From Pirates Of The Caribbean To Pieces Of Eight
Ask most people today what springs to mind at the mention of shipwrecks and the talk will turn to chests full of golden coins, and of ships blown to smithereens and left flailing in high seas, their crews praying as the hull beneath them sinks to Davy Jones’s locker. After the ‘yo-ho-hos’ and bottles of rum, comes a hoard of gold and silver waiting to be discovered on the seabed, consigned to history by buccaneers and pirates, and chased over the years by treasure hunters. A romantic notion made popular again by Captain Sparrow in The Pirates of The Caribbean movie series.
For those wanting a piece of film history, it is possible to purchase the coins that were used on the set of the ‘Pirates’ films. A quick browse on Ebay shows three pages of coin products related to the films, with top billing going to the certified 1 inch diameter Curse of the Black Pearl coin priced at $35. Pretty steep, for a piece of shaped metal that Johnny Depp and Keira Knightly may have accidentally stepped on during filming!
Many coin collectors are drawn to coins from the deep blue sea. Not only are they generally ‘real’ treasure – gold or silver coins – but each one tells a story of a time gone by, of life on the high seas during the golden age of exploration.
As pioneers like Columbus, Drake, and Raleigh were taking their ships and crews to the edge of the world and beyond, the ocean between Europe and the New World took its toll. Whilst piracy flourished, with international trade growing faster than at any time before, the biggest threat to the trading ships from Spain, Holland, France, and Britain, was the weather. More ships were lost because of storms than due to the cannon fire of pirates.
Trading goods were shipped to the Americas, and treasure returned the other way. With the dangerous seas taking a dreadful toll, some estimates reckon that a third of Spanish ships never made it home. There’s a lot of treasure still at waiting to be discovered in the deep, dark, ocean.
From the time of America’s discovery by Columbus in 1492, until the early 19th century, the Spanish merchants took gold, silver, and other treasures from the Caribbean, Mexico, and its South American colonies – treasure that would now be worth billions. Much of what was lost is yet to be discovered.
Day and night, Spain’s Colonial Mints across the region would be worked to produce coins of irregular shape called macuqiunas, or cobs. Because of the minting process, which involved slicing a piece of silver off a bar, then trimming it to weight and pressing into shape between dies, no two cobs are exactly the same. This adds to the interest value to collectors.
Cobs were minted through to the mid-18th century, and most were re-minted into Spanish coins upon arrival in the homeland. The reason they were struck as Cobs in the first place was so that they could be monitored and shipments better controlled. Around 1730, the mechanical press was introduced to Spain’s Colonial Mints, and the production of Cobs ceased over the next thirty or forty years.
Cobs, and then the milled coins that followed, were minted in gold denominations of 8,4,2, and 1 and ½ Escudos (Doubloons), and 8,4,2, 1, ½, and a ¼ Reales (the‘pieces of eight’ made famous by Long John Silver’s parrot).
Cobs and milled coins are found on Spanish wrecks, depending on the date of its loss, and over the years, there have been many finds.
One of the most famous was ‘The Golden Fleece’, a ship lost in the Caribbean in the 1550’s and discovered in 1993. It carried gold and silver bullion, and also Mexican silver Cobs. Another galleon that carried such treasure was the Nuestra Senora de Atocha.
The Atocha, was a galleon of the 1622 Fleet lost in Florida Keys. The fleet of the Atocha departed Spain in March of that year. After reaching the Americas, it took two months for the ship to be loaded with its cargo of gold and silver. The hurricane season had started, and departure was delayed until 4th September.
The fine weather, which allowed the Atocha fleet to set sail for Spain, turned rapidly and five ships were lost, when hit by a huge hurricane. The Spanish tried to salvage the wreck, but it was hit by a second hurricane and lost until rediscovered in 1985 by Mel Fisher and his salvage company. There were over 160,000 coins found, mostly pieces of eight, and they can be bought by collectors from the Atocha Treasure Coins website. However, for this piece of history, and the genuine silver content, a buyer would have to pay considerably more than the cost of a Pirates of The Caribbean coin.
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