Published June 28, 2021, 12:10 AM

by Jaime Laya

Wala Lang

Small pieces of paper, tiny bits of metal—neither is edible nor useful but people work, fight, kill for them. Paper money and coins are the subject of Yaman: History and Heritage in Philippine Money, a weighty tome just published by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. Authored by historian Ambeth R. Ocampo, the book surveys the numismatic collection of the BSP covering what Filipinos have been earning (sometimes stealing) and spending over the past millennium.

Governor Benjamin E. Diokno notes in his foreword that in its textbook meaning, money is a medium of exchange, a unit of account, a store of value. More than these, he adds, money is a reflection of a country’s history and culture.

Drawing on his scholarship and experience as resource person of the BSP Numismatic Committee that recommends on the design of coins and paper money, Ocampo traces our money against the colorful tapestry of the Philippines’ past.

Long ago when the archipelago was thinly populated and within independent and self-sufficient settlements, there would have been little need to exchange goods, little need for trade. As communities began specialized production—pots perhaps in one barangay, textiles in another, salt in a seashore village—barter became the norm. So many pots of given sizes in exchange for a basketful of salt depending on what the two parties agreed upon. In some places, the value of goods was established against a handful of unthreshed palay tied up immediately below the grain heads.

Such was the practice as Filipinos began to trade with other peoples—Arabs, Chinese, Japanese, and our near neighbors. We had gold, pearls, birds’ nest, shells (cowries or sigay) and tortoise shell, forest products (e.g., wood and beeswax), areca nuts, cotton. In return, we wanted metal gongs, iron, ceramics, silk.

Small gold pieces, the largest about the size of a pea have been discovered that may or may not have been used as money, called piloncitos when they began to be noticed in the late 19th century because they were shaped like raw sugar cones called pilón. The so-called barter rings, round hollow circlets of gold used as earrings by datu and high-ranking natives, also served as money. (They look like miniature automobile tires.)

The playing field changed in 1565 when Miguel López de Legaspi arrived to colonize the archipelago and a global economy was born with the Philippines as the final link in the trade chain that circled the planet.

The west had an insatiable hunger for spices, porcelain, and silks but the east, particularly the Chinese, needed nothing from west. What it needed was silver and with the discovery of New World silver, the Galleon Trade or Nao de China began.

The Chinese had invented paper money but with overprinting it became worthless. They switched to metal because of its intrinsic value but gold or copper coins were inconvenient. Gold coins were too-high value for small transactions while copper coins were the opposite. Try buying a banana with a P1,000 bill or paying for a kilo of rice with 50-centavo coins. Silver was the ideal middle ground but China had no silver mines, Japan had some while Spain had a silver mountain in Potosi, in present-day Bolivia, and mines in other places like Taxco in Mexico.

For 250 years therefore, from 1565 until 1815 when Spain’s New World colonies declared independence, silver crossed westward to Manila and thence to China and the other suppliers of Asian goods. They arrived in bars and in rough-cut coins or cobs called macuquinas (hilís kalamay among indios). These were irregularly shaped coins minted mainly in Mexico—pieces of silver chopped from ingots into desired weights and stamped usually with a cross on one side and the royal seal on the other. Precisely because of their irregular shapes, coins were often shaved or chipped off for the metal.

This led to their replacement in 1732 by the beautiful Dos Mundos coins designed with milled edges to immediately detect any chipping or saving. They were also called Columnarias because they bore on one side the two Pillars of Hercules. They were the Pieces of Eight of pirate lore because each was equivalent to eight Reales. The Dos Mundos coins became the first international currency, the equivalent of today’s US dollar.

Starting in 1772, however, the Dos Mundos coins were replaced with bust-portrait coins bearing profiles of Spanish Kings starting with Carlos III. The change was considered a disappointment by many not only because of the unprepossessing appearance of Carlos III who was fat, had a weak chin and a rather prominent nose, but also because of the lower fineness of the replacement coin.

The shortage of fractional coins was always a problem. While macuquinas, Dos Mundos, and bust-portrait coins came in various denominations, they were still unsuitable for small transactions. Copper maravedis were minted in Spain for circulation in the Philippines but there was never enough and the population coped by using crudely manufactured tokens called barrillas issued probably by Chinese establishments in Parian much like today’s promo coupons redeemable in goods in the 1600s. A 1674 Arancel issued by the Manila Cabildo established price controls on essential commodities expressed in barrillas and Reales.

The minting of barrillas was authorized in 1766 for circulation within a five-kilometer radius of Intramuros. These were the first locally minted coins, the origin of the term barya we still use for lower denomination coins

(to be continued)

Note: The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Money Museum was organized in the 1970s. Dr. Angelita G. Legarda and Mr. Antonio Bantug were its first directors.

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