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coins of the month - march 2016
The coinage of Latin American independence
Most of Latin America achieved independence from the European empires at the beginning of the nineteenth century, through the example of the American and the French revolutions and the weakening of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. New nations were progressively created, dividing the colonial territories into a larger number of countries, and in the process creating new national symbols and currencies.
From a strictly monetary point of view the coinage system was initially in strict continuity with the one inherited from Spain (16 silver reales = 1 gold escudo), with a central role played by the large silver coin of 8 reales (also called “pieces of 8” or “peso”), whose circulation was global, from Latin America and North America to Europe and even China. The international importance of the coins was still substantial because the silver mines in Latin America in particular were some of the main world producers of that precious metal. Silver was still at the centre of European, American and Asian monetary systems in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The dominant iconographical reference for the new republics was however unquestionably coming from the French revolution, associated with local images, history and independence heroes.
Haiti had preceded the Spanish colonies in seeking and achieving independence. The French had created a flourishing economy of sugar exporting plantations at the cost of exploitation and extermination of slaves imported from Africa. In 1791 the slaves revolted and the first black republic was proclaimed under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture. The French Convention abolished slavery in 1794 but Napoleon reintroduced it in 1802 and sent a military expedition to recapture the island. After initial success, some French generals defected and joined the insurgents, the French were repelled and the Republic of Haiti was proclaimed again in 1804.
We have here a silver coin of 100 centimes of 1829 (year 26 of the Haitian Republic), representing on one side Jean-Pierre Boyer, the second President of Haiti (1818-1843), born from a French father and an African mother, who had come back to the island with the French in 1802 but then defected to the Haitian camp. On the other side the crest of the new country is a combination between a classical military panoply of cannons, cannonballs, drums, flags, spears and rifles with bayonets, and a tree of liberty surmounted by the red cap of freedom. This would have been a typical symbolic vignette (letterhead crest) for a French general during the revolutionary period, except for one major detail: the tree is a palm tree. The design shows the enduring strength and fascination of the ideas of the French Revolution that even years of French repression did not cancel in the minds of Haitians. Other copper pieces of the early years of the Republic instead exhibited a fasci surmounted by the Phrygian cap, and an early issue of small silver coins in 1807-1809 represented a simplified version of the seal of the French republic.
When Mexico achieved its independence in 1821 it also decided to unite in its new coinage the symbols of French republicanism with symbols of national identity. We have here illustrated a small silver 1 real minted in 1858 in Zacatecas, representing a red cap bearing the word “libertad”. It is surrounded by rays of light that can recall both the symbol of the club des Jacobins in Paris, as preserved at the Musée Carnavalet, or a traditional Catholic decoration around sacred images or relics, the usual mixture of continuity and discontinuity.
On the other side a large eagle (a representation of the sun god Huitzilopochtli) is devouring a snake, standing on top of a cactus on an island in the middle of a lake, representing the foundation of pre-Columbian Mexico city, Tenochtitlan. The snake is also a symbol of defeated evil for the Christians, a sanitized version of the Aztec image, where the eagle was often represented eating the red heart of a human sacrifice.
In Central America a federation of 5 states (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica) existed between 1823 and its dissolution in the late 1830’s. The Phrygian cap was in the emblem of the Federal Republic of Central America. We have here a silver coin of 8 reales, minted in 1825 in Guatemala. It shows the sun rising over five mountains, representing the five provinces composing the Federation, while on the other side a prosperous tree is surrounded by the motto “Free, may it grow and prosper”.
Peru was the last major centre of Spanish resistance until independence was achieved in 1825, after the campaigns of the libertadores Simon Bolivar and José de San Martin. The Peruvian republican coins are those with the clearest French republican flavor The silver 8 real minted in Cuzco in 1833, here illustrated. shows a standing liberty figure, holding in one hand a pike surmounted by the red beret and in the other a shield with the word “libertad”, with the motto “firm and happy for union”. On the other side it carries an heraldic shield with a Llama, a tree and a cornucopia (symbol of abundance). The Llama and the palm trees are also the protagonists of the early Bolivian coins, associated with a laurelled bust of Bolivar, the hero of Latin America. We have illustrated here a Bolivian silver 8 soles of 1862.
Argentina fought a war for independence between 1810 and 1818, under the name of United provinces of the Rio de la Plata. We have here a silver 8 soles of 1815, coming from the mint of Potosí (today’s Bolivia), the largest mint of South America under the Spanish empire thanks to its enormous silver mines, occupied for a few months by the Argentinian republican forces. The coin shows the new crest of Argentina, two hands holding together a stick (or pike) surmounted by a red cap and surrounded by the words “en union y libertad”. On the other side a powerful sun with eyes wide open smiles over the destiny of the new country, as it apparently emerged from the clouds to illuminate the parliamentary delegates emerging to announce the creation of the republic in May 1810.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics