. From the beginning of their use, trade spread coins
along the path of human economic relationships. By the nineteenth
century there was a quantitative and qualitative intensification
of trade. Sea communication regularly carried trade goods and people
around the globe. The truly revolutionary increase in trade occurred
second half of the nineteenth century as the free trade regime enforced
by the British Empire coincided with the introduction of steamboats
and the opening of the Suez Canal. As a result, between 1850 and
1913 volumes of goods exchanged expanded tenfold (Topik 6). By then
financial innovations like bills of exchange, silver notes and sight
drafts would lessen the world's dependence on silver. However, this
road to globalization had been paved not with good intentions, but
Expanding global trade intensified problems merchants had experienced
for centuries. Conducting transactions in unfamiliar currencies
with differing weights and of unknown purity exposed the merchant
to some risk. Moreover, profits remitted back to the home port in
local specie might mean that merchants lost a percentage of the
coins' value in moneychangers' commissions or that they received
only the value of their coins' precious metal content. Exchanging
products for products avoided currency problems, but only if there
were mutually compatible goods on hand. International trade did
not depend on a standard currency, but a widely recognizable coin
facilitated the logistics of effecting purchases and remitting profits
across continents and oceans. Such a standard currency made calculating
profits and keeping track of expenses uniform over countries in
the accounting systems of companies.
Coins from the Spanish Empire filled this need. The combination
of Spain's abundant silver and fine mints made Spain the center
of world coin production. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
century, the silver mines of Mexico were the crown jewel of the
Spanish Empire. The silver wealth generated in Mexico's mines gave
raise to mythology of excess. One Mexican silver baron and owner
of the famous Quintera mine, Señor Almeda, marked his daughter's
wedding by paving the path from the church to his palacio with silver
bars (White 29-30). However, the reality did not need much embellishment;
Mexico produced almost 80% of the world's silver between 1500 and
1800 (Barrett 237).
two hundred years, this silver from Mexico traveled in barely minted
form. The single mint in Mexico City produced mainly rough coins
destined for the furnaces of Europe until the 1730s. In a major
shift in policy, King Felipe V shifted most of Spanish finished
coin production to Mexico. By dint of its abundant silver, the Mexico
City mint became the most important source of silver coins in the
world. It was also one of the most modern. Presses with the latest
screw technology stamped out well-centered coins with clear images
(AGN 66: 2). The images themselves changed to incorporate the most
sophisticated techniques available to discourage a number of creative
fraudulent and counterfeiting practices (see fig.1).1 Spanish assayists
from the mint in Seville monitored samples for image imperfections
and tested coins for variations in silver content.
The dedication to maintain the coins' buena ley or high quality
and consistency was notable especially considering the chronic shortage
of government funds. Neither Spain nor Mexico ever resorted to debasing
the currency to increase fiscal revenue. Spanish and Mexican coins
never contained less than 90% of their weight in silver and silver
content fell only 5.9% in total from the sixteenth to the end of
the twentieth century (McMaster 372).2
Two coins dominated nineteenth-century production in Mexico: the
Carolus IIII real and the Republican peso (see figs. 3; 4). The
recovery of Mexican silver production and Spain's deepening financial
problems during the reign of Carlos IV (1788-1808) created a huge
volume of silver coins bearing his image. Under pressure from imperial
wars with the stronger powers of England and France, the Spanish
crown teetered on bankruptcy. The desperate king decreed in the
Consolidación de Vales Reales that many of the Catholic Church's
extensive assets be converted into silver for shipment to Spain
as a "temporary" loan. As a result, the average silver
coin exports increased to 15-16 million a year by the 1800 decade
(Garner 578). Minting increased to 21.3 million reales a year in
1800 from 12.8 million in the 1750s (Garner 580).
Until the Mexican independence movement began in 1810, locally minted
coins were faithful messengers of the metropolis. Coins minted in
Mexico reflected changing values of the Spanish state. The most
salient was the reform project of the late Bourbon kings that sought
to modernize its administration and centralize political power.3
The coins of Carlos III followed this trend to its logical conclusion
(see fig.2). The bust of the monarch himself appeared on silver
reales displacing the familiar mares y mundos design. By the time
Carlos IV ascended the Spanish throne in 1778, the practice of using
the king's portrait on coins was well established (see fig. 3).4
The images on the coins succinctly summarized the Bourbon's political
message. The obverse showed the Bourbon symbol and organizing principle
of government, the bust of the king. The reverse defined the Crown's
historic claim to Spanish territory. The coat of arms incorporated
significant symbols of territory obtained through centuries of conquest
and marriages. The Pillars of Hercules represented Spain's Indies
possessions underlining the profoundly Spanish perspective of the
coins. The reverse was an imperial map defining symbolically the
limits of sovereignty while the obverse gave the locus of power
or instrument through which it was exercised.5
After independence leaders of the new Republic of Mexico sought
to consolidate the idea of Mexico as a nation. The prominence of
Mexico's silver industry and mint meant that coin production had
a special significance and priority for the new nation. Mexico had
a standard coin design before it had a permanent form of government
(Vázquez 33).6 Moreover, the fine quality and high productive
capacity meant Mexico's leaders had access to an important mass
media for state propaganda. For a generation of new Republican citizens,
the coins reflected and created certain "catchsymbols,"
or distilled identity. The coin's design reaffirmed Mexico's political
independence in the symbolic space; postcolonial Mexican pesos retained
no image from their Bourbon predecessors. Nonetheless, Mexican coins
followed the same format of Bourbon coins: one side showed the symbol
of government while the other stated the historically-based claim
In fact the symbol that established this territorial legitimacy
far predated any Spanish intervention. The new Congress officially
iconized an early symbol of Creole identity. Republican coins pictured
the eagle, snake and cactus over the waters of Lake Texcoco that
Aztecs sought to found their capital Tenochtitlán, later
Mexico City (see fig. 4).7 As the symbol of the government on the
reverse, the Mexican Congress choose the Phrygian cap labeled "Libertad"
surrounded by a sunburst. The Congress, following French revolutionaries,
choose this soft cap to substitute the monarch's crown (Gumucio
75).8 The sunburst itself was the truly extraordinary element of
the design. Every Catholic should have been familiar with the motif;
saints, crosses, Mary and Jesus all feature exactly the same design
element as a symbol of sacred power or purity. In the first flush
of Republican idealism, the Congress sought to realign the cosmology
of the newly minted Republican citizens. The symbol acknowledged
the religious formation of the Mexican populace, but shifted its
emphasis. Power emanated from a new and profoundly secular notion.
