- Cobs, Pieces of Eight and Treasure Coins: The Early Spanish-American Mints and Their Coinages 1536–1773
By the 1520s the Spanish crown began to realize that its vast territories in the Americas promised unlimited resources and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of copper, gold, and especially silver. To organize these areas and administer their potential profits, the Spanish Kingdom developed two viceroyalties: the first, created in 1535 and called Nueva España, covered all Spanish colonies north of the Panama isthmus; the second, established in 1544 under the name El Perú, included territories under Spanish control south of Panama. Appointed by the king, viceroys were responsible for, among other duties, securing the flow of precious metals and jewels from the colonies to the coffers of mainland Spain (or, more specifically, the kingdoms of Castile and León). Though later subdivided, their basic organizational structure remained essentially unchanged for almost two centuries.
As early as 1497, Columbus had been charged with establishing a mint in the Indies. Although that initial foray was fruitless, petitions for royal mints were soon approved and by 1575 Spanish royal policy dictated that one quarter of all silver bullion was to be converted into coinage. Mints opened in Mexico and Santo Domingo (1535), Lima (1568), La Plata\Potosí (1573–74), Panama (1580), Cartagena and Santa Fe de Bogotá (1622), with additional mints established in the following century. From 1536 to 1734 the Mexico mint alone was responsible for nearly one-half of the world's silver supply.
The crude coins, called "cobs" (from the Spanish word cabo), produced at those mints were hand-struck, irregularly shaped objects of various denominations in silver, copper, and gold. Cob-style coins are divided into two basic groups based on their obverse markings: the "pillars and waves-type" and the "shield-type." Their reverses typically bear a cross or a quartered shield with the arms of Castile and León. Weight and fineness were primary considerations in coin production: after the metal was smelted, purified, and alloyed (this last to prevent brittleness), large strips were measured for proper thickness and cut into basic sizes corresponding to their denominations (with some notable exceptions, copper: 2 and 4 maravedíes; silver: ###frax;1;4###, ½, 1, 2, 4, and 8 reales; gold: 1, 2, 4, and 8 escudos). Further snipping and chiseling produced the requisite weight at the expense of the coin's visual integrity, and later unofficial alterations to the cobs were rampant. Many of these coins were circulated in the Spanish colonies, but others were shipped to Spain to be melted down and refashioned as jewelry or coins of the realm.
The hand-hammered dies used in the colonial Americas had short life spans, necessitating constant replacement. This condition in conjunction with later vandalisms resulted in myriad discrepancies found among coins of all denominations, confusing our modern identification of a given coin's value, date, and the precise location of its facture. Even as technologies in the Spanish-American colonies were not sufficiently sophisticated to produce uniformly round coins until the eighteenth century, the process was surprisingly efficient. As Menzel relates, between [End Page 553] 1591 and 1600 the mints of Mexico and Peru "churned out nearly 70 million peso (silver dollar) equivalents in treasure for export to Spain" (4).
Menzel's study draws from and complements recent symposia sponsored by the American Numismatic Society and the substantial past and present numismatic scholarship of Pradeau, Bischoff, Craig, Buttrey, Mishler, Burzio, Kays, Nesmith, Daniel and Frank Sedwick, Bakewell, Sellschopp, and Utberg, among others. This profusely illustrated volume, over twenty years in the making, includes some three thousand photographs (and much-needed magnifications), diagrams, drawings, and charts. It is a work of diligence and careful analysis. Never pedantic, the text is accessible, clearly articulated, and supported by appropriate scholarly apparatus. Menzel's survey of the Potosí mint scandal beginning in the late 1640s (296–301) would have...