The Eight Reales Coin. The Reale de a Ocho. The Spanish Dollar. The Peso de Ocho. It is but one coin, yet goes by many names. To most people, however, this most legendary of legendary coins has just one name, which has remained famous throughout the world for over five hundred years…
The Piece of Eight.
Coveted by buccaneers and bankers, pirates and plunderers, outlaws, cutpurses, merchants and traders for the better part of four centuries, made internationally famous by legendary tales of cutthroat piracy, high-seas plunder, buried treasure, sunken galleons, popular literature and modern pop culture, it is a coin of near mythical status. Few in the world today have ever touched one, let alone seen one. I picked one up recently from a local numismatist of repute, and it now forms part of my antiques collection.
Me. The proud owner of a genuine, silver Piece of Eight.
But what are Pieces of Eight?
Well, read this posting and you MIGHT just find out.
1497: The Creation of the Spanish Dollar
If you know anything about European history, then you might remember, possibly from school, that in the 1490s, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella successfully drove the moors (Muslims) from the Iberian Peninsula, reclaiming what is today – Spain – for Christendom! Huzzah!
Following their success, Ferdinand and Isabella suddenly discovered that they had a whole new kingdom to look after, and that being king and queen was extremely hard work. They had rebellions to crush, peasants to rule, voyages of discovery to fund (remember Christopher Columbus?), and money to count!
In order to start fresh and rebuild their new nation, the new king and queen established a new system of currency, called the ‘Real‘ (‘royal’, in Spanish, like the soccer team ‘Real Madrid‘). In 1497, the new currency system came into effect, and comprised of a 1/2-Real coin, a 1 Real coin, 2 Reale coin, 4 Reale coin, and an 8 Reale coin (‘Real’ = singular, ‘Reale’ = plural). Here, it’s important to note that while the Real coin came in many denominations, only the 8 Reale coin can properly be considered a ‘Piece of Eight’, or Spanish Dollar.
Above the 8 Reale coin was the gold Ducado (‘ducat’), later replaced by the gold Spanish Escudo (worth 16 Reales, or two Pieces of Eight). As interesting as they are, we won’t be talking about that today.
The Spanish conquest (by conquistadors), of Central, North and South America in the 1490s and 1500s led to the creation of their vast colonies in this region, stretching from California to Florida, Mexico to Peru and Bolivia. Part of this conquest involved the hardcore mining of as much silver as they could find! And they found loads of it! Entire mountain ranges were carved hollow by the picks and shovels of Spanish miners hauling out tons of ore which were crushed, pulverised and purified into silver, which were stamped and machined into millions upon millions upon millions of coins.
It was these coins, packed into crates and chests, which were shipped across the ocean from what became known as the ‘Spanish Main’, to Europe, and back to the actual Kingdom of Spain. Loaded with what would today, be BILLIONS OF DOLLARS in treasure, Spanish treasure-galleons became an irresistible target to French, English and Dutch pirates, buccaneers and privateers, who raided, plundered, pillaged the Spanish for all the silver they could lay their hands on.
The Spread of the Spanish Dollar
Unlike the 1918 spread of the Spanish Flu, the spread of the Spanish Dollar in the 15, 16, 17 and 1800s was welcomed by many nations. The Spanish Monarchy declared that the Spanish Dollar and its component pieces were to be legal tender throughout the Spanish empire, which gradually expanded to the Philippines, colonies in both Americas, and the Caribbean. In this way, the Piece of Eight was the first ‘global currency’, and was often traded, spent and accepted as legal tender in many countries around the world, even in those where it was not the dominant form of currency – such as many countries in Europe, Britain, as well as the United States, China, Canada, and even Australia!
The Desirability of the Dollar
The Spanish Dollar or Piece of Eight remained in circulation, and was a desirable coin, for centuries because of its large size, high silver-purity (anywhere from 89-93%), high value, and near-universal acceptance as currency. During the age of colonisation, between the early 1600s to the middle of the 19th century, many new settlements, colonies and countries, not yet with their own monetary systems, would trade Spanish silver dollars as currency – more about that, later…
Much of the silver used to mint Spanish dollars and their smaller denominations, such as 4, 2, 1, and 1/2-Real coins, was mined in South America, and most of the coins made from this silver were minted in South America. They were then distributed among the colonies, or else packed onto treasure galleons and shipped back to Spain. Tons and tons of silver were sailing out of South America, through the Caribbean, and towards Europe – and you can bet that people could hear that glorious clinking-clanking sound that makes the world go ’round…for miles in every direction. And they’re going to get really interested in that sound, and the coins which make it.
