Pieces of Eight – YARRRRR!
Since we’re at the beach, topics related to the beach are naturally the topics of discussion. (Imagine that!)
Jack and I are here with friends. Three adults, a couple of teenagers, a toddler, and a newly minted first-grader. Guess who dominates the TV? SpongeBob SquarePants. Yup. More beach stuff. Hey, it’s a theme vacation.
In keeping with the theme, the conversation over breakfast turned to buried treasure (whether or not a 6 year old was likely to find any) and Spanish doubloons (the popular piratical medium of exchange due to the fragile and somewhat messy nature of sand dollars).
“What, exactly, were ‘pieces of eight?’ Gold doubloons?” wondered the father of the rugrats (another cartoon sure to be on the TV at some point during this vacation, but not beach-themed, so irrelevant).
“Spanish money, cut into eight pieces,” supplied my kid, who does his best to flunk out of school but whose mind is otherwise a steel trap for useless information. (If only his diligence in remembering things extended to remembering to do, and turn in, his homework, we wouldn’t be so worried about whether he’d actually make it to college. But I digress.)
“They actually cut their coins?” asked our 17 year old friend.
“Yeah. It was before they minted coins worth less than a full unit of their money.” Where does Jack come up with this stuff? Since I was sitting in front of my laptop feeding my Yahoo 360 addiction, I flipped over to Google and looked it up.
The phrase “pieces of eight” did indeed refer to the fact that the Spanish dollar (yes, in the Americas it was called a “dollar”) was cut into eight pieces. Why eight pieces? Other than the relative ease of dividing the coin into eight pieces, the coin itself was worth eight reales, or royals. So calling it a “piece of eight” is similar to referring to the American gold coin as a “twenty dollar gold piece.”
The Spanish real was minted in different denominations, though. There were 2, 4, and 8 real pieces. The coins were cut in half or quarters, or even into eighths to make smaller change.
Reales were always silver. The Spanish gold coin was called the escudo. The coin worth eight escudos was the famous Spanish gold doubloon, which was 22 carats pure. It was also cut into eighths, for the same reason as the silver real: to make change.
The Spanish reales and escudos were the first world currency. The purity of the gold and silver were dictated by Spanish law, and because of its colonial expansion in the Americas gold and silver were plentiful for the Spanish government. Even China, which had never been keen on accepting anything other than gold, was willing to accept reales. Sometimes the Chinese placed impressions of their own on the Spanish coins to indicate that their own tests had been conducted as to the purity of the silver.
Have you ever wondered why a quarter is referred to as “two bits?” It goes back to the divisions of the Spanish 8 real coin. This coin and its pieces were legal currency in the US until 1857, and it’s why the American stock exchanges valued stocks in increments of one-eighth of a dollar until 1997.
More reading for those two or three of you who wish I’d spent more time on this blog instead of rushing out into the sun and sand:
The University of Notre Dame Library information on Coins, including Spanish silver and Spanish gold
Pirates of the Caribbean (not the movie, but a site full of nifty pirate information)
Wikipedia’s article on the Spanish dollar
Answers.com’s entries on Pieces of Eight and on the Spanish Real
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