Silver Cob

The pendant of my necklace is a silver Spanish cob in the denomination of 1 Real, a coin about the size of a penny.  Here is its story, and mine.

The tic-tac-toe (naughts & crosses) layout is called the Pillars and Waves design. The pillars, vertical, represent the Pillars of Hercules – Gibraltar & Monte Hacho – which stand North and South of the Strait of Gibraltar. The Atlantic waves are seen at the bottom. The upper left ‘P’ is for ‘Peru’ (of which Bolivia was then a part); the upper right ‘E’ is for the name of the Potosí assayer, in this case Antonio de Ergueta. The horizontal middle sections contain the words ‘PLV SVL TRA’, meaning Plus Ultra or More/Further Beyond, a catchphrase for Spain’s New World explorations and still a national motto today. The middle section below contains a double-strike date: (16)76/77.

In 1545, just over fifty years after Europeans first set foot on the land masses they would later come to know as the Americas, a man named Diego Gualpa was out looking for a lost llama in the high plateau of the Bolivian Andes.  At four thousand metres (roughly 13,000 ft.) – not remarkably high for the Andes – the landscape was bare except for the occasional collection of shrubs.  Crossing a dome-shaped hill Diego tripped on loose rock and as he fell he instinctively reached out to take hold of one of the shrubs.  It came out of the ground and as he picked himself up he happened to look at the hole where the roots had been.  He saw an odd metallic sparkle.  

What Diego Gualpa discovered that day would change the lives of millions of people across the entire globe for centuries to come.  He had quite literally stumbled upon the greatest silver strike in history: Potosí, the Bolivian mountain of silver, had a vein of high quality ore measuring one hundred metres long, four meters wide, and one hundred metres deep.

Two hundred year later Spanish silver mines in the Americas had produced more than 40,000 tons of silver, most of it coming from Potosí, and by the end of the 18th century production had geared up even more: 150,000 tons of silver were shipped from Potosí by 1800.  The influence of this wealth on world economies was unprecedented, funding massive expansion, new trade routes, innovation, building projects and numerous wars. Ultimately it also contributed to inflation and economic instability.

The coin I have?  It was minted in Potosí in 1676 or 1677 during the reign of the unfortunate Carlos II of Spain (the cob has a double year strike, so perhaps a mistake at the start of 1677?).  By 1681 it had made its way by llama or mule over the Andes to Arica on the Pacific coast and then up to Callao, the port of Lima, capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru, where it probably spent some time in storage.  The journey continued again in 1681 aboard the ship Santa Maria de la Consolacion which inexplicably left port without escort while carrying 146,000 pieces of eight (8 Reals) as well as a cargo of gold and silver ingots.

The destination was Panama, where the cargo would again be loaded on to mules to make the crossing of the mosquito and bandit-invested isthmus in hopes of arriving safely in the town of Portobelo and embarking on the last leg, by ship to Spain.  But the Consolacion never made it past the Gulf of Guayaquil in modern-day Ecuador.  A British pirate named Bartholomew Sharpe chased the galleon which, in its haste, struck a reef off Santa Clara Island.  The crew set fire and scuttled the ship, preventing Sharpe from taking any bounty.  They made it to the island but then had to endure the wrath of Sharpe; the island is now ominously known as Isla de los Muertos.  The treasure survived; the depth of the waters protecting it until salvors began bringing the horde to the surface in 1997.

My first degree is in economics and I find intriguing the history described above in brief.  There is so much more to tell than can be contained in a simple blog post.

What I find even more compelling, however, are the histories that have largely been forgotten and cannot now be told: the accounts of the individual lives of the hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples forced into slavery, working the greater part of their lives on hands and knees in the mines, or with poisonous substances in the smelters,  so that the people and societies of Europe might have their riches. 

This is why I wear my pendant.  “The poor you will always have with you” said Jesus.  And I need a daily reminder, lest I forget; to keep my heart awake. 

Even now, all around the globe, others suffer to provide for my carefree life.


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