Saturday, September 10, 2011

the Spanish Dollar

My last post ended, for the time being, my Oaxacan stories and I am going to start something different now, another facet of Elsewhere & Elsewhen.  I am going to open my Wunderkammer and bring out a few little things I have picked up along the way because, like someone you meet when you are traveling, they have been someplace interesting and have an interesting story to tell.

The Spanish Dollar

“In Japan a broken pot mended with gold lacquer had more value because it had lived.  Stories and objects have complex lives.”
                                      --  Edmund de Waal,  The Hare with Amber Eyes.

A thing ought have more value because it has lived.  They are comfortable and relaxed and when you have the time they can tell you a story.  I have one beside me at the moment at my desk: a Spanish Dollar, a large silver 8-Real of Carlos IIII, struck in 1792 at the mint at Mexico City, well-worn and tattooed with merchants chop marks, evidence of its long circulation in the Orient.
    The coin tells a wonderful story.  Struck at the Spanish mint at Mexico City, it would have been transported in bulk by pack train over primitive trails across the mountains to Acapulco to be put on board a Manila Galleon to cross the Pacific along the route discovered in 1565 by Andrés de Urdaneta, the Iron Friar.  (Getting to the Far East from Mexico was no problem, for the winds and currents went that way, though they also made it a one-way trip; it was fray Andrés’ cleverness to figure how to get back.) 
    At Manila or some silver-hungry trading port in China the coin was used to buy porcelain or silk or lacquerware or some other exotic oriental good.  Once in China, the coin passed from hand to hand, each merchant applying his distinctive chop to indicate that he guaranteed the coin.  From the wear on the piece and the number of chops, I would suppose it had circulated perhaps a hundred years until, sometime in the late 19th or early 20th Century, it came into the hand of a merchant seaman or sailor or some such person who brought it back in his pocket or packed in his sea chest with odds and ends of jade and ivory knick-knacks and exotic seashells and maybe something carved by a Fijiman whose grandfather might have been a cannibal, and by one or two removes it found its way into the box of a coin dealer in the port of Halifax, where I found it.
    As collectors foolishly prefer their coin without the least hint of circulation, I was able to buy the piece for not much more than its value as scrap silver.
    I like it.  It has been places.  I enjoy its company.

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