It was not the other salient images, the liberty cap or eagle, that
gave the peso its name within Mexico; the coins were known as the
radiant pesos (pesos de resplandor) (Porrúa 96).
Images on Spanish reales and Mexican pesos communicated power, legitimacy
and territorial sovereignty. The audience of this mass media was
primarily the subjects and citizens who used the coins on a daily
basis. The symbols produced and reproduced the state uniting diverse
peoples with little else than geography in common. However, almost
from the beginning of their creation, these coins began to escape
the strict confines of the Spanish Empire. Coins were the silent
partner of commercial expeditions, military campaigns and covert
smuggling operations. Once freed from the Spanish Empire, these
coins circulated throughout the globe following the path of human
economic relationships. Mexican-minted Spanish coins appeared in
the ports of the West Indies, Australia, the Baltic Sea, Russia,
the western, eastern and northern coasts of Africa, the United States,
India, Canada and Japan. By the early nineteenth century, the world
commercial system had been built not on faceless Spanish silver,
but on Spanish silver coins.
Spain bitterly lamented this loss of its silver. Spanish political
economist Guillermo Uztáriz wrote in a treatise to King Philip
in 1742 that Spain's most important assets, its pueblos, were bereft
of silver coin despite "thousands of millions" of pesos
imported since the discovery of America (30). To add insult to injury,
this same Spanish silver was being used against it by its competitors,
England, Holland and France to facilitate trade with the Levant
in the land of their longtime enemies, the Ottomans.
Uztáriz correctly identified that abundant imports of silver
had masked deep flaws in Spain's economy and that, as a result,
Spanish silver stopped only briefly in Spain. On the other side
of the Mediterranean, however, an Ottoman counterpart of Uztáriz
had a different interpretation of Spanish silver coins. Ottoman
political economist, Selaniki, warned his emperor that "(p)articularly
the infidel rulers who are around and about (us) were hard-working
and persistent in (the selling of) their gold and piaster. Through
the execution of (their) orders and punitive authority, they did
not (let the currency) change (but) said 'the Ottoman Empire is
an example to us; see what kind of disorder will strike the state
and the wealth of the land'" (qtd. in Kafadar 100-01). As with
Uztáriz, Selaniki correctly identified a fundamental weakness
of his empire. The state of Ottoman public finances was poor and
emperors often resorted to debasing their currency, which allowed
foreign coins to invade more successfully than any European army.
had become so small and broken-faced that
instead of being the shining brightness of the garden and meadow
of the empire and the plentiful flower petals of the vernal park
of rulership it has now turned in appearance into drops of dew.
Ali (qtd. in Kafadar 88).
with its coins, the Ottoman Empire territory also began to resemble
a drop of dew. Insurgent movements in Egypt and Greece clipped off
these economically and strategically important regions in 1805 and
1821-30. The Ottoman state also engaged in costly and ultimately
unsuccessful military campaigns against other imperial powers Austria,
Russia and France. The pressure these wartime expenses placed on
Ottoman state's finances would be relieved through the debasement
of the Turkish kurux..
Although there had been a long tradition of currency devaluations
or ihtilal "disturbances" dating back to the sixteenth
century, over Mahud II's reign (1808-39) devaluations were especially
severe (Kafadar). Imperial mints struck ten series of coins and
steadily decreased the silver content from 5.9 grams to less than
1 gram (Pamuk 970). The inconsistency of the key imperial currency
made it less useful for large transactions. It was instead used
as a token currency for low value purchases such as what an average
citizen might buy for daily needs (Gerber and Gross). Foreign currencies
with a more reliable silver content began to prevail for larger
purchases and foreign trade.
The ability of the Ottoman Empire to enforce public use of its imperial
currency and political control were closely related (Pamuk 948).
The heaviest use of imperial coins found in the capital, Istanbul.
