There was, to all intents and purposes, no coinage
at all before the coming of the Europeans in the 16th century. The
natives, Indians, if you will, seem not to have had a metallic standard
of value, though they did have metal. But they evidently did use
something as a standard, and modern examples of these, one could perhaps
call them replicas, are available for purchase from some adventurous dealers.
And it is also a fact that an enormous quantity of Mexican native antiquities have survived, and that large quantities are discovered every year. Some of this material finds its way into the numismatic market.
THE PRE-CONQUEST PERIOD
A critical fact of central and southern Mexico has been that the climate was ideal for the production of a large food supply. The development of organized agriculture in the late second millennium BC resulted in a dense population for the region. They had pottery back then, and finely worked stone tools, but they hadn't thought up bows and arrows, or the wheel. Even so, they grew and prospered, and during the mid-first millennium BC they started generating surplus population. The dense population kept itself occupied in two different ways. One was the development of things not related to food production, like stone buildings and other luxuries. The other was war.
Early stone sculpture and architecture was produced in the Vera Cruz and Tabasco regions by a people termed "Olmec" by archeologists. The signature Olmec objects are the gigantic stone heads that can be seen in several large museums around the world. They built temple platforms and stelae on which they displayed their history, and there is evidence that their culture had
many of the elements that became norms of Central American life: a religion of blood and human sacrifice, an interest in history, a love of jade. The time for "Olmec" culture is roughly that of the Roman Empire When something old is found in Tabasco and Veracruz it is called Olmec, and a pair of large jar fragments so labeled sat for a time on a shelf in my office. Pottery fragments are plentiful and cheap, especially if they have no decoration.
During this same period similar developments were occurring in central Mexico. By about 300 BC large masonry complexes were being constructed. These projects obviously involved the participation of thousands of workers, implying a high degree of administration, not to mention the ideological force and material inducements necessary to get the workers to work. The type site of this culture is Teotihuacan, situated in the Valley of Mexico, but there are many others.
Trade was active throughout Mexico at that time, and Teotihuacan artifacts have been found as far away as Guatemala. The introduction of the mould allowed the mass production of pottery. Their religion, by which the Teotihuancanese defined themselves, incorporated the standard bloody features of Central American religions in general. Among the pantheon of these people was one character who became a crucial player in the later history of Mexico, the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl.
Perhaps partly in response to the glory of Teotihuacan, the Maya people in southern Mexico and Guatemala began to seriously develop their culture. "All of a sudden," sometime between the first and third centuries CE, large stone temple complexes appeared in the Maya region. The builders carved elaborate messages on their walls, some of which which indicate that they had the most accurate calendar in the world at the time.
Maya decorated ceramics and jade work are famous throughout the world, and while there have been some examples on the market over the years, there have also been plenty of fakes sold to credulous possessors of deep pockets. With impressive items questions of national patrimony can also come into play. Collectors of high-bore pre-Columbian artifacts know all this. Care is always warranted in this field.
Other stone-building cultures emerged during this period, such as the Totonac in central Veracruz, and the Zapotec and Mixtec of Oaxaca. Artifacts of these cultures are relatively scarce.
The 7-10th centuries began a period of turmoil throughout Mexico, with large migrations of peoples in several directions. The reasons for the troubles are unclear. Climate change is a currently popular theory. Whatever the causes, the movements were accompanied by much war and destruction. The Maya centers were abandoned, and many Maya migrated north to Yucatan, where they encountered another group of migrants, the Toltecs, who had come from the north. During this time Teotihuacan was burned.
Out of the rubble of the age the Toltecs emerged as the dominant civilization of central Mexico. Nahuatl speakers, it is thought that they brought the bow and arrow with them, and this weapon gave them a crucial advantage. Overrunning the Teotihuacan people, they adopted their urban ways, including the bloody religion, which seemed to suit their warlike nature.
