Review: Spanish Colonial Silver Coins in the Florida Collection

Alan K. Craig. Spanish Colonial Silver Coins in the Florida Collection. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. 217pp., b/w illus. throughout. ISBN 0-8130-1748-3. $49.95.

Spanish colonial cob coins have always had a special allure through their connection to a romanticized age when pirates infested the seas and control of the American continents and the Caribbean islands was contested by rival European powers. Recently, these coins have been attracting even more attention, particularly in North America, through the publication of Sewall Menzel’s award-winning survey, Cobs, Pieces of Eight, and Treasure Coins (New York, 2004). In light of the current interest in the series and the apparent unavailability of Alan Craig’s Spanish Colonial Silver Coins in the Florida Collection to Menzel, it seems worthwhile to offer a review of Craig’s work, despite the fact that the book has been in print now for over half a decade.

The present volume, originally published alongside and as a supplement to Craig’s other millennial numismatic work, Spanish Colonial Gold Coins in the Florida Collection (a revised version of Gold Coins of the 1715 Spanish Fleet), provides an interesting and sometimes entertaining overview of the Spanish silver coins belonging to the state of Florida. The vast majority of these coins came into the state collection through divisions of material salvaged from the wrecks of the 1715 and 1733 Plate Fleets lost to bad weather off the eastern coast of Florida as they sailed for Spain, although coins from some earlier and later wrecks are also listed and discussed.

Before plunging into his commentary on the Florida holdings, the author dedicates the first three chapters of Spanish Colonial Silver Coins to providing the reader with some historical, political, and economic background to the production of cob coins in the New World. Here special attention is given to the major mints of Mexico and Potosí. The recounting, in chapter 3, of the sordid tale of the Potosí’s decline into debasement and scandal with its aftermath of executions and mint reorganization is especially well done. Even those intimately familiar with the many problems of this mint in the mid-seventeenth century will not fail to be entertained by Craig’s lively prose.

Chapter 4 offers an overview of the steps involved in producing a Spanish silver coin from the mining of the ore to the striking of the finished planchet, and chapter 5 provides an introduction to the general characteristics and varieties of cob coins. The author is especially keen to dispel several persistent myths about cob coinage that were not entirely filtered out by Menzel. He first takes issue with the frequent claim that the term “cob” is derived from the Spanish al cabo de barra, meaning “from the end of the bar” and implying a belief that the planchets were cut from a silver bar. Not only is there no evidence for planchets cut from bars, but Craig points out that al cabo de barra is really a financial term meaning “the last payment due on an account,” and therefore has little to tell us about Spanish colonial coin production. Perhaps more importantly, the author also resumes his longstanding crusade against the modern use of the term “royal” to refer to redondos (round and unusually well-centered and well-struck cobs) in the mistaken belief that these well-made cobs were struck as presentation pieces for the king of Spain. Instead, he shows from contemporary documents that the proper name for these coins was galanos (“handsome, fine-looking”) and convincingly argues that they were more likely to have been specially produced for transactions in which the usual rough appearance of regular cob coins would have been unacceptable.

The chapters that follow, which discuss the Florida holdings by mint, include lists of the known assayers for the mints at Mexico, Potosí, and Lima. However, readers should be warned that Craig’s assayers do not match those given by Menzel, and therefore may be a source of some confusion. In most cases when there is disagreement, Menzel’s arrangement is probably to be preferred, because while the archival evidence is often lacking to securely identify and order some assayers, his organization, based on typology and recut assayer marks, is generally convincing. The differences are especially glaring for the mints of Lima and Potosí, where, for example, Craig seems to have transposed the M/B/L sequence of assayer’s marks from the latter to the former, identifying them as the initials of the Lima assayers Xinés Martínez (1568-1570), Juan de Bruselas (1574), and possibly Baltazar de Leceta (1575-1577). Menzel, on the other hand, rightly attributes the coins of this sequence to Potosí, making Miguel García (1576-1577), Juan de Ballestros Narváez (1577-1586), and Gerónimo Leto (1578-1582) the likely assayers.