Foreign coins infiltrated even this political center. While changing
her English sovereigns in 1866, a British traveler received "a
quantity of dirty paper of the value of a few pence, German krentzers
innumerable, an English shilling, and a huge Turkish crown, mixed
with francs and paras to one's utter bewilderment" (Hornby
278). This very public debasement contributed to the nineteenth-century
trope of Turkish decay and wretchedness. Yet aside from the often-criticized
travelers' accounts, Turkish intellectuals noted the connection
between coins and public perceptions of the government's ability
to rule. According to historian Ali writing in 1581-1586, coins
expressed sikke, which was the written or physical form of hutbe,
the greatness of royal prestige and reminder of the respect and
obedience due to the ruler (see fig.5; Kafadar 86). The sad state
of Ottoman coins reflected poorly, but truthfully on the waning
power and might of the emperor. The growing fiscal demands on the
Ottoman state were fulfilled by stopgap measures like currency debasements
to increase fiscal revenue rather than other more sustainable means
like raising internal taxes or foreign trade tariffs. Later in the
nineteenth century the Ottoman State again postponed these painful
reforms and resorted to foreign borrowing, something which would
eventually result in the loss of its fiscal sovereignty. The weak
Ottoman currency foreshadowed the political fate of the Empire as
foreign coins made inroads into the Ottoman economy.
However, the debased coins did not necessarily reflect the state
of the economy. Parts of the Ottoman Empire flourished over the
nineteenth century as Macedonia, western Anatolia and the coast
of Syria began to develop export agriculture (Pamuk 971). Outward-oriented
trade introduced foreign coins into the domestic economy signaling
divided economic loyalty. Most notable were foreign coins that circulated
in the farther reaches of the empire passing freely with Ottoman
coins. Perhaps most disturbing were rubles from Turkey's nemesis,
Russia, that circulated in the Balkans and the Trabazon area (Pamuk
974). The Balkans also drew Austrian currencies and florins from
nearby Italy, both of which circulated alongside Ottoman piastres
(Mackenzie 38, 41; Pamuk 974). In the Middle East, the Iranian kran
and the Indian rupee circulated in Iraq while the Maria Theresa
thalers were current in Yemen (Pamuk 974).
It was this last coin, the Maria Theresa thaler, that finally displaced
the Spanish real from the Middle East and East Africa in the early
nineteenth century. Maria Theresa dollars were minted in Austria.
Following the empress' death in 1780 all the subsequent coins featured
the same design and this same year (see fig. 6).9 Maria Theresa
thalers came into widespread use before Mexican pesos were widely
exported. As a result, Maria Theresa thalers, not Mexican pesos
replaced the Spanish real.10 Spanish coins did circulate and sometimes
in areas quite close to the center of Turkish political power, Istanbul.
Writing at the turn of the nineteenth century, chronicler al-Shihabi
published an exchange rate table for common coins of Lebanon. He
mentions two coins with local names, the Mushakas piaster and the
bitaka franji (Gerber and Gross 355). Authors speculate that the
bitaka franji was the Imperial Hungarian coin known more commonly
as Abu Taka or pataque (Gerber and Gross 355). This was probably
the Maria Theresa thaler and the Mushakas piaster the Spanish real.
In a coin hoard discovered in Cairo, Egypt, researchers found an
assortment of gold and silver coins from the turn of the nineteenth
century. The hoard consisted of sixty-three larger silver coins
minted in Istanbul dated from 1730-89, fifty Maria Theresa thalers
and fifty-four Spanish reales from Carolus III and Carolus IIII
(Seham 315). Many of the Ottoman coins said in Arabic: "Sultan
of the two continents and Khakan of the two seas, the sultan son
of the sultan." The fact that these coins were struck concurrently
with the Spanish coins, "mundos y mares," signifying Spanish
mastery over "two worlds and two seas" would not have
escaped the contemporary observer.
Foreign trade with local merchants introduced coins like the Spanish
real and the Maria Theresa thaler into Ottoman lands. But even as
foreign trade divided economic loyalties, Muslim merchants dealing
with foreigners received full legal rights (Kafadar 190). The Ottoman
administration made no change in the local merchants status as subjects.
Moreover, there was no change in the status of or understanding
of that religious law that contributed to the commercial dynamism
of early Islam. Merchants played an integral role in the Ottoman
worldview. Four occupations made up Ottoman society: men of the
sword, men of the pen, men of commerce and men of husbandry and
agriculture (Kafadar 190). Each had their role in maintaining social
order in the circle of equity; "there can be no royal power
without the military, no military with wealth, no wealth with revenues,
no revenues without justice and equity" (Kafadar 190).
Nonetheless, local merchants involved in outward-oriented trade
began to shift their political loyalties to where their economic
loyalties lie. At the behest of foreign powers, the Ottoman Empire
permitted special local merchant courts to arbitrate legal disputes
involving foreign nationals (Owen 90). Local merchants began to
acquire European citizenship, joining French and British merchants
in arbitrating against Turks in these commercial tribunals (Owen
Through these footholds, foreign influence infiltrated the Ottoman
Empire. In response, the Ottoman government did attempt arrest the
process. To set itself on firm financial ground, the Ottoman administration
issued interest bearing notes and contracted foreign loans. Part
of these funds were used to standardize the imperial currency. In
1844, the government linked a new kurux to a gold lira in a money
cleaning operation or tashih-i sikke (Pamuk 971). The overwhelming
indebtedness created by these reforms eventually led to a financial
crisis. To appease its foreign debtors the Ottoman Empire relinquished
control over its own finances to a consortium of European interests
(France and England primarily).
