Globalization and the Image II
The Global Image
2002 MLA Convention
New York City, NY
30 December

Cornelius Conover
Univ. of Texas at Austin

The Imaginary Peso:
Imagistic Strategies of Nineteenth-Century Mexican Coins

Do not cite without permission of the author.

Cada 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.

Footless 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).


The 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 silver coins.

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).

For 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 to territory.

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.


Imperial currency…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).

As 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 99).

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 circuits.


'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

The 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.
Williams 268

China's 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 images.
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 228-9).
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 48-9).

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…(arrived)…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 local tradition.

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 standard.

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.


Silver "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.

Fig. 1. Mundos y mares or pillar dollar. 1754. Mexico City. Casa de Moneda de México. Historia Numismática. <>

Fig. 2. Carolus III real. 1772. Mexico City. Casa de Moneda de México. Historia Numismática. <>

Fig. 3. Carolus IIII real. 1803. Mexico City. Casa de Moneda de México. Historia Numismática. <>

Fig. 4. Republican peso. 1854. Mexico City. Casa de Moneda de México. Historia Numismática. <>

Fig 5. Gold coin of Mahmud 1, 1730. Istanbul. Turkish Cultural Foundation. The Turkish Ottoman and Seljuk Coins. <>

Fig. 6. Maria Theresa Thaler. 1780 Maria Theresa Silver Thaler. <>

Fig. 7. Parekh, Varun. Alamgir II Arcot Silver Rupee. Minted at Madras and struck in Arcot from 1759 to 1806 with frozen regal year 6. Ancient India Coins Prior to 1857. <>

Fig. 8. Parekh, Varun Victoria Silver Rupee. Minted at Madras in 1862. British India Coins 1857-1947. <>

Fig. 9. Belyaev, Vladimir. Bronze coin. Beijing 1644. Shun Chih Coins. <>

Fig. 10. Shan-Si sycee. Example of China silver sycee. <>

Fig. 11. Jiang-Si sycee. Example of China silver sycee. <>

Fig. 12. Tai, Stephen. Chopmarked Mexican Republican peso. Chopmarks on 5 Mexican Silver Dollars. December 18, 1999 <>

Fig. 13. Tai, Stephan. Chopmarked Fernando VII real. Chopped Dollars. Feb. 28, 1998 <>

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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 309).
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 Muslim population.
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 46).