Saturday, May 31, 2008

Pirate Coins In The Golden Age

Bootie, originally uploaded by Ack Ook.

Blunt, booty, tin; call it what you may, but it was the raison d'être for nearly all pirates. The Spanish became fabulously wealthy in the new world, and pirates and privateers set out to relieve them of their riches. Once acquired, the pirates would squander their loot on drink, gambling and other vices you could very well imagine. They seldom, if ever buried their treasure. Coin was not they only thing they were after. Aside from precious metals and gems, things like medicine, clothing and weapons were also highly prized.

Ahhh, but who now can one mention a pirate's treasure without conjuring up images of parrots squawking out "pieces-of-eight" or chests full of doubloons? Here is a rundown of what you might have found in a pirates pockets in the Golden Age:

Pieces-of-eight (silver, 1497 to 1857): This was the silver dollar of its day. It was worth 8 reales (pronounced ray-ahls) and was frequently cut into pieces to make change, hence the name pieces-of-eight.

Doubloon (gold, 1566-?): A gold coin worth 2 escudos, see below.

Spanish Real (as in Reales) (silver/alloy, 1497 to 1864): This coin changed value a number of times throughout its existence. From 1642 to 1737 (which encompasses the Golden Age), there were two reales; on of silver (real de plata) and a less valuable one (real de vellón) made from billon (silver alloyed with other metals).

Gold Escudo (gold, 1566-1833): This coin was worth 16 silver reales during the golden age. Actually, they were minted in several quantities from 1/2 to 8 escudos, the 2 escudo coin was commonly known as the doubloon.

Onza (gold, 1566-????): A gold coin worth 8 escudos.

Going roughly on the facts in books:
1 Doubloon = 2 Escudos = 4 Pieces-of-eight = 32 Reales
1 Escudo = 16 Reales de plata
1 Pieces-of-eight = 8 Reales de plata

It should be noted that coins and other forms of money were in short supply in the new world. A pirate was more likely to come across all manner of goods than a galleon laden with coins. But there were some coins. Pieces-of-eight minted roughly in South America for transport back to Spain were known as cob. There were also coins from other nations used in trade, and a pirate might have to be "his own exchange broker", as Angus Konstam points out in one of his books.

But pieces-of-eight and gold doubloons will always remain at the heart of our romanticized image of pirates, weather its Ben Gunn's cave full of loot in Treasure Island or the treasure room at the end of the Pirates of the Caribbean rides. Pirates and coins go hand in hand, or coin in hand, if you please.


  • The Complete Idiot's Guide To Pirates, Gail Selinger

  • Pirates 1660-1730, Angus Konstam

  • Pirate (DK Eyewitness Books), Richard Platt

  • Wikipedia

The Great American Coin Company makes reproductions of some factual and fanciful pirate coins. You can even order them by the chest-load. Click here to go there.

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