History In Your Hands
HISTORY IN YOUR HANDS
I’m humbled to be able write an article for the Talking Antiques Blog and hope it will be the first of many short articles by me that may interest, perhaps inspire and hopefully teach a little.
Over 45 years. I have been intrigued by history and ‘objects’ from the distant past, ancient artefacts and more recent ‘antiques’ that each hold a ‘story’, a ‘history’ and one that is tangible if we choose to quietly look, listen and learn. In this and future Blog articles, I will be sharing a selection of small but hopefully fascinating and relatively affordable pieces that I enjoy and that, if we choose to source and buy can enable us all to truly hold ‘history in our hands’.
From wonderful childhood books of fiction like ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘Treasure Island’ and early school history lessons about ‘The Vikings’ and ‘The Roman Empire’, my imagination birthed a spark and hunger that led me as I grew up, to enter the wonderful world of History and Archaeology, excavations, finds, research, learning and opportunities to touch, hold and study items from our distant past, many untouched by human hand for hundreds or thousands of years. The dream of many a small child, to simply find ‘treasure’, became in essence, a reality for me and led to a lifelong passion for ancient artefacts and antiques; their history, context and where possible, ‘provenance’ which is sometimes that rare, magical ‘doorway’ that enables us to more fully touch and connect with specific past moments in time or even people and distant places and events.
The object I’d like to share in this first Blog is a simple ‘coin’ that yes, at a first glance may appear possibly of little interest or worth if it were found in a box of assorted ‘junk’ at a sale. It’s a small, worn piece of metal that ‘has seen better days’ but, as we shall discover, actually has a history and provenance that gives it a special value and interest to me and other collectors, beyond just its monetary value.
This crudely made silver coin is actually a 17th century, Spanish 8 Real ‘Cob’, an original ‘Pieces of Eight’, made famous in such books as the aforementioned ‘Treasure Island’ with its tale of Pirates, treasure, shipwrecks, the infamous ‘Jolly Roger’ flags and of course, more recently, in the Hollywood tales of lovable, bungling Pirate hero, ‘Captain Jack Sparrow’ from the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films.
This coin is generally known as one of the ‘pillars and waves’ type Reales. You can just make out the remnants of pillars and the still obvious waves on the obverse (face) of the coin. On the reverse of the Cob can be seen the ‘Cross’ of the Roman Catholic church within a shield with the faded arms of Castile and Leon, castles and lions, depicted in the ‘quarters’ around the cross. It was minted in 1679 (the date is still just visible if you look) at the Potosi mint in Bolivia, South America under the supervision of assayer C, Manuel de Cejas, a rare assayer (and fairly rare stamp therefore to have on a cob I’m led to believe) who ran the mint for just a few months in 1679 following the death of assayer Antonio Erguerta but was quickly succeeded by mid 1679 by Pedro de Villar.
Much of the silver bullion and coinage shipped through the Spanish Main came from Potosi and was carried annually by a Spanish Armada, the ‘Armada del Mar del Sur’ on cannon-toting bullion ships or galleons that sailed back across the treacherous seas eventually to Europe and beyond, facing storms, shipwrecks and pirates hungry for treasure and wealth and it is there, in the midst of that time and our imaginations, that the story of my particular coin begins.
Because of the pressing demand for silver bullion, which had been easily mined and plundered after bloodshed and invasion by the Spanish, ‘Cobs’ were made. Rather than rolling out a bar of silver into a sheet of a specific thickness that could then be cut into smooth round ‘planchets’ (discs) which would be stamped into coins, a faster method was employed. A bar of silver was simply cut into chunks of the appropriate weight, which in the case of the silver ‘8 Real’, was usually around 27g. These small sliver clumps were then treated as if they were finished planchets and were hammer struck between crude dies by hand. The Spanish word ‘cabo’ (from which the English ‘cob’ is derived) refers to the end; in this instance, the clump of silver clipped off the end of the bar so the size, shape and impression of such cobs was highly irregular originally although the specific weight 27g was aimed for. It is these ‘cobs’ that actually were, to a large part, the ‘root’ of the first International ‘currency’ globally and one of the primary influences that birthed the American silver ‘dollar’. These ‘cobs’ were made in 8, 4, 2 and 1 Real ‘pieces’ or Reales.
This particular 1679, silver ‘pieces of eight’ shown, was actually part of a cargo of coins, bullion and other items that in 1681 was loaded onto a small Spanish galleon, the ‘Santa Maria de la Consolacion’ of 440 tonnes displacement and armed with 26 iron and bronze cannons.
Unfortunately for the Captain of the ‘Santa Maria de la Consolacion’, Juan de Lerma, the precious cargo he had been awaiting had arrived late and the main fleet with their ‘treasure’ had already departed. The Viceroy of Peru, ignoring advice from his royal officials who feared the galleon would be in danger because of reports of pirates in nearby waters, ordered the galleon to sail alone in 1681. She, according to one account, had an uneventful voyage until she was near the entrance of the Gulf of Guayaquil, in western South America, when a lookout spotted six larger pirate vessels commanded by Pirate, Captain Bartholomew Sharpe bearing down on them with their ‘Jolly Roger’ flags raised. (English sources claim Sharpe only had two or three ships and this would be more likely as Spanish commanders nearly always exaggerated their enemies’ numbers for fear of being charged with cowardice).
With pirate ‘Captain’ Bartholomew Sharpe in pursuit, Captain Lerma, at the helm of ‘la Consolacion’, altered course and attempted to reach safety in Guayaquil but finding the ‘Devils Pirates’ were gaining on his ship, he attempted evasive action near the desolate Santa Clara island. While nearing the island the ship struck a reef or rocks and began to sink. After striking the bottom the officers and crew quickly entered various small boats and after setting fire to the galleon to prevent the capture of the treasure, headed for the nearby rocky island. Sharpe’s men were in hot pursuit, especially angry because the Spaniards had set the ship on fire and it had begun to sink and managed to capture many of them. They became even more furious when they learned of the galleon’s cargo and what they had missed seizing. They then took their frustration out on their prisoners by beheading them. Santa Clara island has been dubbed for centuries, ‘Isla Muerte’ or ‘el Muerto’, the ‘Island of the Dead’ which is said could be because of the deeds on that day or early sailors reports that the island’s profile resembled a shrouded corpse.
The pirates stayed in the area for a few days forcing some local fishermen to try and recover some of the treasure but all they managed to find were some sails and rigging so they had to abandon the sunken ‘treasure’ (including my silver cob) and the wreck site, until it was all finally rediscovered in the late 1990’s.
Allen & Ginter (American, Richmond, Virginia)
Bartholomew Sharp, Firing La Serena, from the Pirates of the Spanish Main series (N19) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes, ca. 1888
Commercial color lithograph; Sheet: 1 1/2 x 2 3/4 in. (3.8 x 7 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (Burdick 201, N19.23)
Bartholomew Sharp is believed to have been born in Stepney, East London, England around 1650. He served on a ‘privateer’ vessel during the third Anglo-Dutch war and rose to command his own vessel in the West Indies and attacked many Dutch ships in the Leeward Islands. When the war ended and his commission as Captain had expired, Sharp turned to ‘Piracy’ and a couple of years later and then to the treasure filled waters around South America. In true, bungling ‘Jack Sparrow’ style, Captain Bartholomew Sharpe sometimes failed miserably as a ‘pirate and privateer’ and he is apparently recorded on a much earlier occasion, as having attacked and ‘pirated’ another Spanish galleon and, having boarded the vessel after a hand to hand battle with its crew, discovered what he took to be a ‘disappointing’ cargo of grey, lead ingots and weights which he angrily had thrown overboard when not finding silver or gold coinage. That cargo, was in fact entirely made up of basic silver bullion which in today’s market would be worth several million pounds!
Despite his ‘misses’ he reportedly captured twenty-five Spanish ships in all, during his fairly short pirate career and raided many coastal villages and towns, often murdering those that didn’t flee, in a period for Sharpe as Captain of ‘The Trinity’ which became partly known as the ‘Pacific Adventure’ and he kept a diary, portions of which were later published in several books at the time. The diary was a record of the voyages and his exploits although of course, many of his failures were not included and Spanish reference sources recount other events not mentioned.
When he returned to England in 1682, he stood trial for piracy and murder, but was acquitted on a technicality after handing over a document that was of great value to King Charles II, a hand-drawn chart book or ‘derrotero’ seized from a Spanish ship ‘El Santo Rosario’ in July of 1681. Spanish maps were very valuable at this time because English cartography had not caught up yet. The maps were such a boost to British navigation that King Charles II granted him a pardon.
The Spaniards ‘were a-goeing to throw [it] overboard’, Sharpe’s diary reads, ‘but my men prevented it, which made the Spanish Captain cry out, ‘fare well South Sea’.
This chart book was truly pirate’s treasure: it provided the English with invaluable intelligence (and an edge over the dominant Spanish) in an era when various European powers vied for supremacy in the Americas.
Following this, Sharp moved to the Danish island of St Thomas. However, by 1700 he was in debt and forced to try and flee the Danish West Indies but was captured by Danish authorities and sent to prison where he died two years later on 29 October of 1702. Sharpe was a ruthless Pirate, thief and murderer, but he was also an accomplished navigator and highly skilled sailor. He was the first English sailor to make the treacherous voyage around the dangerous Cape Horn from the west which even the famous explorer, navigator, slave trader and sea Captain, Sir Francis Drake had never accomplished.
