No Small Change

Spanish colonial coin found in Maravedi Cove.

By Roberto G. Munoz-Pando

On my recent visit to the storage area of the Turks & Caicos National Museum, many items caught my attention. Among them, one really comes to mind because it represents the area I have been studying and writing about for the past three years. It was a copper coin of a four Maravedí face value. Most probably minted in Santo Domingo between 1542 and 1558, it is the oldest Spanish Colonial artifact ever found in the Turks & Caicos Islands.
Grand Turk dive operator Mike Spillar found it quite by chance in 1980 in a shallow natural pool beside a tiny cove on the rugged ironshore coast of West Caicos. Museum personnel named the place Maravedí Cove, in commemoration of such a rare and historic finding.

The reverse side of the coin (left) compared to a well-preserved example.

The reverse side of the coin (left) compared to a well-preserved example.


On the obverse side, the coins' denominations are seen in Roman numerals.

On the obverse side, the coins’ denominations are seen in Roman numerals.

This is one of the earliest coins minted in the Americas. The Santo Domingo mint was the second mint founded in the New World (it began striking coins in 1542), after the first one was established in Mexico (New Spain) in 1536. The coins of the four maravedís face value were common in Spanish Colonial America. One maravedí is the equivalent of 1/34 of a real (silver coin), and there are 16 reales in one escudo (gold coin), the main monetary systems of the Spanish Empire. This makes this coin one of very little face value, used for small day-to-day transactions, however it has vast numismatic value. It is also well known and documented that these coins were not well received by the public. They were withdrawn from circulation in 1556.
So what was the buying power of this coin when it was in circulation? We know from the records of Magellan’s voyage around the world (1519–1522) that the average salary of a crewman was about 40 Maravedís per day, so this coin would have paid for about 10% of a day’s work.
Because it is one of the first coins struck in America and one of the first coins struck in the Santo Domingo Mint, it is safe to say that this coin is one of the earliest examples of Spanish coinage in the Americas. One must also consider that because it was a low face value coin it was used extensively before being lost. This means that it probably changed hands many times from settler to settler adding to its numismatic and historical value. The condition of the coin is not very good due to the many years of circulation and the extended period of corrosion because of exposure to the elements, but this does not detract from the historical value of the piece.
A common practice during colonial times was to take pieces of the rim of coins to use as precious metal. This practice clearly occurred in this coin as the pieces missing from its rim are apparent. Later technologies allowed for a “cordoncillo” (a type of decoration) to be added to the rim. This implementation made tampering with the rim of the coin more evident and less likely. But early coins like this one, sometimes called “cobs” due to their irregular shapes, did not have “cordoncillo” or decorations at the rim.
This coin has provided evidence of early colonial interaction in the Turks & Caicos Islands. It is very important to note that a discovery made by chance can add plenty of information to the archaeological record especially if it is reported to the proper authorities and it is handled professionally. a

I want to thank the Turks & Caicos Museum staff in general and Dr. Don Keith in specific for allowing me to see this amazing find, which is not currently on exhibit, and for the information and pictures they shared in order for me to write this article. I am sure that further investigations are warranted for gaining the most information about this discovery.

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