The topic of today’s post was suggested to me by Steve Cotton, whose blog is mexpatriate – in the key of steve. He wondered about the pathways taken by Mexican silver and gold en route to Europe during the colonial period…
In 1492, Spain was ruled by the iron fist of a Catholic Spanish king and queen: Isabel de Castilla and Fernando de Aragón. When America was discovered, Spain had a highly trained, ambitious army that was anxious for new battles and conquests and the society hungered for wealth and opportunities. The Catholic Church’s power, as well as that of the royals were unifying strengths in the country.
From the outset, late medieval Castile shaped society and stamped its culture on Latin America. It imposed a set of values that were the product of Spain’s long Re-conquest of its territories from the Moors, completed in 1492, the same year that Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola. They were Conquistador values, which stressed the role of the warrior in the name of the Church, and assumed the inherent right of European rule over people of unknown culture, and pagan beliefs.
When it was discovered that gold, silver and other precious objects were to be had in the newly conquered territories, there was no compunction whatsoever about taking the bounty. Large land holdings were awarded to the heroes of the Crown and the Church. The Colony established itself quickly, and the military presence focused on keeping other nations out of “New Spain.” The Catholic clergy put their full efforts into evangelizing the entire indigenous population, and the Crown instituted a strong commercial monopoly that reigned supreme for three centuries.
It was said that the sun never set over the Spanish domain – the empire was that vast. The economic activity centered on mining, agriculture and trade, which were, of course, completely controlled by the Spanish monarchs.
The Crown appointed an institution that managed trade and commerce between the new colonies and Europe; it was called, “La Casa de Contratación de Sevilla.” One of the activities was the transport of Mexican silver aboard the Spanish controlled shipping line, whose fleet (called La Nao de China) made an annual round trip voyage from Acapulco to Manila. The principal cargo carried to the Philippines was silver coin. There it was purchased by various nations who stamped the doubloons with their country’s seal and affixed a value. On the return voyage the fleet carried spices, silks and other items that were much esteemed by both the Europeans and the colonials in México.
Gold from México also made its way to Europe through Veracruz and across the Atlantic. Many of the gilded altarpieces and the ornamentation in the fine mansions of Europe used gold from México. The precious metal was also shipped to Europe from Peru. Both were in demand for their high quality.
The influx of Mexican silver often caused inflation in Europe which was devastating for the lower classes. And when the Independence movements throughout Latin American began in the early 1800s, the silver trade was interrupted, provoking a worldwide economic crisis not unlike the modern day recessions caused by fluctuations in the petro industry.
I guess that one could say that, “The more things change… the more they stay the same.
Photo credits: I found the images for this post on Google Images.
- Image of La Nao de China from:
- Image of Fernando and Isabela from:
- Image of map from:
- Image of coins from: