Pieces of eight
Potosi, Bolivia, AD 1589-1598
The eight reales coin, or 'piece of eight', was the most common silver coin of late sixteenth and seventeenth century Spain. As trade became a global activity for the first time, it became the international currency.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the powers of Western Europe rapidly expanded setting up colonies overseas and trading across the world. The conquest of Central and South America by Spain opened up vast new resources to exploitation, and the pieces of eight coin is perhaps one of the most potent symbols of this.
Produced using early modern coin-making techniques, the pieces of eight were made with the raw materials and labour of Spain’s colonies in the Americas. In the 1540s silver was found in Mexico and a few years later in a remote part of what is now Bolivia, a barely-inhabited mountainous place called Potosi. Located 12,000 feet above sea level, this cold, harsh place quickly became one of the biggest and richest cities in the world, known as the Silver Mountain.
The flow of silver from the Americas increased at an incredible rate. From 148 kilos in the 1520s, it rose to 300,000 kilos in the 1550s, and nearly 3 million kilos in the 1590s. From the 1570s it increasingly came over to Europe ready-made into pieces of eight.
The production of all this wealth came at a huge cost in human life. At Potosi the native American Indian communities were compelled to allocate a proportion of their young men as forced labour for the mines where conditions were brutal. From around 1600, as the death rate rose among the local communities, tens of thousands of African slaves were brought to Potosi to replace them. They too died in large numbers.
Today, Potosi is an immensely significant site both because of the human suffering experienced in the silver mines and the impact it had on world economic history.