Piracy and Pieces of Eight
The Golden Age of Piracy stretched, with starts and stops, from about 1600 to the last quarter of the 18th century, a period of just under two hundred years (give or take a few years, depending on what start-and-end dates you choose to agree with). During this time, primarily English, French and Dutch pirates, and the governments who either condemned or condoned their actions, prowled the West Indies, seeking their prey – Spanish treasure galleons. Overflowing with gold escudos, ducats and silver pieces of eight, they made far-too-tempting prizes to be ignored by other nations.
While some pirates were in it just for themselves, a good portion of them were also privateers – that is to say – government-sponsored pirates. They received a certificate (a ‘letter of marque’) from their government…or the nearest thing to their government’s official in the area…such as a colonial governor…which said that they were legally allowed to hunt down, capture, pillage and destroy anything that belonged to a nominally enemy nation.
Spanish Treasure Fleets
Spain was digging South America hollow, mining out tons and tons of gold and silver ore, which were crushed, extracted, melted down, minted into coins, or solid gold or silver bars, and then loaded onto treasure galleons. A voyage from the Caribbean to Spain took several months, and as each ship carried literally millions of dollars worth of precious metals, sending just one ship out on its own was considered foolhardy.
For this reason, the Spanish government actually instituted a system of treasure fleets. Two or three times each year, entire fleets or convoys of ships would sail out from Spain to the Caribbean delivering essential supplies to the colonies. On each return-journey to Spain, these same fleets brought back incalculable riches for the Spanish government, and the ruling Spanish royal family. Anybody who desired to attack the fleet to get away with some of the gold or silver would have to contend with dozens of bronze cannons firing at them all at once from multiple sides, as the ships in the convoys defended each other from attack.
How many Spanish treasure galleons ever fell prey to pirates is difficult to say, although some treasure ships were lost, usually in devastating storms, their wrecks becoming the stuff of myth and legend for centuries to come. Spanish treasure galleons, or even entire fleets were lost to storms in 1622, 1708, 1715, 1733, and 1750, among other years, and today, the untold billions of dollars in treasure which vanished beneath the waves with the demise of these vessels, is an irresistible lure to underwater treasure-hunters.
Some of the sunken treasure was uncovered during the 1700s and 1800s using primitive diving-gear, but the vast majority remained sunken and hidden until the 20th and 21st centuries, when wreck-salvagers, deep-sea hunters and historical conservationists, using modern diving technology, were able to locate the wrecks and retrieve artifacts and sunken treasure worth billions of dollars today.
The degree of the reality of the piratical connections with pieces of eight were forever linked together in the 19th century, when, in 1883, famed author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his masterpiece of a children’s novel: ‘Treasure Island’. Indeed, much of what we think we know about pirates today, comes from ‘Treasure Island’, some of it more true than others. The idea that pirates plundered Spanish settlements, raided Spanish harbours and fired shot into the hulls of Spanish treasure galleons to sink or capture them, seeking the valuable cargoes of pieces of eight which they carried is just too strong to ignore.
But did it actually happen?
Yes! Spanish treasure galleons and settlements were attacked – primarily by the English – seeking Spanish treasure. One such incident took place in 1708, when British warships opened fire on the galleon San Jose. The British won the battle, but lost the treasure, as the galleon was so badly damaged by cannonfire that it was lost to the sea for over three centuries thereafter. The wreck of the San Jose was finally discovered in 2015. Divers, wreck-experts and historians estimated that the treasure on board was worth a princely $3,000,000,000…that’s three billion dollars! As of July, 2017, salvage operations to retrieve, catalog, and preserve the treasure, and historic artifacts from the wreck, are ongoing.
Around the World in Pieces of Eight!
Due to the vast, vast quantities of pieces of eight that were minted, they were used all over the world, from Australia to China, Canada to America, Peru and Bolivia to Spain and many other places besides. Their size, weight, and purity of silver made them highly valuable and in situations where no other currency was available, Spanish dollars were often seen as being universally acceptable.
Two places where Spanish dollars were used as a currency stand-in, until more official systems of coinage replaced them, was in Canada, and Australia.
