1622 FLEET << RESEARCH
The Forgotten Coins of the Atocha
Forgotten Coins of the Atocha
silver coins, and 120 gold coins, have been recovered
from the wreck of Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a
collection that is a direct reflection of the fabulous
wealth that was found in Spanish America. Generally
though, these precious-metal coins are of the higher
denominations in use at the time; primarily the eight
reales, or "piece of eight." Coins such as
these were used extensively in upper-level business
affairs, but even the smallest of the silver coins found
on the Atocha, the one real (of which just over 100 were
found), was on the large side for most common
transactions. So how then were small exchanges, such as
buying food, clothing, or a haircut, conducted? The
answer can be found in the most basic Spanish monetary
unit, the maravedi. Discovered within the wreckage of
the Atocha were a few examples of this "small
change" - five copper maravedis coins.
took 34 maravedis to equal one real, and 272 to equal
eight reales. The basic denomination for gold coins, the
escudo, was usually worth 340 maravedis, though this
figure often crept higher as the price of gold
increased. Copper maravedis coins were manufactured in
denominations of 8, 4, 2, and 1.
respects, the maravedi was comparable to today's penny,
and, considering the function of the galleons, their
scarcity on the Atocha is not surprising. The primary
purpose of ships in the flota system was to provide a
steady stream of treasure flowing into Spain. With all
coins of the time being hand-struck, it took just as
much effort to manufacture a one maravedi coin as it did
a piece of eight. Obviously, with a desire to get as
much New World silver to Spain as possible, it was
preferable to expend energies toward the manufacture of
high-denomination coins. Though these large coins were
too highly valued for typical day-to-day purchases, they
did fill the Spanish coffers most efficiently.
coins that found their way onto the Atocha were most
likely used as "pocket-change," and were for
the normal transactions of the common-man. Their
scarcity even then is a reflection of the infrequent use
of money at this lower-level of exchange, which relied
heavily on a system of bartering goods and services.
Prices and wages could fluctuate considerably through
both time and region, but, to offer some perspective,
first-class mariners in the fleet system were paid 1,500
maravedis, or 44 reales, per month in 1622. Second-class
sailors received 1000 maravedis a month, and ship's
boys, 750. In 1626 Seville, a pound of rice cost 25.5
maravedis, and two pounds of salt-cod brought 45.5
are similarly valued, the design of the copper coins in
the Atocha collection varies considerably. None of the
coins examined was minted in the New World, which is not
unusual since, at the time of the Atocha's sinking, no
copper ones had been struck there for over 60 years. The
majority of the coins from the wreck - four - were found
in 1985 and 1986 near the lower-hull structure.
of these is an eight maravedis coin minted at Segovia.
It was originally a finely struck, round coin, but has
suffered from corrosion at the edges, which destroyed
much of the legend. A distinct "IPPVS o III"
(Philip III) is legible, though. A vertical-aqueduct
mint mark, a roman-numeral VIII, and date of 1607 are
all clearly visible.
coin, of 4 maravedis, was minted at Burgos. One side of
this coin is well-preserved, and is centered with a
rampant lion. It bears a date of 1619. This coin too was
minted under the reign of Philip III. It is not of the
fine, circular variety, but more like a cob - clipped to
weight, and showing stress-cracks from its strike.
copper coin in this group has been corroded, or possibly
even clipped, in half. What does remain of it is
well-preserved, and fortunately retains all the evidence
needed to decipher its history. It was finely designed
and struck, and its small diameter matches that of a 2
maravedis coin. It bears a horizontal aqueduct mint mark
next to a centered castle, which is surrounded by the
partial legend "PVS III D G" (Philip III, by
the grace of God). On the other side, encircling a
rampant lion, is "1 HISPANIAR." This is the
last numeral in the date, followed by the Latin for
"Spain." By combining the period of Philip
III's reign (1598-1621), this particular mint mark and
issue, with years ending in "1", it is only
possible for this coin to have been struck in Segovia in
maravedis coin, and the oldest in this collection, was
minted in Cuenca during the reign of Philip II. It is
badly corroded along the edges, which has destroyed all
of its legend. The mint mark, "C", rampant
lion and portions of the castle, are still clear. A
later, oval-shaped counter-strike bears a crowned "IIII"
over a "B," which suggests this coin was
re-valued at 4 maravedis.
coin to be examined was recovered at the northern
extreme of the site, from what is believed to have been
the upper-works of the ship, in the summer of 2000. It
is clear that it is a copper coin, but, unfortunately,
it is so badly corroded that any other diagnostic
features have disappeared.
of these smaller-valued, copper coins on the Atocha
provides us an opportunity to gain a realistic
perspective on the use of money by those sailing on the
treasure galleons. To the working men serving as crew on
the richly loaded ships, the hundreds of thousands of
coins they carried were simply a cargo - something to be
lifted and loaded. Though silver and gold affected the
broader themes of their lives, and those of the the
times, it was really copper that lined their pockets.
Carlos and Juan R. Cayon
1980 Las Monedas Españolas Desde D. Pelayo (718) A Juan
Carlos I (1980). Madrid.
Ferrán; Xavier Calicó and
1988 Numismatica Españolas: Catalogo de Todas Acuñaciones
Realizadas Desde Los Reyes Católicos A Juan Carlos I
(1474 - 1988), 7th ed.. Barcelona.
1962 "Copper Coins of Spain." Reprint from The
1984 "Natural Economies or Money Economies? Silver
production and Monetary Circulation in Spanish America
(Late XVI, Early XVII Centuries). The Journal of
European Economic History, 13:1, pp. 99-115.
1929 " Wages and Subsistence on Spanish Treasure
Ships, 1503-1660." The Journal of Political
Economy, 37, pp.430-450.
Mr. Wayne Duff, who provided information on an Atocha
maravedis coin in his personal collection.
for more information.