From the deep mines of South America, the surprising journey of New World silver coins to Mughal India to fill the coffers of Emperors
movie trailer clip: “The legend … of a lost city of gold.”
Mary-Rose Abraham: That’s from the trailer of the animated movie “The Road to El Dorado” from the year 2000. It told the story of a couple of Spanish con men on the road …
movie trailer clip: “To the magnificent city of gold … El Dorado …”
Gayathri Vaidyanathan: You might be familiar with the legend of El Dorado. It was believed in the 16th and 17th centuries that somewhere in what’s now South America, there was a fabulous, wealthy tribe high up in the Andes. And they had so much gold that whenever a new chieftain was inducted, people would cover them in gold dust, and they would also throw gold and jewels into a nearby lake to appease an underwater god.
MRA: Europeans took this tale rather seriously and launched expeditions to find the lost city of gold. Spanish explorers did encounter much gold among the native people. They even tried to drain a lake in 1545. The lake’s edge revealed hundreds of pieces of gold but, not surprisingly, they just never found El Dorado.
GV: … which continues to be a popular folklore. But in reality, the Spaniards did get their riches … just not through gold. It was another precious metal altogether. And Spain conquered the Aztec and Inca empires, its new territories were rich in silver.
MRA: From the mid-1500s until the early 1800s, the native people and African slaves mined a hundred thousand tons of silver for Spain. Spanish America — that’s Spain’s colonies in the Americas — became the world’s leading supplier of silver. And you might be surprised to know where much of that silver ended up and how it was transformed. This is Chatroom 15, your bonus episode of “Scrolls & Leaves.” I’m Mary-Rose Abraham.
GV: And I’m Gayathri Vaidyanathan. We have a small request. We’re an independently funded podcast, so if you like our work, please consider donating. Every little bit helps us to continue telling “stories from the margins of history, science and cultures.” You can find details on our website, scrollsandleaves.com/support. And of course, if you have feedback, do let us know! Thank you.
MRA: So Spanish America produces mine-fuls of silver.
Najaf Haider: From the 1530s and ‘40s, particularly from the 1540s, silver began to be exported in very large quantities. This came in the form of a silver coin, a heavy silver coin, called dollars. Or reales of eight from Mexico. So we have Mexican reales of eight. From Peru, we have Peruvian dollars, and they all came to Spain. Seville itself minted dollars from bullion silver, called Sevillian dollars.
GV: That’s Najaf Haider. He’s a professor of medieval and early modern history at the Center for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He says the silver’s journey didn’t end in Spain.
NH: A large quantity of silver flew out of Spain, so much so that Spain did not remain the biggest beneficiary of the New World silver. And it gravitated towards areas which were highly commercialized, where there were goods and services. And I would consider Mughal India to be a very important zone towards which these coins gravitated.
MRA: The Mughal Empire ruled most of northern India from the early 16th to the mid-18th century, and it was one of the most powerful economies in the world.
NH: 31:44 India, since ancient times had a quite an extraordinary structure of foreign trade and trade balances. India exported commodities, mainly textiles, spices, indigo and saltpeter, sugar, grain to the markets in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea and beyond that to the Mediterranean. In exchange, gold and silver came. There was a very high demand. And all this started gravitating towards the Indian Ocean in a very, very big way. India received a lion’s share of this Spanish American silver. India was the recipient of something like 60 percent of the silver that came from the New World.
GV: Najaf worked out the numbers and found that China — once thought to be the biggest importer — was actually bested by more than double by India … which imported more than 120 metric tons of silver every year. A huge amount.
NH: In fact, the famous French traveler to India, Francois Bernier, who came and stayed in Delhi during the period of Aurangzeb, the Mughal Emperor, has a beautiful passage in which he charts the global movement of the New World silver and makes India as a major, major destination. And other foreign travelers and commercial factors considered India to be some kind of a sink pit of world silver.
MRA: The world’s “sink pit of silver” did not use these foreign coins as currency.
NH: The Mughal state did not allow any foreign or non Mughal provincial coins to circulate in its realm. Only the Mughal coins were legal tender, in any aspect of exchange and transaction household, commercial, which meant that all foreign silver coins which came in large quantities in the 16th and 17th centuries, and also early 18th century had to be re-minted, for which the state established mints called taksal in Hindi, and dar-uz-zafar in Persian. These mints were established in big cities, administrative headquarters and entrepots like Surat. The Surat mint was very prolific because it was the recipient of large quantities of silver coming from Europe and the Middle East.
GV: So all this incoming silver was melted down, refined and new coins — silver rupees — were struck. The mint employed skilled artisans.
NH: A tiny amount of alloy was used for industrial purpose and shaped into blanks. And the blanks were then placed between two dies. Each die had the inscription carved in reverse and the upper die was struck with a hammer by a proficient hammerer and the blank received the impression on the dies. This particular technique of minting is called minting by hammer striking or hammer struck coins. After that, there was a process of cleaning and blanching of the coin using different kinds of natural chemicals and other material and the coin was ready to be put into circulation.
MRA: As you might have guessed, this entire process is done by hand, each coin individually hammer struck. Najaf says in the high season, the craftsmen produced up to 30-thousand rupee coins every day. It was only until the second half of the 18th century that machines were brought in, by the English East India Company.
GV: But it wasn’t just silver keeping the mint busy. It also produced gold and copper coins for its currency system.
NH: The Mughals had a tri-metallic currency system in which three different metals were minted. The most valuable coin was the gold coins, or mohar, which was something like 10, 10 and a half grams of gold also pure gold, fine gold. It was minted for high value transactions. Then they have a copper coins. Heavy copper coin something like 20 grams, so double the size of the gold coin, which was meant for everyday transaction. And in between were silver coins, which if one could say that were the principal medium of exchange in the Mughal Empire because they were minted in very large quantities much larger than the gold coins or the copper coins. And of course, the value of the silver coin, unit to unit was much higher. One unit of silver was equal to 80 to 90 units of copper. So obviously they had a much higher usage in terms of exchange of goods and services and payment of taxes than the two coins. So while it is true that the three metals were used in minting it is also true that there was a hierarchy in the market in terms of the use of these coins, in which the most important coin was the rupee, the silver coin. The silver coins were used largely within the Mughal Empire because the total amount of economic product and services in the Mughal Empire was very high, the volume of products exchange, products and services exchange to which we can also add tax payments or settlement of other debts and obligations. So, if you look at the size of this, the magnitude of this sector, it was very, very big.
MRA: You were listening to Najaf Haider on Chatroom 15 on Scrolls & Leaves. For more information and other episodes, visit scrollsandleaves.com or follow us on Twitter at scrollsleaves, or on Instagram at scrolls and leaves, or like us on Facebook. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another chatroom. See you then!
Listen to Chatroom 15 here.