In the late 1990’s the wreck of the ‘Santa Maria de la Consolacion’ was finally found, verified from old reference sources and records, finds and underwater archaeological research and a salvage operation and a ‘treasure hunt’ began.
One of the original, key members of the team was an underwater Archaeologist, historian and treasure hunter, Joel Ruth, who had found a cryptic footnote on old seafarers map of the area and further references from other old sources.
‘At this island in 1681 was cast away a rich shippe’.
‘ In the yeare of our Lord, 1681, Captain Sharpe gave chase to a ship in this sea and she were loste on fowle ground near S.Clara and in her 100,000 pieces of eight besides plate and other goods of value’.
It was from this ‘pirate wreck’ of ‘The Consolacion’(as wreck sites have sometimes been called if the sunken ship had been involved in any form of pirate interaction before a boat was ‘wrecked’) that my silver coin eventually emerged with thousands of other finds.
It it Joel Ruth himself who has recorded and handwritten my own coins details and provenance on an original certificate and signed it. My coin and an associated collection of paperwork also came from its original owner who had obtained it directly from Ruth when some of the ‘treasure’ from the wreck was put first put up for sale.
‘What price or value?’ I can hear some of you already asking as this is ‘Talking Antiques’.
Well, from a serious Numismatic or professional coin collecting and value perspective, it isn’t in the finest collectable condition possible for a ‘wreck coin’, but in this particular case I’m very happy to have this authenticated, history-worn and pirate-associated ‘pieces of eight’ instead of a more valuable mint condition circulated ‘cob’ that may not quite have have the same possible associated history and provenance. It still just has its date, mint stamp and assayer initial which is a relatively scarce one, which means certain important information and history can be known about it directly, which adds a little to the value.
As an approximate, simplified guide, ‘Wreck cobs’, with provenance and certification can be found for sale in various states of wear and degradation and prices will reflect that obviously. Very worn, silver, 8 Reales ‘cobs’ can have a retail value I believe of perhaps £100 – £150 ($ 140 – $210) but many of these are of a ‘partial’ or ‘relic’ state and of a much lower silver weight/mass, perhaps only 10g-12g compared with the original 17th century weight of 27g.
Generally, the more collectable ones for many, will still show some detailing, dates, mint marks and assayers initials and will be of a higher and more reasonable weight and mass and these will have a retail value of around £200- £400 ($275- $550) depending on condition. (My ‘cob’ weighs approximately 20g and measures approximately 40mm by 38mm, and falls into this category).
On the other hand, 8 Reales ‘wreck’ Cobs in very fine condition or better, of full/near full weight and with precise, centralised stamping, full detailing and complete fields on both sides and with a ‘wreck’ provenance and proper certification can reach thousands of pounds in value depending on certain professional Numismatic standards or rarity type.
It has to be said at this point though, for those interested, caution is needed when looking to purchase ‘wreck’ coinage. There is sadly a lot of ‘fakes’ and ‘reproductions’ out there and also, pieces that have been perhaps falsely attributed to shipwrecks and come with later produced, ‘certificates of authenticity’ all to attract sales an a higher price sometimes. Research is key in such a specialist field and it’s worth getting professional advice before you contemplate such a purchase or investment.
For me though, aside from any monetary value, my 1679 silver ‘Cob’ is a sea weathered,, crudely made but handsome, original silver ‘pieces of eight’ from a shipwreck with a link to piracy, tales of the Pirate, Captain Bartholomew Sharp and lost treasure and is a fine example of an item that can allow each of us as antique and collectable enthusiasts to truly ‘hold history in our hands’.
About Jeff Dowling :-
I originally trained as an artist and illustrator but from an early age had a deep and growing interest in history and archaeology and eventually gained a degree in Archaeology and experience in several areas of ancient history as a Field Archaeologist, excavator and finds conservator. Despite several other more ‘normal’ careers later on in two of the three Emergency Services here in the UK, I continued to collect and then buy and sell on a small scale a lovely selection of legally sourced ancient artefacts and jewellery from the British ‘bronze age’ through to Viking, Roman and Graeco-Roman periods. Over the years my ‘antique’ interest has developed and diversified and my favourite areas currently are early British silverware and ‘Victoriana’. I also have a great interest in Art across the centuries and Militaria, but I still buy the odd eclectic piece just because I ‘like it’ ! I’m always happy to try and assist anyone who messages me regarding any items that I may have some experience with and, as I always say ‘I’m not an expert…but..I do have some expertise!’.