The Piece of Eight: A Coin for the World

Room 29, showcases 6, 8 and 9 Eight-real coin of Ferdinand VI. Mexico, 1757. Silver. Pulse para ampliar Eight-real coin of Ferdinand VI. Mexico, 1757. Silver.

Although the pirates of film and literature avidly pursue doubloons, the true protagonist of the ships laden with coins that came from the Americas was the real de a ocho, known in English as the piece of eight or Spanish dollar.

Silver, rather than gold, was the metal that dominated the economy of the modern world. From the 16th century on, it flooded the markets, in part thanks to the ore obtained from new mines in Europe, but above all due to the incredibly rich silver lodes of the American territories controlled by Castile, allowing this kingdom to mint the strong piece of eight that soon became the international currency of choice.

Also known as pesos and duros, the reales of the “King of the Spains and the Indies” circulated around the globe, uniting Europe, America and Asia in an intricate business network for the first time. They were essential for trading with the East, a cornerstone of the world economy until the 19th century, as coins struck in American cities were practically the only accepted method of payment in China.

The piece of eight disappeared from the Americas when the colonies achieved independence in the early 19th century, but it lived on in their national currencies: both the pesos of the Spanish American republics and the United States dollar replicated the format of the most international coin. In Spain, its successor was the five-peseta coin known as the duro.