Their capital, Tula, has sites dedicated to many of the divine figures later met with by the Spanish when they came to stay, including the Feathered Serpent.
The disturbed times prevented political consolidation among the Toltecs. The Maya became powerful again in the south. Destructive migrations continued. Tula was destroyed sometime during the 10-12th centuries. Centuries of anarchy and warfare ensued.
Way up north somewhere a group of Nahuatl speakers had at some point joined the migration. As they told it, their divine leader, Southern Hummingbird Warrior (Huitzilopochtli), sent them south and guided them to the Valley of Mexico, where all those shallow lakes were. The valley held an extremely dense population, and the newcomers were promptly placed on the
bottom of the social scale. They became prey, picked at by their new neighbors for slaves and human sacrifices. There were so many people, lives didn't mean much. In defense, the newcomers retreated into a shallow lake, though even the better lakes were occupied at that time. This was around 1325.
They were able to hold on to the lake, and proceeded to mound up earth and create dry land in the middle of it, beginning the process of city building that continues to this day. They named their settlement Tenochtitlan after one of their priests. Constantly at war with their neighbors, they developed a militaristic culture. We know them as the Aztecs.
The Aztecs thrived. Tenochtitlan grew to rival nearby cities like Texcoco and Tlacopan. In the early 15th century Tenochtitlan and Texcoco formed an offensive alliance and in a short time they had extended their sway over the entire Valley of Mexico. At some point the Aztecs became the dominant partner, and under Aztec leadership the alliance conquered most of
Veracruz, Oaxaca and Guerrero, all the way to the Maya borders in Chiapas and Tabasco. This was already 1450 or so, so they didn't get to enjoy their empire very long.
The Aztecs governed their new subjects rather harshly. They set regular quotas of goods, labor, and people, whom they needed both as slaves and to sacrifice to their gods, as was the Mexican norm at the time. The Aztecs seem to have brought the practice of human sacrifice to an extreme not seen anywhere else in the world, but their needs seem not to have made a dent in the Mexican population, which may have been the densest in the world at the time. The required provision of humans for sacrifice by the subject peoples did not promote good will, and the Aztecs were widely hated by all peoples other than themselves. This is not to say that the subjects didn't also make human sacrifices, everyone in Mexico did. But that was different. And the Aztecs killed lots of people every day.
There has been a continuing debate regarding the existence and extent of cannibalism in Mexico. The practice was certainly not unknown in the Americas, and there is more than a little evidence for its existence in Mexico, but there is no definitive indication of economic cannibalism, where people were raised to be eaten. Daily human sacrifice was bad enough. Mexico
was a tense and unhappy place for many people at that time.
One of the central facts of the Spanish conquest was the enormous amount of gold that was taken. The Aztec kings had been hoarding gold for a long time. Metal occupied a special place in Mexican life. Gold and copper began to be worked as early as the Maya period. Silver and tin were also known, and highly sacred meteoric iron as well. All metal had sacred connotations, and the Aztecs loved gold for its beauty as well. But the American natives never learned how to alloy metal. Thus they never discovered the utilitarian uses of hardened bronze, and they didn't make weapons out of soft copper like the
Europeans did as much as 6000 years ago.
The metals trade was chiefly involved in the production of religious and luxury objects, and there is no evidence that metals were considered a benchmark of value. The early Spanish explorers discuss the trade in gold dust and grains packed in duck quills, and Cortes mentions finding round tin ingots, coins, if you will, in use among the inhabitants of Taxco in Guerrero.
Indeed, the early writers are unanimous in declaring one item serving as the standard of value throughout Mexico and Central America: the cacao bean. Everything was valued in terms of cacao, though the prices quoted seem a bit strange. One such figure mentions 100 beans for a slave, a rather small price to pay for a lifetime of labor. But the evident value of the beans is seen from the fact that adulterated beans were found in the market, hollowed out and filled with dirt.