According to Turkish tradition, the first terrible sultans that
swept through Europe collected a great hoard of treasure, an Imperial
Haznè, and buried it deep in the Serraglio in Constantinople
(MacFarlane 357-8). Each sultan rising to the throne vowed not to
touch it, but to increase its volume through wise management of
the empire's resources. At the prophesized moment of crisis when
infidels (Ghiaours) would come to conquer Constantinople, the ruling
sultan would empty the ancient chests to save the empire. For the
Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century, the chests had been
turned inside out; foreign currency did not save the Empire's sovereignty,
but facilitated its demise.
As the Mughal Empire began to break up into princely states in the
later part of the eighteenth century, its administration's tight
control over imperial currency loosened and many new coins appeared.
Despite the seemingly chaotic situation, Spanish reales or Mexican
pesos never played an important domestic role.
The Mughal imperial mint system established precedents that prevented
any widespread domestic circulation of Spanish reales or Mexican
pesos. In the mid seventeenth to mid eighteenth century the Mughal
along with the Ming Empire were the two strongest and most highly
developed commercial economies in the world (Chaudhuri "World
Silver" 73). The Mughal government strictly oversaw the output
of its imperial mints and in particular its standard imperial coin,
the silver rupee.11 Quite the opposite was true for Southern India
in territory outside of the Mughal Empire. Locally controlled mints
there struck coins of widely different, but generally accepted denominational
standards (Perlin 295). Regardless of the minted standards, the
message on all Indian coins was zealously controlled (see fig.7).
In accordance with Muslim law, the coins did not use any image.
The coins contained two essential scripts both written in Persian
characters: a passage from the Quran and the name of the reigning
emperor. The coin institutionalized the ruler's connection with
Islam, which ordered and legitimated political authority. While
the phrase from the Quran differed, the ruler's place in the Muslim
worldview was most clearly expressed on coins that stated "there
is no other God than Allah and Muhammad is his prophet." Together
with the required emperor's name, the coin established a clear hierarchy
of authority and tied moral obligation to political authority; respect
God, obey the law and follow the emperor. Like Turkish money, Indian
coins expressed sikke, which was the physical form of kuhtba, the
right for the ruler's name to be read in the mosque. Any foreign
coin constituted a direct challenge to this basic equation.
Therefore under the Mughal administration, any silver destined to
circulate domestically first passed through the furnaces of the
empire's mints in such ports as Bengal, Gujarat or Madras (Moosvi
73). As the Mughal Empire entered into a permanent decline by the
second half of the 18th century, political power began to decentralize.
Mints proliferated as large holders of prebendial rights (saranjamdar)
assumed the right to strike their own coins (Perlin 295-6). As the
Mughal Empire proved unable to arrest growing local control, Northern
India coin production began to resemble that of Southern India.
As a result at the turn of the century, over a thousand kinds of
gold and silver coins of various sizes, purities, weights and values
circulated as current in the Indian subcontinent (Mitra 23). Normally
under such conditions Spanish and Mexican coins invaded the domestic
economy. Yet, Spanish reales never played a significant domestic
role in either Southern or Mughal India. Rupees continued to dominate
even important international ports like Bengal and Calcutta (Williams
317, 321). From those cities they spread all along the land route
from the Black Sea to India and among India's trading partners:
Singapore, Malacca and Penang (Weeks; Williams 314-15).
Despite more local control, the strong incentives that bound key
interests to the enforcement of a local currency ensured that the
Mughal minting system continued in principle. Political leaders,
no matter how local, still depended on coins to construct and reinforce
their authority. Well-placed bureaucrats, Indian merchants and moneychangers,
schroffs "were deeply involved in collaborating with the mint
officials in maintaining a semi-monopoly in the supply of money"
(Chaudhuri Trading World 308). These men traditionally procured
raw material, silver, for the mints, which they continued to do.
Incorporating the same men who dealt most with foreign currency
into the minting apparatus closed a potential entrance point for
Spanish or Mexican coins into the domestic economy. But also the
loosening central control opened new spaces for these key figures
to take a proprietary interest in official business. Some of the
same men acquired the right to strike coins, which could turn into
a very profitable business. Not every mint took this approach. Official
concerns were more prevalent in the mints of Kolhapur and Pune (Perlin
297). However, it was these divergent strategies that created the
noted multitude of coins.
Some mints specialized for market segments. The mints at Malwa and
Malharshahi became known for lower-quality coins that were accepted
as current only in their immediate vicinity (Perlin 304). Other
local trade coins like the Northern Indian rupee, the Southern pagoda
and the Varanasi rupees in Upper India circulated mainly within
a certain territory (Perlin 301). Notably, the regional trade coins
like the Chandore rupee from Western Deccan were struck in various
mints with different administrations (Perlin 304). Other mints produced
coins that closely matched the characteristics of Spanish reales.
The Arcot and Murshidabad circulated all over the Indian subcontinent
(see fig. 7; Perlin 305). Spanish coins did not circulate because
entrenched interests blocked their entrance and there were domestic
substitutes. Despite external perceptions of chaos or monetary anarchy,
the multitude of early nineteenth-century Indian coins filled distinct
niches in the Indian economy.
