During the Modern Age, the Spanish Empire produced coins that ended up being used beyond its borders. They were the 8 reales: specimens that served for domestic and international trade until after the independence of the colonies. Here are some facts about the origin, use and importance of these coins, which symbolized Hispanic wealth, reach and influence in the five continents.
How the First 8 Reales Came About
The 8 reales emerged in a very particular way. On the one hand, in Austria, Sigismund of Habsburg promoted the minting of large silver coins in 1486: the guldiner, weighing 31.93 grams and 937 thousandths of a millesimal weight. These were not very well accepted at first, but served as an inspiration for Bohemia to later produce the thaler, weighing 27 grams and 900 thousandths of fineness. These would be successful in Germanic lands, so Emperor Maximilian of Habsburg used them for propaganda purposes.
At the same time, the Catholic Monarchs were in charge of modernizing the Castilian monetary system through the Pragmatic of Medina del Campo (1497), a key moment in the history of Spanish coins, which detailed how to make silver reales and established the characteristics that would make them accepted worldwide; the manufacture of multiples was not yet contemplated.
It would be the grandson of the Catholic Monarchs and Maximilian of Habsburg, Charles I of Spain, who would take the idea of the German taler to the territories under his rule, creating in 1537 the reales of two, four and eight.
Another important fact to consider is the foundation of Mexico City and the construction of its mint. In 1537 it was authorized to mint different multiples of the real; therefore, in 1538 they produced a few 8 reales that ceased to be minted immediately due to the difficulties involved in making them. For a long time their existence was doubted, until three specimens were found in a shipwreck at the end of the 20th century.
As for Spanish pieces, the exact moment when they began to be produced is unknown, but we can know that they appeared under the motifs defined by the Catholic Monarchs: Charles I took advantage of the fame of the specimens produced by his grandparents to mint them, with the intention that people would accept them.
Since they are undated, these numismas must be dated by studying the assayers’ marks. María Ruiz Trapero, Professor of Epigraphy and Numismatics at the Complutense University of Madrid, pointed out that all known European pieces date from after 1543, but this does not exclude that they were minted before that date.
The 8 Reales Expand Throughout the Whole World
During the modern era, the Mediterranean ceased to be the main European trading area, and Italian coins ceded their place as the preponderant means of payment.
The world opened up for the Spanish, who had silver from the mines of New Spain and Peru, extremely integrated currencies in their characteristics, and the will to accumulate wealth through precious metals obtained from the Indies and a positive balance of trade.
The “real de a ocho” (aka 8 reales coin) began to be in demand, and its massive production made it possible for there to be enough to move international trade, especially with those regions that demanded precious metal.
A third part of the reals ended up in England, France and the Netherlands for its re-stamping, leaving from Antwerp (Belgium); the outbreak of the war in Flanders, year 1568, forced to divert it to Genoa (Italy), which introduced it in central Europe and the Mediterranean.
After the war, the Netherlands became a financial power, and Amsterdam became the trading center for precious metals. The Dutch and British Indian companies contributed to expanding world monetary circulation through their voyages along the Cape route to Indonesia and India; we cannot leave out the Portuguese, especially at the time of the Iberian Union (1580-1640). It is probable that, for those years, the reals of eight were already circulating in Asia, especially because since 1565 the Spanish were established in the Philippines and trading with China the silver brought to them by the Manila Galleon (1565-1815).
Thus, the rest of the eight-real was available to traders to trade with the Baltic countries, the Ottoman Mediterranean and the Far East.
China delivered more gold than Europe for each real de a ocho, which contributed to the stability of silver prices around the world. China became a major recipient of Spanish currency. There, the exchange between precious metals encouraged the supply of silver, which was in such demand that it prevented a decline in its price, keeping it stable for centuries.
Finally, we will talk about America, which used the pieces of eight for foreign trade, defense against pirates, operation of the Royal Treasury and mining. Even the northern British colonies came to depend on the “Spanish dollar” due to its abundance and the difficulty of obtaining English currency.
The Decline of a World Currency
As a currency, the real de a ocho was replaced by the pound sterling during the 19th century.
One determining factor was the independence of the American colonies, which meant the loss of mines and mints; the other was the replacement of the real by the peseta in 1868, which meant that the piece was no longer manufactured in Spain.
The American emancipation processes and the substitution of the real for the peseta ended the role of the reales de ocho as an international currency.
Finally, let us remember that during the 19th century the gold standard was imposed in Europe, coinciding with the growth of international transactions: banknotes backed by their issuing banks were increasingly seen on the market. Silver gradually disappeared from coinage and British hegemony in various parts of the world contributed to the rise of banking; thus, the pound became an international currency due to the importance of Great Britain in the world financial network.
In spite of everything, the 8 reales continued to circulate for a while longer, especially in those nations that only accepted the Hispanic currency.
What Remains of the 8 Reales Today?
The greatest legacy left by the currency were the legacy currencies in the different territories in which it circulated; for this purpose, let us remember that the real de a ocho was also known as “peso”: a very popular name in America.
Today, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Philippines, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Uruguay have pesos as their currency; in the past, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico and Venezuela also had them. All these nations were colonies of Spain.
On the other hand, there is Guinea-Bissau: a former Portuguese colony in Africa that for a time had the peso as its official currency. However, we must mention the case of the United States.
The 8 Reales and the US Dollar: Why the Dollar Sign?
During the colonial period, the thirteen territories used the real de a ocho, known as the Spanish dollar because it was equivalent to the Central European thaler, as their currency. After independence, the United States created its dollar based on the peso and backed its banknotes with columnar bills.
As curiosities, we can mention that the Spanish dollar was legal tender in the United States until 1857, that stock market shares were sold in eighths of a dollar (simple reals) until 1997, and that the symbol of the currency would be the stylized columns of Hercules and the ribbon that surrounds them.
Asian countries such as Korea, China and Japan also produced their modern currencies inspired by the Spanish dollar, giving rise to the won, the yuan and the yen.
Thus, in view of all that has been seen, there is no doubt that the real de a ocho, more than a Spanish currency, was a currency that regulated commercial transactions throughout the world for centuries, and served as a precedent for the monetary globalization that the British pound and the U.S. dollar achieved later.
References and bibliographical sources
- Cano Borrego, Pedro (2018). The German Thaler, origin of the Spanish real de a ocho and precursor of the dollar. Oroinformación. Accessed February 20, 2022.
- Cano Borrego, Pedro (2018). The first 8 reales minted in the Kingdoms of the Indies. Oroinformación. Retrieved February 20, 2022.
- Cano Borrego, Pedro (2018). The first 8 reales of the Castilian mints. El Eco Filatélico y Numismático, LXXIV (1.273), 46-48.
- García Guerra, Elena (2006). World itineraries of a supranational coin: the real de a ocho or peso during the Modern Age. Studia Historica: Modern History (28), 241-257.
This article was first published in Spanish on 9th March 2022 on the Coleccionista de Monedas website.
The English version of the article was later published on 22nd April 2022 on the ANA website.
Hussein Larreal is a museologist, researcher and numismatist. He was curator of the collection of coins, banknotes, tokens and medals of the Banco Central de Venezuela, and was in charge of starting up its museum of monetary species.