None of the earliest European chroniclers mentions those staples of the numismatic "odd and curious" trade, the copper "Aztec hoe money." These items are found in various parts of Mexico, notably Oaxaca, where a lot of copper was mined, and also from the Guerrero-Michoacan region. They come in two main types. The Oaxacans are thick enough to be stiff, are roughly T-shaped, and range in size from 40x20mm up to 150x140mm or even larger. The Guerrero-Michoacan types are very thin, have a waviness to the broad dimensions, and range in length from 140 to 250mm or more. The chroniclers
mention them as circulating in the early years after the conquest. One inhabitant of Oaxaca wrote in 1548 that new ones were rated at four to five Spanish silver reales, but that worn ones were bought at 10 to the real, to be melted and recast.
Large quantities of these have been found in the past. During the Maximilian period (1860s) several wagon loads of them were cast into bullets by the Republican defenders in Oaxaca. Up until about 5 years ago they were cheap and easy to find in numismatic circles, but the supply has dried up in recent years, and the price is way up now. I even heard a story about fakes,
but have not seen such.
The Feathered Serpent was described as a man rather than a god, but a strange one in the Mexican context. He and his people came from over the seas, had light colored hair and full beards, brought many items of advanced culture with them, and left promising to one day return. Over the years the legend grew until it took on Messianic aspects. Quetzalcoatl was to be the future savior of the human race, who would bring order out of chaos and rule justly. When the Spanish showed up with their beards and strange artifacts they seemed to be a good fit with the prophecy, and this eerie correspondance of fact and
legend helped to create the opening the Spanish sought.
At the start of the 16th century the Spaniards felt themselves to be on a roll. They had been fighting the Muslims for almost 800 years, and had just recently seen their centuries of struggle crowned with success. Political unity had been achieved and the new nation had become a power to be reckoned with in Europe. And by the grace of God they had been given these new
territories to conquer and subdue, an outlet for the restless energies of younger sons of the nobility, a chance for commoners to make a life for themselves, and an arena for restless soldiers to do something other than hanging around causing trouble at home.
All sorts of adventurers and ruffians made their way to the settlements of the New World. But by 1510 or so, only a few decades after the first landing of Columbus, they would have found the Spanish settlements on the islands of Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Cuba to be already set up, the land allocated, the ever-diminishing supply of native laborers already assigned.. Newcomers would have to venture farther afield if they were to have any chance to strike it rich.
So expeditions were outfitted for further exploration. Almost all of the money was raised privately, the involvement of the government being the licensing of the ventures, subject to the provisos that twenty percent of the gross profit, and all of the land, should be rendered to the Crown. Voyages were launched to the north and west, two of them making landfall on the Yucatan peninsula.
The western tip of the island of Cuba lies about 100 miles off the coast of Mexico. Cape Catoche can be reached in a few days by canoe in good weather. It is unreasonable to assume that there was no contact between the natives of the island and those of the peninsula. So when the Spanish set up their operation in Cuba, enslaving and massacring the locals, it is equally
unreasonable to assume that some of the Cuban natives did not escape to the mainland, whereby the continentals were warned of the nasty and murderous habits of the newcomers.
The indigenes of the Caribbean islands had been friendly folk who had welcomed the newcomers and had been treated essentially as raw material in return. Whether the inhabitants of the Yucatan coast had been warned of Spanish habits or not is unknown, but the explorers were certainly given a different reception on the mainland. The first expedition, in 1517, was badly
mauled and ran back to Cuba directly. The second expedition ran into trouble as well, but managed to make some peaceful contact, including representatives of the Aztec empire. Whenever they talked they begged for gold like kids ask for soda pop, and they received, in the end, a tantalizingly respectable haul. At Tabasco they were told to proceed west, where there was plenty of the yellow metal.
The big stick was carried in Mexico of the day by a military confederation led by the Aztecs, who held virtually all of the central part of the modern nation in what was essentially bondage. Yucatan was Maya territory, against whom the Aztecs strove in vain. The Maya were immensely intent on doing what they wanted to do, and were in fact the last to fall in Mexico
against the onslaughts of the Europeans.