This diversity disappeared as the British East India Company began
to fill the administrative void left by the Mughal Empire. As early
as 1806 the Company's Court of Directors proposed a single currency
(Nambudiripad 12).12 When the Charter Act centralized executive
and legislative authority in the Council of Calcutta, the Council
moved quickly and decisively. With the Silver and Gold Coinage Act
of 1835 the Company decreed a standard silver rupee that came to
dominate the subcontinent until 1893 (see fig. 8; Nambudiripad 15;
Chandavarkar 770-71). Strong centralized control over India's domestic
currency closed India's huge domestic silver market just as Mexican
pesos began to circulate throughout the international commercial
'The gold flower puts forth its leaves. The silver tree is full
of blossom." Wish for good luck put in a window on the Yangzi
River by Chongqing.
Colquhoun 1: 104
fastidiousness of the Chinese respecting certain coins is like that
of the Turks and Arabs; and among them all it probably arose from
the habit of receiving coins of a certain stamp, from a uniform
experience that they were always good.
failure to impose a standard silver coin reflected the freedom that
made it such a commercial success. However, the very reasons which
prompted the freeform currency situation led eventually to greater
control and intervention by foreign powers. Spanish and Mexican
coins were the pioneers of imperialism and the medium which made
foreign trade possible. These coins were integrated into the ritual
life of China's inhabitants and given local names. However, isolated
examples show that Chinese if given the opportunity to choose the
content of their coins would have indigenized their symbols and
From 1644-1850, China's population rose from 100-150 million to
400 million (Wang 434). Likewise, the economy grew and along with
it the need for a transaction currency. During the Ming dynasty,
the Chinese Empire stopped minting silver coins issuing instead
paper bills. Although China's government never stopped producing
low-value copper coins, the Empire did not resume regular silver
coinage until the twentieth century (see fig. 9). Without a government-issued
silver coin, no universal standard obtained. The ungainly organic
solution that developed used silver bars known as sycee (see figs.
10; 11). Merchants weighed pieces of sycee on special silver scales,
lí-tang, snipping off pieces to make change. Although the
weight could be determined relatively easily, the purity was always
in question (Williams 279).
Without a significant source of silver within its borders, any major
silver flows had to come from foreign trade. In the 16th and 17th
centuries, the Portuguese and Spanish and later the Dutch and English
brought chests of silver coins to exchange for tea, silk and ceramics.
The demand for silver and Spanish pieces of eight was great, "Chinas
(sic) following this with such an earnest eagerness as not to [be]
beaten from the place where they know it is, offringe their commodities
to saile with an extraordinarie importunitie, and will as soone
part with their bloode as it, having once possession" (Foster
From Canton, the only legal port for foreign trade from 1757 until
1842, Spanish coins traveled along the coast from Canton to Manchuria
in the ports and cities of Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang,
Anhiu, and Chihui (Kann 127). Spanish coins also spread internally
following inland trade routes following the great canals from Tienstin
to Shanghai (Wang 434; Allom 8). In the south (including the provinces
on the southeast coast and along the Yangzi valley up to Hunan)
silver dollars circulated with notes and taels (Wang 439; Kann).
Areas more closely connected with the coastal economy used silver
dollars. A nineteenth-century traveler paid new and chopped Mexican
dollars during his Yangzi River voyage and sycee silver for the
more isolated Yunnan land journey (Wang 434; Colquhoun 1: 217).
The closer the integration with the larger regional economy, the
more likely foreign coins would be accepted. Once the coins became
established, residents of the "Flowery Land" took them
as their own calling them the "flowered border" (Colquhoun
1: 217).13 In the far south on isolated Hainan island among the
Le people, no silver circulated at all. Higher value transactions
were conducted with opium balls (Henry 399).
As trade distributed silver among economically vibrant regions,
the imperial government redistributed it with the major flows heading
north to the capital of Beijing. As with governments around the
world the relationship between Chinese state and society was cemented
through taxes. The people above the Yangzi River going through Chongqing
stated "(o)ur rulers want money, and care little about the
means by which it is attained. If you know this, you know the principles
and practice of the government" (Gutzlaff 207). This silver
tie that bound the Imperial Court and its subjects was not consummated
in foreign coins. The Kuping tael was the official currency for
all government obligations in silver (Kann 153).14 People made direct
tax payments to "money shops" or banks (Davis 2: 371).
These intermediaries accepted any old coins or bits of sycee silver.
The silver was melted down into a Kuping tael and sent to government
coffers (Kann 153; Williams 177). Melting sanitized the silver before
reaching the celestial port. Any evidence of its past as a foreign
coin or wayward piece of silver was erased. The distinction was
made quite clear in common usage. Foreign coins were called in general
"fan-yin" or barbarian silver, "fan-ping" or
barbarian cake, and "yang-ch'ien" or foreign coin (Yang
Accordingly, foreign silver coins did not play a large role in official
ritual and silver only a minor part. For example, during the celebration
of the Emperor's [Káng-hsi] sixtieth birthday "a vast
number of aged, but healthy men
from all the
provinces. His Majesty gave to each of them twelve silver tael,
a coin worth about five shillings, together with a gown of yellow
silk, which is the imperial colour. Later he gave them a mandarin's
suit, a staff, an inkstand and other things" (Ripa 87). The
political and cultural brokers did not attach much cultural value
on silver either as a metal or color. Silk, calligraphy and poetry
were much more important. If the Spanish and Mexican silver pesos
did not infiltrate official ritual, neither did the images on the
coins communicate any direct subversion of Chinese symbols of state.