Early colonial Australia had no money. Convicts, freed convicts, soldiers, colonial officials and free-settlers all bought, sold and traded their produce, services and wares using a primitive bartering system. Displeased by this, Governor Philip King decided to do something about it, and drew up a chart whereby foreign currency could be used in the colony, the chart telling people how many pounds, shillings or pence any particular foreign coin was worth. This was issued as a proclamation in 1800, and all the coins listed in this chart became known as ‘proclamation coins’. One of them was the Spanish Dollar.
While this helped people buy and sell, it didn’t help people keep their money. The problem was – international sailors and traders would take these coins from colonists as payment…and then hop on their ships and sail away…leaving a currency drain on the colony which could not be replaced – they had no mint of their own with which to do so! To rectify this, in 1813, Governor Macquarie decreed the recognition of Australia’s first official currency – the Spanish Dollar.
Remember how I said that Spanish dollars were highly coveted?
To ensure that they were not (at least, not by anybody who could sail off into the sunset with a whole shipload of them), the governor had all Spanish dollars in (or arriving at) the colony mutilated. The coins were punched out, like a doughnut! The interior plug or disc (called a ‘dump’), was marked ‘NEW SOUTH WALES’ and ‘1813’ on one side, complete with a crown, while the other side had the value marked: Fifteen Pence.
By comparison, the ‘doughnut’ piece left over, what became known as the ‘holey dollar’, was over-marked with a value of five shillings (equal to one crown of British currency).
Altered in this way, the coins could be used within the colony as money, but were worthless outside the colony, since nobody would accept a Spanish silver dollar with a massive bloody hole punched out of it! This ensured that foreign traders wouldn’t want to keep them. This system lasted until 1825, when the British government decreed that from then on – only British coins were to be used in Australia, and the Dump and the Holey Dollar were consigned to history. Most were simply rounded up, melted down, and re-cast as British coins. As a result, they are phenomenally rare today, and sell for thousands of dollars apiece.
Pieces of Eight in the USA
Just like in Australia, early America suffered badly from not having enough money. Since the Spanish had already established themselves in various parts of North America from as far back as the 1500s and 1600s, Spanish dollars were used in transactions in what became the Thirteen Colonies of British America, as well as in Spanish colonies and French colonies spread across what is today, the United States. They became such a part of life that Spanish dollars remained legal tender in America until 1857!
By the mid-1800s, America was awash with foreign coins – the only coins really available for use at the time. Unable to keep track of the dozens of different denominations, the American government stepped in, outlawing the use of foreign coins as legal tender within the United States.
But the United States has been around since the 1780s. What took them so long to decide to stop the use of the Spanish dollar? The basic answer is supply and demand. The U.S. Mint (established 1792) had to make thousands, hundreds of thousands, MILLIONS of American dollars to replace the MILLIONS of Spanish dollars then in-use in America. In the meantime, Spanish dollars continued as legal tender.
Deadlines for the changeover came and went…and came…and…went and…came and went…and…you get the idea. It took them a lot longer than they expected. But by the 1850s, the mint had produced enough coins to start challenging the dominance of the once-mighty Spanish dollar. In 1857, the Coinage Act was passed, and from 1858 onwards, only American currency was legal in the States. People who still had Spanish dollars could either keep them as mementos, keepsakes, souvenirs or historical curiosities, or they could trade them in for the equivalent value in American dollars.
Breaking Down the Dollar
So, we’ve looked at the history of the Piece of Eight, where, how, and by whom it was used…but what about the coin itself?
Spanish dollars had a purity of between 89-93%, depending on age and location of minting. Their size varied, but as milled coins replaced the earlier cob or hammered coins, it was standardised at approx 38-39mm (this may vary depending on the age of your coin, and how worn down the edges are).
Similarly, a solid silver Spanish dollar should weigh 27.46g. However, a coin which has suffered from excessive rubbing, wear-and-tear, or which might have suffered from clipping (where some unscrupulous vagabond shaved off some of the coin’s silver content for his own dastardly ends!), will weigh slightly less. This particular coin weighs only 26.3g. The considerable deterioration of the milling around the coin’s edges explains its underweight result.
Since they were manufactured for centuries, and in a variety of places by a variety of people in a variety of mints, regional variations of Pieces of Eight became common. Each mint had its own particular style, and styles changed over time as Spanish monarchs rose and fell, ascending and abdicating or passing away, leading to a wide array of coins. Coats of arms, mint-marks, assayer’s marks and of course, the face on the coin, changed continuously throughout its history.
