Pirate Money!

Today’s post is by Judith from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are not experts, but we are people with a passionate interest in the museum and its objects. We each bring our own insight into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about numismatics and archaeology, please visit the Curator’s blog, Ancient Worlds.

Pirate blog

Pieces of Eight

“Pirates, Captain Flint, pirates!” . . . “Pieces of eight!  Pieces of eight!” (From ‘Treasure Island’, by Robert Louis Stevenson)

Lots of people have heard of pieces of eight – and their association with pirates!

It’s all down to Robert Louis Stevenson and his classic adventure story, Treasure Island. The parrot of pirate Long John Silver [Manchester Museum’s Curator of Archaeology, Bryan Sitch, considers the actor Robert Newton was the best of all cinematic Long John Silvers] squawks, ‘pieces of eight!’ repeatedly, and thanks to films, TV and video games – most recently Pirates of the Caribbean  –  it’s been absorbed into popular culture.

So … what are ‘pieces of eight’?

During the so called ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ the Spanish Empire minted coins in silver and gold. The silver coins were known as ‘reales’, and the famous ‘piece of eight’ was an eight-reale silver coin (real de a ocho); it was the largest of the silver coins weighing approximately 25 grams. Pieces of eight were the world’s first truly global currency and are one of the many names for the large silver coins of the King of Spain.


Silver cob 8 reales of Charles II (1665-1700). Money Gallery, Manchester Museum

The Spanish piece of eight was produced in huge quantities and within 25 years of its first minting in the 1570s, it had spread across Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, establishing a global dominance that it maintained well into the nineteenth century. Contrary to movies and books it was more often referred to as a Peso, Spanish Dollar or silver dollar.In 1600 one coin would have been worth the equivalent of a modern £50 note.

Silver 8 reales of Charles IV, King of Spain; Mexico, 1794, and Bolivia, 1808. Money Gallery, Manchester Museum

The front of the coin above, displayed in the Money Gallery, is decorated with the head of the King of Spain,Charles IV, from one of the most powerful families in Europe. The reverse features the Pillars of Hercules which was a reference to the Spanish colonisation of the New World – the Americas.

So … where did the silver come from?

The silver used to make these coins and finance the Spanish Empire came from the silver mines in Aztec Mexico, but above all, it was in Peru, in the 1540s at the southern end of the Inca Empire, that the Spanish discovered their treasure trove – at an isolated place called Potosí, now in Bolivia, which quickly became known as the ‘Silver Mountain’.  It is 12,000 feet above sea level, on a very cold plateau in the Andes.  Within a few years of establishing the Potosí mines, silver from Spanish America began to pour across the Atlantic, growing from a modest 148 kilos per year in the 1520s to nearly three million kilos per year in the 1590s. For the next 2 centuries the Mexican and Peruvian silver mines furnished about 80% of the world’s stock of monetary metal.

From Potosí, the coins were loaded on to llamas for the two-month trek over the Andes to Lima and the Pacific coast. There, Spanish treasure fleets took the silver from Peru up to Panama, where it was carried by land over the isthmus and then across the Atlantic in convoys.

Although this Spanish treasure was a target for pirate ships, in reality during this period only very small quantities of pieces of eight ever fell into pirate hands. By 1520, Spain had begun a systematic method of convoys to protect the fleets from pirates (or privateers). Most of their silver sailed around the world paying for wars, encouraging trade [Curator Bryan Sitch recommends ‘Nathaniel’s Nutmeg’ by Giles Milton for insight into the contemporary spice trade] and changing the fates of empires.

The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Flint buried them; and certainly they shall lie there for me. Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts or start upright in bed with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”

(The final paragraph from RLS, Treasure Island: for the lubbers out there, the sharp voice of Captain Flint was that of Long John Silver’s parrot).

Judith Fabian

For more about numismatics and archaeology, please visit the Curator’s blog, Ancient Worlds.

Read some more stories from the Money Gallery by the Visitor Team:
Saint George, the Dragon Slayer
The Second Fattest Cow
From Manchester Museum … With Love


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