Government trade and trade constituted the two major forces within
China that moved silver and determined the currency that was available
for commercial purposes. The silver that circulated in Beijing and
the north was largely sycee. At the northern trade port of Tienstin,
resident merchants carried on a regular trade in Cantonese products
paid in sycee silver. "The quantity of it was so great that
there seemed to be no difficulty in collecting thousands of taels
at the shortest notice" (Gutzlaff 129). In the north the sycee
system using taels prevailed. In the south and along the coast,
Spanish reales and Mexican pesos passed as current. The place where
the two met was Shanghai. Shanghai was also exemplary of the struggle
that faced China during the nineteenth century. Foreign intervention
opened Shanghai's ports. The pressure created by a boom in foreign
trade came to bear on the established and trusted Spanish Carolus
IIII real. Only under extreme conditions provoked by a severe coin
shortage did people adopt a new currency standard. The growing outward
orientation of Shanghai exposed it to new pressures. The city found
itself at the intersection of domestic and international trade and
imperial and foreign governance all of which was mediated through
For two-hundred fifty years regardless of domestic business cycles,
China could always count on a steady silver inflow from its European
trading partners. However, in the early nineteenth century, Chinese
leaders noticed a serious shortage of silver within the empire.
The viceroy of Fujian sent a report to the emperor in 1824 saying
that "silver and copper coins have become very disproportioned
in their relative values; the former rising, and the latter falling
to an unusual degree" (qtd. in Davis 2: 370). For the viceroy,
this shift in value constituted a serious problem for internal order
since the military had been traditionally paid in copper cash and
were experiencing a serious loss of value in silver terms. In reality,
Chinese government was already aware of the drain in silver. The
Chinese court had prohibited its export by imperial order as early
as 1814 in the nineteenth year of Chia-ch'ing (Morse Chronicles
337). Later economic historians would confirm the suspicions of
the Chinese court. Due to the growth in the opium trade, 50 million
dollars were extracted from China by British ship mostly to India
from 1818 to 1834 (Kann 127).15
Chinese leaders understood the problem. It is less clear, though,
how much administrators realized the rise in silver prices resulted
not only from the opium trade, but also from silver shortages stemming
from over ten years of political and economic turmoil in the Spanish
Americas. Regardless, the more vigorous enforcement steps that administrators
took to remedy high silver prices would have permanent ramifications
for internal stability and the sovereignty of the country.
Shortly after, the Chinese court began to put teeth into its many
dead letter pronouncements against the opium agents operating off
the coast of China. Captain Charles Elliot wrote on the 26th of
January 1838 "there seems, my lord, no longer any room to doubt
that the court has finally determined to suppress, or more probably
most extensively to check, the opium trade. The immense, and it
must be said the most unfortunate increase of the supply during
the last four years, the rapid growth of the east coast trade in
opium, and the continued drain of the silver, have no doubt greatly
alarmed the government" (qtd. in Davis 1: 24). Persecuted on
the coast, traffickers took to the rivers of China and eventually
created the spark for the first of two Opium Wars (1840 and 1856).
This series of events revolutionized Shanghai. As a result of the
Opium Wars, the ports of Shanghai were opened to foreign trade in
1842. Its close location to the silk of Suzhou and tea of Hanzhou
and excellent port facilities quickly made it a hub of international
trade along with the new English colony of Hong Kong. Despite the
rise in trade, Shanghai merchants did not change their currency.
The Shanghai were seemingly obsessed with the Carolus IIII dollar
called "old head" or ssu-kung-yin dollars".16 At
one point in the premium paid for Carolus dollars reached as high
as 40% above Mexican dollars and over 30% above a tael's weight
of silver (Williams 198-199). Reales of his son Fernando VII with
an equal amount of silver sold for a discount of 30% (McMaster 389).
Stated another way, by demanding Carolus reales Shanghaise received
30-40% less silver than instruments with nearly identical characteristics.
The world was scoured for old Carolus reales as pundits noted incredulously
the irrationality of the Shanghaise.
However, the demand did not come solely from the Shanghai. Only
strong demand from the interior silk and tea regions could have
sustained such high valuations. In each case, the problem lay not
in irrationality. It is hard to argue that the silk and tea producers
were backwards country folk when the region had a centuries-old
tradition of foreign-oriented plantation production. Chinese in
the interior recognized the Carolus coins as premium stores of value
and unimpeachable medium of exchange. These functions became even
more important in the midst of political and economic turmoil. Generic
silver or any silver coin did not fulfill the same need; the images
on the coins were communicated a guarantee of its value. The coins
were so cherished that it took nothing less than the acute silver
shortage caused by the opium trade plus a global silver shortage
to induce Chinese consumers to switch from Spanish reales de a ocho
to another standard coin, the Mexican peso.17
Once the change was made, consumers clung to Mexican pesos as they
had to the Carolus dollar (Williams 198-199). In sixty years after
the 1850s an estimated 400 to 500 million ying-yang or eagle dollars
as the Mexican dollars were known circulated or were hoarded in
China (Kann 145; Yang 48-9). The conversion even reached the Chinese
interior. Older Spanish reales began reappearing in maritime ports
as people substituted the Mexican pesos (Williams 269).
The switch to Mexican pesos was not even, uniform or even guaranteed.