The reverse (tails) of my coin has “HISPAN.ET.IND.REX” (‘King of Spain and the Indies‘), ‘LME‘ (mint-mark for Lima, Peru), ‘8R‘ (8 Reales), and ‘I.J.‘, the initials of the assayer who oversaw the coin’s production. In the middle is the Spanish Coat of Arms of the era, topped by a royal crown, and flanked by the Pillars of Hercules, the symbolic name of the Strait of Gibraltar.
The obverse (heads) side features the face of King Charles IV (or IIII on the coin), who reigned from 1788 to 1808. It also has the words ‘Dei Gratia‘ (‘By the Grace of God‘) and the year of ‘1802‘ at the base, indicating year of mintage.
Keep in mind that, in a coin which lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years, this is only one of several variations of the Piece of Eight which were manufactured.
The Impact of the Spanish Dollar
For a coin so mythologised, legendary and famous, what sort of legacy has the Piece of Eight left in modern society, apart from being a staple of popular pirate lore?
Well, one answer to that question is that it was the Piece of Eight which inspired the modern dollar-sign.
You know. This thing: $
How, you might ask? Simple. From the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ motif on the flipside of the coin. The twisting scrolls around the pillars is thought to be the origin of the S, while the pillars became the vertical strokes. Combined, they turned into the modern $-sign that we use today.
The Spanish dollar also influenced the creation Chinese dollar (or ‘yuan’), the Japanese ‘yen’, and the American dollar, which fully-replaced the Spanish dollar in the United States in the 1850s. Subsidiaries of the American dollar, such as the half-dollar (50c) and a quarter-dollar (25c) were directly influenced by the piece of eight’s smaller denominations such as the 1/2, 1, 2, and 4 Reale coins.
The End of the Piece of Eight
Introduced in 1497, the Piece of Eight, or the 8 Reale coin lasted as legal tender until it died out in 1864. It was at this time that the Spanish Peseta, which remained the Spanish currency until 2002, when it formally adopted the new currency of the Euro, as part of the European Union, replaced the Reale as Spain’s national currency. After this time, the dominance and once near-global acceptance of the Piece of Eight finally died away, consigning one of the most famous coins in history…to history!
Collecting Pieces of Eight
Because of its connections with pirates, treasure-hunters, world history, and international commerce and trade, Pieces of Eight are highly collectible. Millions, probably billions of these coins were made, and distributed all over the world, so they’re pretty common, and with enough patience you’ll eventually get your hands on one. Prices vary according to age, condition and rarity. Shipwreck pieces of eight might be worth more than circulated ones, pieces of eight with stamps or chop-marks hammered into them (where the coins were tested for silver-content over the centuries) are also worth more, because of their uniqueness. Other silver dollars which were changed or altered in some way (such as the Australian holey dollar) can command prices of thousands of dollars due to their rarity.
Are these things faked?
Yes they are.
Unless you’re extremely confident or experienced in buying antique coins, best bet is to start with a coin-dealer, collector, or numismatist (that’s a dude who specialises in antique coins) of proven reputation and quality, when it comes to buying these things. The novice coin-collector can easily be swindled. Like Rolex watches, Montblanc pens, and Donald Trump’s political statements, these things are faked like you can’t believe. Guidelines such as weight, diameter and silver purity can help to narrow down fakes from reals, but you still have to be very careful. The more famous the coin – the more likely it is to be faked.
What About Cleaning Coins?
Part of the reason WHY people collect old coins is BECAUSE THEY LOOK OLD!! They like the aged, worn, battered look, which speaks of a long, heavy, hard, oft-traded life. A coin which looks too perfect raises alarm-bells…it might be a fake! So, can you clean your coins?
It really depends on what you classify as ‘cleaning’.
Outright polishing of your coins, with metal polish-paste or whatever, to make it shine and gleam and sparkle – should be avoided. This damages the desirability of the coin. If it looks too clean and too perfect, people aren’t likely to be interested in it.
Gentle cleaning or rubbing of the coin, say with liquid soap, vinegar, or ammonia, or putting the coin into an ultrasonic cleaner, to remove heavy tarnish, grime or surface gunk is generally permissible, however. People like to see that a coin has some age to it – but they don’t want it to look like you dug it out of a septic tank! In instances like this, GENTLE cleaning is generally not frowned upon. Rubbing a coin between your hands with just a smidge of liquid soap, and then rinsing it off in a basin of water should be sufficient to clean off most of the grime and heaviest tarnish, making the coin easier to read and appreciate.