It is a well-known fact that the study of die states and varieties is one of the staple pursuits of the serious colonial-period numismatist, and Craig does not disappoint in this area: he illustrates and comments on a number of interesting die varieties from each of the mints whose products appear in the Florida collection. He should also be congratulated for drawing special attention to distinct planchet varieties, a subject that is not often treated in much detail. The commentary mainly involves the cobs of the Mexican mint, which seems to have been especially fond of innovations in planchet form.

Particularly interesting is the “wristwatch” planchet variety, so called because of its roughly circular central area flanked by two tabs. It is suggested that this odd shape might have given added stability to stacks when the coins were being counted, but this seems rather implausible. Perhaps a more likely explanation is that the wristwatch form was a relic of the flan production process rather than an intended feature of the coins. Wristwatch cobs look as if they may have been made from a strip (cast?) of rough circular shapes, each connected to the other by a rectangular runner. When the circular blanks were cut apart, a tab would have remained on either side, thereby creating the distinctive wristwatch form. Such tabs probably could not have been removed to create a more pleasingly round coin without lowering its weight beyond acceptable allowances.

The frequent occurrence of faceted edges on Mexican cobs created by heavy hammer blows is also discussed in some detail, but the explanation of this feature is a little difficult to accept. The author suggests that the hammering was done in order to dull the sharp, jagged edges of cut planchets, thereby preventing them from damaging the sacks in which they were carried or jabbing the people who carried them. Unfortunately, this theory becomes implausible when we consider that mints of Spanish America normally shipped cobs in chests, not sacks, and it is clear from the examples provided (Figs. 7.6-7.7) that numerous sharp edges were left on “spur” variety cobs and other planchet forms despite hammering. Clearly some other purpose must lie behind the faceting.

As Potosí is of great personal interest to the author, the coins of this mint in the Florida collection are prefaced by a well-illustrated history of the mint and its peculiar production problems, from the early days of the ephemeral mint operation at La Plata to its removal to Potosí in the high Andes. Here Craig makes the compelling argument that the added expenses of production created by the high-altitude mint facility may have partially lain behind the recurrent temptation to adulterate the coinage at Potosí, a temptation that does not seem to have plagued the other, more cost-effective Spanish colonial mints.

It is notable that unlike the Mexican cobs, which dominate the salvaged coins from the coast of Florida and increase in number in the years prior to the sailing of the 1715 Fleet, the author indicates a decrease in numbers of Potosí cobs between 1704 and 1711. Craig attributes this to delays in transporting the coins from Potosí to meet the fleet at Lima and to the general decline of the mines at Potosí. While the problem of slow transportation is a possible explanation, the growing exhaustion of the mines seems somewhat less likely, considering the evidence for Potosí’s continued production of about two million pesos per year in this period (see C. Lazo Gárcia, Economia Colonial y Regimen Monetario, Peru: Siglos XVI-XIX. 3 vols. [Lima, 1992], 199-203). Perhaps the lower showing for 1704-1715 issues is only the result of the chance of discovery, and future salvage operations will alter the picture. Conclusions from statistical analysis of the Potosí material as well as the other coins in the Florida collection must be drawn with great caution. Not only is the data skewed by the chance of discovery by salvers and the inability to know whether the full numismatic contents of a wreck have been recovered, but also by the acquisition policy of the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research. Before 1975, divisions between salvers and the Bureau were often made by weight, while from 1975 to the present, the focus has been on filling holes in the collection with salvaged coins.