The Aztecs had a stone age technology, but had evolved a culture as complexly urban as that of contemporary Western Europe. There was a large, record keeping bureaucracy, public works, a middle class of merchants, a feudally structured military system, a property owning church. They didn't have wheels, or draft animals, or horses, or war dogs, or guns, and the lack of these things spelled their doom. But in what we call "high" culture, the arts that embellish our living, they lacked nothing when placed beside any nation of their day.
We would find the Aztecs wholly sympathetic and what the Spaniards did to them wholly abhorent were it not for one curious fact that rather spoiled the picture. This was their enormous appetite for human sacrifice. The practice had a long history in Middle America, but for the Aztecs it had become a daily necessity. The victims were occasionally their own children, even
themselves, but the vast bulk of the hundreds of thousands of sacrifices of the Aztec age were war captives. Aztec soldiers went out every year to make war across the borders, the object being prisoners to sacrifice. They even kept a sort of pet independent enemy nearby, the so-called Republic of Tlaxcala, to which they could conveniently repair if they were running short.
Victims were also obtained by quota from subject peoples, which of course created nothing but resentment, notwithstanding similar practices by the subject peoples as well. It didn't soothe anyone's feelings that after the temple got its heart parts of the body got to be eaten by various people with connections. The Aztec empire was held down by force alone.
Just a couple of hundred miles up the coast from Mayan Tabasco was Aztec territory, and word was quickly sent to the capital, Tenochtitlan, about the newcomers with the strange weapons, white skins, and flowing beards, who held their own in battle against enormous odds.
The Aztec king, Montezuma II, was a deeply religious man, who felt his every move to be guided by the personal hand of fate. He consulted oracles and astrologers constantly, was one himself. He was well aware, in 1518, that the very next year had been foretold in legend as that of the return of a god-king of yore, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, a bearded, light-skinned cultural innovator, wise, strong, and beneficent. The newcomers gave no indications of benificence, but their weapons, which included firearms, certainly fit the bill as far as innovation was concerned. Disturbed to the core, Montezuma reacted with caution. He instructed his coastal vassals to receive the strangers, should they appear, with courtesy and gifts of the gold they sought, but under no circumstances to allow them to proceed inland towards the capital.
The Spaniards, nosing up the coast, came finally within the borders of the Aztec empire. Stopping at an island, they found a temple in which were the the dismembered torsos of five sacrificed men, the first such they had seen. The island was otherwise deserted, so they proceeded to the mainland, where the locals, following orders direct from Tenochtitlan, gave the adventurers
some gold. But the local governors were not further forthcoming, and the Spaniards, after arguing about whether to found a colony or not returned, to Cuba.
The gold gathered by the second expedition turned out to be worth some $20,000, and caused quite a buzz on the island. Another expedition was a foregone conclusion, and everyone watched to see who would get to go.
A sharp smoothie of a landowner named Hernan Cortes put together a consortium that raised much of the money for the third expedition, of which the governor of Cuba was to be the major factor. Cortes had left Spain after some minor scrapes with the law, and came to Cuba without much of a grubstake, but had advanced himself by his witty charm, and had obtained land and natives to work it for him. He and the governor had been at serious odds not too long before, but all was apparently smiles as the expedition began to come together.
For Cortes, this was the opportunity of his life, and he acted in such a charismatically confident manner as to excite to envy of the governor, who got cold feet at the last moment and issued a directive stripping him of the command. This would have ruined Cortes, who had backers to satisfy after all, and he shipped out the expedtion at night before the governor's order could be delivered. He sailed west along the Cuban coast, stopping twice for further provisioning. The governor's men had preceded him each time, but Cortes won over the authorities and got away. In all, some 500 men sailed west in eleven ships, well armed with weapons that included cannon and arquebuses, as well as 16 horses and a few of the giant Molossian hounds that had been used to deadly effect in the conquest of the Caribs. Also on board were a few natives, captured on the
previous expeditions, to interpret.
