Numismatics and history are very closely connected. From the earliest coinage to modern commemoratives, coins tell the story of triumph, conquest and tragedy throughout history. They tell the story of kings and of revolutions, exploration and innovation. This series looks at the history of the Modern World through the lense of 20 coins.
Part 11: American Imperialism and â€śEl Desastreâ€ť
By 1898, the United States was no longer 13 colonies tucked against the Atlantic, with a tiny population. It had become a thriving country, with booming trade. Over the course of the last century, the US had expanded rapidly westwards, beginning with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Settlers continued pushing west, from the Northwest Territory - the Minnesota and Wisconsin region - to the Plains, all the way to Oregon and California. By 1898, the continent had been filled with settlers. The great unknown was shrinking. The US purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, adding an enormous quantity of land to the nation. But for Imperialist America, this still wasnâ€™t enough.
At the same time, the Spanish Empire was steadily declining. After the revolutions of the early part of the 19th century had taken away the rich provinces of Mexico and Peru, in addition to the rest of South America, all that was left was Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. These possessions were merely outlying provinces in relation to the former wealth of the empire. The Crownâ€™s grasp on these territories was diminishing in the years leading up to 1898. In Cuba, the people rose up in rebellion from 1868 to 1878. They revolted again in 1895, which resulted in the systematic death of hundreds of thousands of people. Public opinion in the United States* forced President McKinley to send the Battleship USS Maine to Havana to protect American interests during the period of unrest. The result of this would be an explosion and a warâ€¦
In the years leading up to the Spanish-American War had seen King Alfonso XIII assume the throne of Spain (1886). In Puerto Rico, coins were issued with his bust. His young bust contrasts to the formal seal of Spain on the reverse, with the Pillars of Gibraltar flanking the Imperial Coat of Arms. Rather unusually, the denomination is 40 Centavos - not 25 or 50 like most European/American countries. This coin was only minted for 1 year (1896) with a mintage of 725,002 pieces. They were struck in Madrid for the island of Puerto Rico.
The explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor was the Casus Belli for American â€śwar hawks.â€ť Thus began the Spanish-American War, which would last for four months. During that time, American forces stormed Cuba - highlighted with Theodore Rooseveltâ€™s charge at San Juan Hill - destroyed the Spanish Navy and conquered the Philippines. In the peace settlement, Spain lost all of its remaining empire, to the advantage of the Americans. It would become known in Spain simply as â€śEl Desastre.â€ť The Disaster.
The United States would issue coinage for the Philippines between 1898 and the islandsâ€™ independence in 1946. These coins were distinct from those in the United States, with the Centavos and the Peso, instead of the Cent and Dollar.
At the same time that American Imperialism was annexing Spanish Territory and the Kingdom of Hawaii, British Imperialism was at its peak, with an empire spanning ÂĽ of the World.
Next: The British Empire c.1900
*By the turn of the century, public opinion had become a major driving force in internal policy in countries around the world.
Photo from Heritage Auction