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 5: Spanish America 1550
At the same time that Portugal was exploring Africa and establishing trade routes to Asia, the Spanish were sailing west to America. Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus, sailing under the Spanish flag, became the first European to land in America since the Vikings, landing in the Bahamas in 1492. From that point forward, the Spanish were ahead in the "race" to explore and conquer the Americas for the next 300 years. They moved from the Bahamas to Puerto Rico and Cuba, before landing in Mexico.
Hernan CortĂ©s had already served as a conquistador in Puerto Rico and Cuba before his expedition to Mexico in 1520. He marched inland from the coast, to the Aztec capital of TenochtitlĂˇn. When he arrived, he was initially welcomed as a prophesied god. Trouble began when he took Emperor Montezuma captive, who was then killed by the people. The Spaniards were forced out of the city, but CortĂ©s returned with an army to lay siege. The Aztecs defend the causeways to the city and held out for three month, before disease and death forced their surrender. The Spaniards would become integrated into their society, creating a new social hierarchical system under the Sistema de Castas.
In this newly created hybrid society, a new mint was soon opened. The first official petition for a mint in New Spain (modern Mexico and the American Southwest) was sent to the Emperor, Charles V, in 1525. At that point, there were 4.5 million people living in the colony, with almost all of them Natives. The Counsel of the Indies, who oversaw affairs in the New World, looked into the issue of a mint to complement the vast sums of gold and silver. However, it was 10 years before a mint was established, when the first Viceroy to New Spain, Don Antonio de Mendoza established it in 1535.
In 1556, the Mexico City Mint began striking silver Â˝ Real coins for King Felipe II. The obverse depicts a crown, the symbol of Felipe's power, over a monogram in the center. To either side of the image are the Mint mark "M" for Mexico City and an "O" as the assayer's mark. (The assayer made sure that the metal of a correct purity.) The reverse has a Cross, with lions in the lower left and upper right corners, and castles in the upper left and lower right corners. This side of the coin looks very similar to the new America the Beautiful San Antonio Missions quarter, which also bears a cross, with a lion and castle. Alas, the first of the San Antonio missions was only established in 1720, long after this Mexico City coin was issued.
This coin was made of .931 silver, weighed 1.69 grams and was worth Â˝ Real. The Spanish Real was made in Mexico City from 1535 to 1821, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain. During that time, the mint put out millions of silver and gold coins in response to the great treasures coming out of the new world. Sadly, much of that treasure was squander in endless wars with France and the Ottoman. By the time Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the world - and the Americas in particular - was a much different place.
Previous: Portugal and the Age of Discovery
Next: The American Revolution "Not worth a Continental" 1776
HernĂˇn CortĂ©s: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/cortes_hernan.shtml
Mexico City Mint: http://numismatics.org/digitallibrary/ark:/53695/nnan128937
Population of New Spain: http://users.pop.umn.edu/~rmccaa/mxpoprev/img002.gif
San Antonio Missions: https://www.visitsanantonio.com/missions/
Photo by R. O'Shea