The plan had been for the ships to meet off the island of Cozumel and to proceed together, but the first group to arrive, commanded by Pedro de Alvarado, ignored the orders and landed. The first village they found was deserted, but in the second they found a few chickens and some gold, which they proceeded to steal.
Cortez arrived soon after and chewed out Alvarado for his impetuosity, explaining that if they started their expedition with force that was all they would ever do. And indeed, in virtually every encounter with opposing forces, Cortes asked for peaceful parley before proceeding with mayhem. Messengers were sent out to the natives to apologize, and the stolen goods were returned. Friendly relations having been established, Cortes inquired as to the possibility that some Spaniards, captured from the two previous expeditions, might still be alive. He was informed that some were being kept as slaves a few days march inland. Messengers were sent bearing a ransom for these men, should they be found. Two men were located, and one returned, but the other declared himself content where he was and refused to be repatriated.
The party then left Cozumel and proceeded westward along the coast. At Tabasco they were met by several thousand armed natives. Cortes sent out a parley, which failed. Figuring that if they gave up and went away that would set a bad precedent, he set up the expedition for defense and spent the rest of the day on intelligence. Next morning the Spaniards attacked the town. After hard fighting the guns carried the battle, and that same day the first territory of the American
continent was claimed for the Spanish crown.
Now in possession of a fortified town, Cortes sent scouting parties to explore the neighborhood. One immediately ran into trouble and had to be rescued, and the next day brought word of the approach of more thousands of native warriors on the way, looking for fun.
At every turn in his great venture Cortes, if offered the occasion for a fight, took it, while never offering mayhem gratuitously. The Spaniards marched out to meet the throngs, and once again carried the day, this time with the aid of their secret weapon, the horse, a brand new terror to the natives.
Messengers were sent asking for parley, and after a few days the chiefs showed up. Presents were exchanged and face to face negotiations were begun. Among the gifts received by the Spaniards were 20 native women, one of whom turned out to be of crucial importance in the events of the Conquest. This was Dona Marina, an Aztec princess who had been sold into slavery in a family property grab, and who served as interpreter during the crucial negotiations with Montezuma. Cortes asked them to become Christians and subjects of Spain, and they consented to do so. A few days later the Spaniards sailed off to the west.
At their next landfall they were met by envoys of Montezuma, who gave them rich presents and asked them to leave. Cortez thanked them politely and sent back some presents in return, asking once again for an interview. Several further embassies followed, with no result. At one point Cortes brought up the subject of religion, and the possibility of conversion. The ambassadors became distinctly unfriendly, and shortly after food supplies, donated by the Aztecs ceased.
Shortly after, a party of messengers came to the Spanish camp and told Cortes that they were Totonacs, unhappy subjects of the Aztec empire, and perhaps the newcomers could help them? This was music to the ears of Cortes, but there was dissension in the camp that required his attention, with a faction looking at a countryside filled with hundreds of thousands of potential enemies and wanting to return to Cuba immediately, and another that wanted to found a colony and continue the adventure. After a few days of politicing, the venturers won out, and a colony was proclaimed on the site of modern-day Vera Cruz.
A Spanish style town was constructed and garrisoned. Then the main party marched off to visit the discontented Totonacs, arriving after a few days at the large town of Zempoala. As the chief was recounting his tale of woe at the hands of the arrogant and bloodthirsty Aztecs, the local assessors appeared. In high dudgeon, these reprimanded the chief for contacting the foreigners without permission, and levied a fine of sacrificial victims.
Cortes jumped into the situation, declaring that his lord the king had commanded him to end human sacrifice in this land, and that he would not permit the Aztec officials to continue. He convinced the Totonacs to sieze the oppressors. There and then the Totonac nation of some hundreds of thousands repudiated the Aztecs and went with the Spaniards.
