Friday, December 16, 2011

80. Pieces of Eight (Bolivia, AD 1573-1598)

International Finance.
Of all the bits of money in the British Museum, MacGregor admits that these pieces of eight have the most evocative name. He even plays a parrot from some Treasure Island movie saying “Pieces of eight, pieces of eight! Dead men tell no tales!” But then he gets off this romantic digression and points out that the important, world-history changing issue here is establishing a currency that would have value everywhere, all over the world, for the first time. There had been local banks, and precious valuables were always precious and valuable...but something is different in the early modern period, when silver coins, mined in Potosí (Bolivia), minted in the Spanish New World, and traded via the Phillipines (that colony named for King Philip II of Spain, Queen Elizabeth I’s enemy and Verdi’s Wotan) had the ability to trash China’s economy. Oh, and that their name—peso de ocho—eventually got shortened and became another, still familiar, currency, the peso.

You’ll notice they aren’t uniform in shape or design. I don’t think there really was much uniformity until much more recently; the six different coins here come from lots of different places: Indonesia, China, one from the Scottish coast (sank with the Spanish Armada), eventually even restamped in Australia. Once that modern, industrial, mechanized need for conformity and uniformity got established, I think we were in the nineteenth-century era of the battle between the gold and silver standards, Dorothy’s yellow brick road and Bryant’s cross of gold speech.

PS The proverbial wealth of Peru, where many of these coins were finished, is manifest in Da Ponte’s libretto for Così fan tutte, where Don Alfonso and the two sisters sing (at the end of the brilliant ‘magnet’ movement in the first act finale) “Ah, questo medico vale un Perù!” Ah, this doctor is as valuable as a Peru!

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