Among the more remarkable Potosí coins in the collection are a group of transitional cobs produced in 1650 to 1656 and an eight-reales with the assayer mark VR apparently dated [16]98 (Fig. 8.9g). The latter will no doubt be a source of some controversy, as VR (identified as Pedro de Villar by Menzel) is not otherwise known to have worked later than the first part of 1697. A 1698 date is made problematic by the existence of 1697 cobs signed by the assayers CH (Sebastián de Chavarría) and CH overcut by F (Tomás Fernández de Ocaña). To make sense of this, we would have to assume that VR ended his tenure in 1697 and was replaced by two other assayers in succession, only to reappear for a single issue in 1698, when F was also working. This seems a little implausible, and one wonders whether the less than perfectly preserved 8 of [16]98 might not really be a 3, which would create a known date for VR.

The Florida holdings of coins from the Spanish mint operations at Lima, Cartagena de Indias, Santa Fé de Bogotá, and Guatemala are detailed in chapter 9. In addition to the long run of Lima cobs dated 1696 to 1711 from the 1715 Fleet, thanks to the continuing salvage from the Jupiter Wreck(s?), the collection is also fairly strong on the popular “Lima star” types, apparently produced on local initiative from 1659 to 1660. The later Lima issues dated 1703, 1706, 1708, 1710, and 1711 are all outstanding for their virtually as-struck appearance, a condition that Craig attributes to a conscious treasury policy of keeping some coins out of circulation in expectation of the command to assemble the Plate Fleet.

The mint of Cartagena de Indias is represented by three rare 1655 specimens (an eight-, a four-, and a two-reales). Issues of Santa Fé de Bogotá appear in similarly low numbers. Here the author draws attention to the ninety-degree reverse die orientation of the Cartagena eight-reales (mistakenly describing it as “medallic”), which makes this coin stand out from the other Florida coins. However, while it is generally unusual, this orientation is not entirely anomalous for the Cartagena mint. Several cobs illustrated by Menzel (440, Type II and Iia; and 445, Type I) also appear to have this characteristic, perhaps suggesting the inconsistent use of fixed dies at Cartagena de Indias.

Because the author’s primary interest is in cobs, the eleven milled coins from Guatemala in the collection are only mentioned in passing, because one of them is a rare 1779 eight-reales of Carlos II. An 1821 milled half-real of Zacatecas is also listed in the Florida catalogue, but no additional commentary is provided.

The book concludes with three appendices. The first of these provides contemporary as well as modern metric and imperial equivalences for early modern Spanish weights and distances, while the last is a table listing the coins in the Florida collection used for illustration. Those interested in cob coinage but unable to read Spanish will especially appreciate the second appendix, which for the first time translates into English a documentary report, first published by Carlos Lazo Gárcia in 1992, on the operation of the Potosí mint in 1700.

Spanish Colonial Silver Coins is lavishly illustrated with many black-and-white photographs depicting not only the coins but also the remains of the Potosí mines and mint, as well as woodcuts showing various production processes. While the images are all of excellent quality, it is a little disappointing that the coins are not always illustrated in proper numismatic fashion, with both obverse and reverse shown. While this omission is understandable in the case of some of the figures illustrating Mexican planchet varieties, where the focus is on a particular feature rather than on the coin as a whole, it is unfortunate that both sides are not illustrated in a number of figures depicting cobs from Potosí and Lima, as well as the 1779 eight-reales from the Guatemala mint. We might have liked to see plates of the more outstanding silver coins from the Florida collection, similar to those published in Spanish Colonial Gold Coins, but perhaps this would have made the present larger volume overly expensive for a book that attempts to walk the fine line between serving as an introduction for the interested layman and providing the data to feed future numismatic, archaeological, and historical enquiry.

Florida is indeed fortunate, not only for the vagaries of weather that have made its coastline a graveyard of treasure ships and a rich porthole into the Spanish colonial past, but also for the wisdom and foresight that the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research has shown in actively publishing its coin holdings. Despite our criticisms of Spanish Colonial Silver Coins, we earnestly hope that other curators of state collections will take notice of it and its sister volume and see them as a challenge to publish their own numismatic material from both nautical and land finds. Colonial-period coins with both archaeological and numismatic relevance held in the state collections of North America are in their own way buried treasures waiting to be uncovered and revealed to the interested public.

—Oliver D. Hoover