Monday, June 13, 2011

History: Spanish Silver

The prevailing thought among historians of various specialties is that once Cortes conquered Central America for Spain the economy of that country was flooded with wealth from the New World. The riches were dominated by Mexican silver, which was used to mint coinage and in turn created the jump in Spanish inflation in the 16th and particularly the 17th centuries. This has been accepted as academic fact for a number of years. All that said, a new study released last week by the Universite Lyon in Lyon, France, puts that premise into question.

According to this article in Science Daily, the study found that New World silver did not become the primary source for Spanish coinage until the 18th century.

From approximately the mid-1500s, Spain began systematically mining and minting silver in Mexico and Peru. The coins were then sent to Spain aboard the famous treasure hulks to the tune of about 300 tons per year. It goes without saying that some of this wealth never made it to Europe. Wrecks and storms took a percentage to the bottom of the ocean, while free booters of various types and nationalities took their share as well. A large amount did get to Spain, however, where it was melted down and – according to the general understanding among historians – made into Spanish coins that then circulated throughout Europe. This was thought to be the predominant cause for the so called “Price Revolution”, an era of high inflation in Europe that started around 1520 and went on until the mid-1600s.

The Lyon researchers have now been able to isolate the individual isotope ratios in Spanish coins from the medieval era through to the 18th century. What they found was that it was not until the reign of Philippe V (1700-1746) that Spanish coinage was made purely of New World silver. This does not preclude New World wealth having a hand in the “Price Revolution”, but it does give one historical pause. A rethinking of how, if not why, the balance of wealth in Spain effected the European economy appears to be in order. And while we’re at it, I’d like to know what effect the looting of privateers and buccaneers had on that same economy over all. It could be, if you think about it, that they did Europe a bit of a favor by keeping some of that booty out of her economy.

Header: Replicas of 17th century silver doubloons


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! See? Pirates and privateers aren't all bad... They certainly have more going for them than economists, IMHO.

Steven said...

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Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and Steven!

Timmy: I couldn't agree more but then I'm bias.

Steven: will do some time today.