The North China Herald reported that most Shanghai retail merchants
in the 1850s still used the Carolus silver dollar for their unit
of account while wholesale merchants used the tael (Wang). Some
firms around the 1856 took advantage of the par valuation between
Carolus reales and Shanghai taels to switch accounting units (Kann
129). The storied Hongkong Shanghai Bank (HSBC) in Shanghai did
not convert its accounting system to Shanghai taels until 1921 (Lagerberg
412). In Formosa, there was no currency change. The Carolus dollar
remained the standard currency there until the Japanese took it
in 1895 (Kann 128). In general, ports south of Shanghai adopted
the Mexican dollar while those north remained on the nominal tael
The large discrepancy between the Carolus coins' silver content
and its market value highlighted the conflict between local beliefs
and larger outside economic forces. Part of the reason that the
Carolus real was so difficult to replace was that it was integrated
into people's lives in a meaningful way.
In Shanghai, the economic function of the cherished Spanish real
also melded with its ritual use. Ritual consumption of token goods
and food played an important symbolic role is burial ceremonies
and New Year's celebrations to honor gods or ancestors. Figuring
prominently among the food and paper possessions was laminated coins
symbolizing Spanish reales. Mainly women manufactured these coins
placing a coating of tinfoil over paper (Taylor 118-19). The ritual
use reflected the Spanish coins symbolism as representative of wealth
and abundance within the pantheon of significant possessions.
Also in Shanghai, at the beginning of each year, households placed
a painted figure on a scrap of paper above the cooking range (Taylor
252-53). This kitchen god observed the goings-on of the family during
the year. At year's end, "a very adhesive kind of candy is
placed before his godship, made in the form of Spanish dollars and
lumps of Sycee silver." The stickiness of the candy was to
"seal the lips of the god when he is sent up to the chief of
the Chinese celestial deities to report the conduct of the different
members of the family during the past year; so that when he is question
(sic), he cannot open his lips to relate the deviations from rectitude
he may have observed, but can only nod his head, which is taken
as signifying that all have behaved will in the family where he
presided." Silver not only sealed the lips of the god, but
also the union between the secular and sacred. It was the product
and participant in good fortune.
Foreign silver coins gained entry into both the Chinese economic
and ritual realms. However, the coins did not pass through Chinese
hands unscathed. Spanish and Mexican coins were sometimes covered
with tiny Chinese character chopmarks that adulterated the strictly
foreign content of the coins' images (see fig. 12). To validate
the coin's value, merchants in southern ports like Canton and Hong
Kong used a very small metal stamp to imprint its Chinese character
on the coin (Kann 128-9). Less scrupulous moneychangers chiseled
out their chopmark removing a very small portion of the silver.
In northern ports and Shanghai, the moneychangers signed their chop
in ink (Kann).
Chopmarks were used partially in response to widespread counterfeiting.
There was a thriving domestic industry to mass produce counterfeited
Spanish and Mexican coins. In Shunteh south of Canton, factories
with as many as 100 workmen specialized in a variety of fakes, alterations
and alloyed coins (Williams 270). One of the most common was replacing
the core with lead. The problem was so prevalent that there was
said to be both a forgery and detection manual. Some forgeries were
nearly perfect. The images on a Chinese forgery of a Republican
peso were so accurate they invited even specialists to speculate
that the incorrect assayers' initials and mint marks were intentional
(Halliday).18 The British East India Company itself forged dies
and hired a Canton mint to manufacture Carolus III coins in 1779.
The Company was outswindled with unscrupulous minters there quickly
debased the coin to .600 (Hubbard 58).
In response, consumers demanded that the value of the coins be validated.
Chopmarks guaranteed the full value of silver content. If the holder
found a coin to be deficient, the merchant was obligated to restitute
loss. In this way, chopmarks imposed a second authority and responsibility
over the coins. The contract of value was no longer between the
Spanish king or the Mexican Republic, but with the local moneychanger.
With this visa, the foreign coins could circulate through the country.
The act of localizing the content, however, destroyed the coins.
Stamping mutilated their shape (see fig. 13). As different hands
chopped the coins, the awls pushed them out into the form of mushrooms.
These broken dollars lost the distinctive symbols that indicated
their value. Without these distinctive marks, coins were only worth
their weight in silver.
Chopmarks represented an organic strategy to indigenize the images
on foreign coin for a Chinese audience. In another instance, a coin
indicates that Chinese might have sought to include images that
better reflected themselves. In an old box of coins from China,
John Halliday found an 1819 Mexico City chopped coin of Ferdinand
VII first believed to be a forgery. However, the weight and specific
gravity showed it to be a genuine coin. An anonymous engraver had
modified the king's portrait with a hand tool making him look distinctly
Chinese (Halliday 45). It may have been a small and anonymous piece
of resistance dropped in among the hundreds of millions of other
coins, but it was a strong opinion that the coins did not represent
the people they served.
"is a vital resource, it is soft and seductive, but its national
identity is utterly superficial and easily erased, its loyalties
skin deep. Its value is unquestionable but its values dubious--it
serves all masters and none"
Christopher Tomlins 1453
Some traditional monies like cowry shells successfully made the
transition to an interregional currency. However, only precious
metals like gold and silver were able to create the economic equivalences
that tied the world together. Abstractly silver and gold provoked
a convergence to an ultimate universal value-that of a single commodity
price for precious metals. If the commodification of precious metals
rendered them a relatively valueless value, Spanish and Mexican
coins were a different issue. The Carolus IIII coin reached market
valuations up to 40% over the intrinsic value of its silver. His
son's coins and Mexican pesos, which should have fulfilled the same
niche as the Carolus IIII coins and contained exactly the same amount
of silver, circulated at a discount. The symbols and images served
a vital role, much different from plain silver or any generic coin.