That very evening Cortes contrived at the escape of some of the Aztec prisoners, whom he treated kindly and sent back to Montezuma with news of his approach toward Mexico.
The Aztec king, meanwhile had experienced in short order the fury of finding one of his provinces suborned by the foreigners to finding himself owing them for arranging the release of his agents. He sent back word to Cortes that it seemed as if the Spaniards were the people whose return had been prophesied to rule Mexico, and if that was the case, why didn't he send the proofs and stop upsetting the realm?
Cortes responded that none of the trouble was his fault, he was sorry that the Aztec house was not in order, and that he was on his way to see him. He then convinced his army to relinquish all the gold they held, and sent it back to Spain as a gift to the crown. Once again he had to suppress the "Let's Go Home" faction, and this time he felt it reasonable to dismantle the boats to
enforce his will. The expedition then proceeded inland toward Mexico. As they went they found more malcontents to take their side, enlisting the ancient enemies of the Aztecs, the Tlaxcalans, in the crusade.
In one amazing incident after another the Spaniards and their native allies battled their way towards the seat of Aztec power, Tenochtitlan, the city on the lake.
During his progress Cortes was continually exchanging messages with Montezuma, who kept telling him not to come closer. It didn't matter what the Aztec sovereign did, nothing seemed able to stop the little group of foreigners. Montezuma became convinced that he was up against the divine forces of fate, and when, finally, the bearded foreigners finally stood at his city he
resolved to, well, actually he didn't know what to do. So he went out to meet them himself, and conducted them into his palace as his guests.
It was an absurd situation. Tenochtitlan and its suburbs may have been home to as many as a million people. There may have been hundreds of thousands of warriors nearby. The city was built on water, accessible only by causeways. In military terms it was nothing more than a giant prison. What would you have done? The Spaniards entered on the strength of their faith alone.
Cortes and Montezuma negotiated while the bustling life of the capital went on as usual. Cortes wanted lots of gold. No problem, said Montezuma. There was plenty, pretty stuff, but not good for much other than jewelry. He also wanted the Aztecs to abandon their bloody religion and become Christianits. Not possible, said Montezuma, let's talk about something else. So things continued.
The soldiers discovered a walled up door, which they broke open, to find a large storeroom filled with golden objects gathered by Montezuma's grandfather. When the Aztec king found out about it he gave the gold to Cortes, who had it melted down into bars. A partial and very unfair distribution of the spoils resulted in circulation of bits and ingots of gold among the soldiers in the compound, some of whom were gambling to while away the time. This was the first incident of western style monetary usage on the American mainland.
Montezuma felt himself more and more the pawn of history. His advisors were telling him to get rid of these foreigners, but he continued to temporize. The Spaniards, for their part, were growing restless. The delicacy of their situation weighed on them. As the tension mounted they hit on a novel tactic: they would take the monarch himself hostage against their safety.
This they did. The Aztec officials were amazed when Montezuma became a willing captive of the Spaniards. They were sure he had been bewitched. In succeeding weeks Cortes began to more and more influence Aztec policy, causing ever increasing disaffection among the ruling class of Tenochtitlan. Montezuma became a Spanish puppet, eventually summoning his
nobles and announced his new fealty to the Spanish king.
Shortly thereafter, an expedition from Cuba landed at Vera Cruz, intent on dismantling the work done so far. Cortes set off to deal with the situation, leaving Pedro de Alvarado in charge of the capital. At one of their big religious festivals, with thousands of armed warriors dancing, Alvarado lost his nerve and ordered what he considered to be a preemptive attack. The wierd peace that had been sulking around the capital immediately vanished, and the Spaniards were
forced to barricade themselves in their compound with their royal hostage.
Montezuma still had some shreds of authority, and sent word out to Cortes complaining of what happened. Cortes returned, but it was too late. The Aztecs deposed Montezuma as king and stoned him to death when he appealed to them to remain calm. The Spaniards had to fight their way out of Tenochtitlan, taking heavy casualties on the "Noche Triste," July 10, 1520. Some of Montezuma's gold came out with them, but much was left behind, and more lost in the flight.
The survivors regrouped and fought their way back to the friendly territory of Tlaxcala. Plans were immediately drawn up to isolate the Aztecs in their valley in advance of a siege of Tenochtitlan itself. Why go back? God will provide. Over the next year the noose was tightened. Boats were built, and when a Spanish beachhead was established at Texcoco they were assembled on the lake. The fresh water supply from Chapultepec was cut, and the city invested. After several months of desperate fighting most of the city was destroyed, and on August 13, 1521 the last Aztec king, Cuauhtemoc, was captured as he attempted to flee his ruined city.
Cortes was now master of New Spain. His immediate problems were the foundation of the new colony and the disposal of the vast store of booty that had come to him. As far as administration, he used the Aztec functionaries already at their posts, and the construction of the new Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan was immediately begun by the natives under Spanish
The division of the spoils went badly. Every time Cortes had made a distribution there had been fraud, not against the crown, but against the participants themselves, in unequal measure according to their lack of influence. The same thing happened this time. Everyone was unhappy with what he got, and no satisfaction was to be obtained from Cortes. The first load of the royal fifth was packed off, but never reached Spain, being seized by a French privateer en route.
The gold that was distributed was spent in business and pleasure by the soldiers. Having previous to the conquest been merely an item of commerce, it became a standard of value, rated against the coin of the realm, the cacao bean. In the earliest days the circulation was completely polyglot, with all kinds of gold objects of any degree of purity passing back and forth. Fraudulent debasement was a regular practice among both conquerors and natives. Cortes actually tried to regulate the debasement by the curious expedient of requiring circulating ingots to be rated at a higher fineness than they were known to be.
In 1526 the City Council in Mexico resolved that people should be allowed to bring their gold to the Royal Assayor to be stamped with its fineness. These items, called peso de oro ensayado, circulated well into the 17th century, alongside the well known silver cobs.
Generally speaking, a given bar of gold would be given official stamps at the ends. Circulating gold was supposed to have the proper stamps on it. Suppose you need to make change? You get out your cleaver and hack an end off your bar, giving you a "cabo de barra" to spend, and the term has been corrupted through the centuries into our numismatic term "cob." If
the bar is legal, the bit you cut will have part of the official mark on it, so you won't be asked for your license when you spend it.
Pradeau, the wonderful author of the Numismatic History of Mexico, wrote in 1938 that no specimen of this so-called "tepuzque" gold bullion money was known to exist. But this late 20th century is the golden age of salvage, and many new things have been brought to light in recent years. The Spaniards sent enormous quantities of their beloved gold and silver home each year, to be wasted on extravagant luxury and useless wars, and an amazing amount sank, to be recovered by us scavengers with our wonderful technology. There are large Spanish silver ingots lying around in vaults with no one to buy them. Gold bars have been showing up as well, but until very recently nothing had been seen quite as interesting as this piece.
The item was shown to me by Louis Hudson. It is 23.8 grams, and has obviously been cut off the end of a bar. The Roman numerals XV and the three dots indicate 15.75 carat fineness. The crowned C must refer to Charles I of Spain, who else? The item was recovered off Grand Bahama in 1992, from the wreck of the Tumbaga. About twenty other gold pieces were found with it. Many were not marked at all, but some were reported to bear bear assay marks indicating fineness as low as 9 carats.
Pradeau mentioned a 1528 statute requiring the re-assaying and stamping of circulating gold with the weight and fineness along with the royal arms and the motto PLUS ULTRA. This piece, then, would be legal according to the 1526 statute, but not that of 1528. It can be nothing other than an example of the first gold coinage of the Americas. Under the royal stamps is