Spanish and Spanish American minted coins circulated first through
Europe then the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia along established
trading routes. Spanish reales de a ocho and later Mexican pesos
became the world's most widely distributed coin. Through the vector
of expanding European trade, the Spanish then Mexican coin carried
with it locally significant messages to the rest of the world in
perhaps the world's most effective and pervasive medium. Local merchants
exchanged their economic products for cultural by-products. Foreign
coins were important first colonizing forces entering even before
foreign merchant trade reached a city. These coins informed citizens
of alternate states and their pantheon of meaningful symbols. Where
these images did not conflict with official state icons, the coins
were tolerated obliquely.
Once circulating within the national and local economies Spanish
coins challenged local political imagistic purity on a daily basis.
These coins were extremely hard to eradicate. As nations began to
take firmer control over their own official projection, nations
began to demonetize the Spanish real and Mexican peso. Starting
in the 1850s Canada, Japan and the US recognized only their own
official state currency as legal tender (McMaster 375. Enforcing
a state currency in the face of entrenched local acceptance and
trust of its citizens required a sustained and serious administrative
effort. Countries without that administrative power also found themselves
accepting dictates of other nations on international trade regulation,
legal arbitration and tax treatment. Spanish and Mexican coins did
not imply a political confrontation; however, it was a political
challenge to test the state's capability.
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1 The crown passed a royal order (Ordenanza e Instrucción)
dated March 9, 1728 requiring that all coins have a "cordoncillo
o laurel al canto" to make falsification difficult (Herrera
17). If coins were struck off center or otherwise lacked a standard
milled border, it was relatively easy to clip silver from their
edges. Another method of obtaining metal, slinging or whirling,
was done by placing coins into canvas bag and whirling them for
several hours (Mossman 56). The bag was then burned and chips of
metal recovered from the ash.
2 The Republic of Mexico continued the late colonial standard of
10d 20g even stamping the purity on the face of the coin. Both Spain
and Mexico used the medieval system of dineros and granos to measure
the fineness of their coins. Twelve dineros designated pure silver.
Each dinero was divided into 24 granos. A coin of 10 Ds. 20Gs equated
to .902777 fine.
3 There is an extensive corpus of literature dealing with the Bourbon
reforms. See Lynch 3-50 for a good introduction to this subject.
4 The practice of using the king's portrait created an interesting
problem. The dies of the new king took as long as a couple of years
to arrive at Spanish American mints. In these cases the old portrait
was used and the lettering modified. This may explain why Carolus
IIII was used rather than Carolus IV.
5 The royal coat of arms on the coins consisted of a quartered shield
with castles and lions rampant in alternating cantons (Grove n1606).
These symbolized the original Castile and León of Isabel
(1474-1504), nucleus of the Spanish kingdom. In the small center
shield are three fleurs-de-lis from the house of Bourbon. At the
bottom of the shield is a pomegranate symbolizing Granada, the last
Spanish territory reconquered from the Moors. The crown is royal
in keeping with the basic design from the dos mundos coins.
6 A permanent government was not established until 1824. A decreto
dated August 1, 1823 defined the Republic's new money using José
Mariano Torreblanca's coin design (Salmeron 53). Mexican mints used
this basic coin design through the nineteenth century. The exception
was the short interlude of the French Intervention from 1866 to
1867 and a balance style peso struck from 1869 to 1873 (Pradeau
7 While eagles and snakes are native to the Americas, Asia, Africa
and Europe, cacti are only endogenous in the Americas (Crosby 4).
Although the eagle/nopal symbol first appeared on insurgent coins
in 1811, the design had been the subject of New Spain literature
for centuries. See Florescano for a recent discussion of how this
image developed as a symbol for the entire nation.
8 A notable early insurgent coin exhibited an organic strategy to
show how the nation trumped the crown. In Grove n2202 the normal
bridge design over which sat the nopal and eagle was converted into
an imperial crown.
9 These circulated throughout the Middle East and parts of Africa
like Nigeria and the eastern coast of Africa-all areas with a large
10 Although the mint of the Mexico City Central Bank fulfilled an
order from Saudi Arabia for thirty million 1-riyal pieces in 1949
(Pradeau 1: 287).
11 This silver rupee weighed 11.6 grams and was .985 fine.
12 This silver rupee was 180 grains troy with a fineness of .917
or 11/12 fine. This was also the weight of a tola in popular use
in India (Nambudiripad 12).
13 The place in question is on the West River between Wu-chau and
Pesê (Colquhoun 1: 217).
14 After 1850, Maritime Customs managed by foreign interests accepted
Haikwan taels (Kann 153).
15 The silver that was exported from China to India was mostly in
the form of sycee silver and broken dollars (Williams 274). Indian
mints priced the sycee and coins for their silver content. Since
coins were more valuable as money in China, they were retained there.
16 The Carolus dollar (IIII variety) was called ssu-kung yin because
the Roman numeral "I" looked like the Chinese character
"kung" or "gong" (Yang 49). This would translate
to "four worker dollar."
17 Wang estimates that 134 million dollars left the country from
1827-1849 due to the opium trade (442).
18 The assayers' initials and mint name were one letter not two:
for example, Z for Zacatecas not Zs, G for Guanajuato not G with
an o in it and M for Mexico City not M with an o over it (Halliday