Day on Craig, 'Spanish Colonial Silver Coins in the Florida Collection' and Craig, 'Spanish Colonial Gold Coins in the Florida Collection'

Alan K. Craig. Spanish Colonial Silver Coins in the Florida Collection. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. xxv + 217 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-1748-8.Alan K. Craig. Spanish Colonial Gold Coins in the Florida Collection. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. xiv + 94 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-1802-7.

Reviewed by William R. Day (Department of Coins and Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge)
Published on H-Florida (November, 2002)

These two handsome volumes describe the silver and gold coins of Spanish colonial origin in the collection of the state of Florida. The collection derives mostly from treasure spilled into waters off the Florida coast when Spanish fleets were ravaged by hurricanes soon after leaving Havana harbor first in 1715 and again in 1733. Both fleets had rendezvoused in Havana to pick up an escort for the journey through the Florida Straits and across the Atlantic Ocean to Cadiz in Spain. The wreckage of eleven ships from the 1715 fleet was scattered along the reefs of an eighty-kilometre stretch of Florida's east coast from Sebastian Inlet in the north to just below Fort Pierce Inlet in the south. The fleet was carrying almost seven million pieces of eight, and the coins salvaged from these shipwrecks constitute the bulk of the Florida collection. About 97 percent of the nearly 23,000 silver coins managed by the state of Florida come from the wreckage of the 1715 fleet, and more than half of these come from the wreck of a single ship in the fleet, the Nieves, which went down off Douglas Beach. Virtually all of the gold coins in the collection come from the 1715 fleet. The collection nevertheless represents only a small share of the estimated 125,000 coins from the fleet's treasure that modern salvage crews have turned up over the last thirty-five years. The majority of the recovered treasure has gone to the salvors. Some of the lost treasure was also recovered immediately after the storm by Spanish salvage crews, and some fell into the hands of privateers. One such privateer, an Englishman named Henry Jennings from Port Royal in Jamaica, led three hundred buccaneers in an assault on the Spanish salvage camp and made off with more than 100,000 pieces of eight.

By contrast, only 162 of the silver coins in the Florida collection, or less than 1 percent, come from the equally large 1733 fleet, which was hit by a storm off the Florida Keys. Craig explains that this was partly because the sunken ships in the 1733 fleet went down in shallow water and were thus more accessible to Spanish salvage operations, but he also notes that this fleet simply was not involved in transporting significant quantities of coin and bullion. The collection is rounded out by coins from a further three seventeenth-century shipwrecks and two early nineteenth-century wrecks as well as from several miscellaneous discoveries. All in all, the collection constitutes "the largest group of sea-salvaged Spanish colonial coins in existence" and is the "largest and most complete in the world with respect to Spanish colonial gold from the first decades of the eighteenth century" (Spanish Colonial Silver Coins, p. 169).

The Florida collection is nevertheless peculiar, as Craig himself acknowledges. Potosi dominated early new world minting, but more than 95 percent of the silver coins in the collection and more than 75 percent of the gold coins are from the Mexico mint. The Potosi mint accounts for only 515 of the silver coins in the collection, and all other Spanish colonial mints combined account for less than seven hundred silver and gold coins. Accordingly, Craig's books will be of most interest to students and enthusiasts of colonial Mexico and its coinage. Still, Craig has given these books wider appeal by discussing the collection within the context of new world minting in general. In the volume on the silver coinage, Craig has included an introductory section on the "Spanish colonial political economy." The section really concerns mining, minting, and mint organisation rather than political economy, but it at least attempts to place the coins in the Florida collection against a broader tapestry. The section concludes with a chapter on Spanish colonial "cobs," the rough and irregularly shaped hammered silver coins of Spanish colonial mints that make up the Florida collection.

In the second part of this volume, Craig discusses the composition of the Florida collection and then, in turn, the coins from Mexico and Potosi along with those from other mints such as Lima, Cartagena, Santa Fe de Bogota, and Guatemala. The chapter on the Mexican coins is largely descriptive, devoted to determining the salient characteristics of the coins. The only reference to the literature on these coins is in Table 7.2 on Mexico mint assayers. Rather oddly, given the overwhelming proportion of Mexican coins in the Florida collection, Craig devotes more attention to the Potosi mint than to Mexico. This is almost certainly a sign of Craig's own interests and probably also reflects the greater attention that the Potosi mint has received in the literature. The Potosi chapter is unquestionably the most thorough chapter in the volume, and it assembles a variety of useful information not only from the secondary literature but also from the Archivio General de Indias in Seville. Still, it is difficult not to regard the relatively meagre coverage of the Mexico mint as a missed opportunity, since more information on the less well-known coinage of Mexico would have served readers far better. Craig ends the second part of this volume with a brief discussion of the numismatic significance of the coins in the Florida collection, suggesting some potential areas for further research. There are three appendices. The first appendix gives equivalencies for weights and coin denominations, the second translates a document of 1700 that describes the processes by which silver was converted into coin at the Potosi mint, and the third lists the coins illustrated in the volume. This list identifies the coins by mint, date (when known), assayer (when known), denomination, weight in grams, and catalogue number. It does not give descriptions of coin legends or designs, however, and it does not provide any standard references for the coins. There is a bibliography and a general index.

Spanish Colonial Silver Coins is well illustrated with maps, drawings, photographs, and forty-one "figures" with black-and-white photographs of the coins themselves. There are also twenty-eight tables, many of which supplement the text rather well. As a collection catalogue, however, I found the arrangement of the volume rather odd. The photos of the coins themselves should have been grouped together, preferably in high-quality photographic plates, reproduced at actual size, and accompanied by conventional descriptions and references to the pertinent literature. As it is, the photos are adequate but disappointing. The relationship of the size of the coins in the photos to the actual size of the coins is never discussed. It is usually possible to determine from a glance whether the obverse and reverse of the same coin are shown together, but Craig usually doesn't indicate as much to the reader. Finally, Craig has made no attempt to classify the coins according either to an existing system of classification or to one of his own design.

Spanish Colonial Gold Coins follows the format of the volume on the silver coinage, but it omits any discussion of "Spanish colonial political economy." After some introductory comments, Craig again describes the composition of the collection and follows this with chapters on individual mints. He covers Lima, Cuzco, Mexico, and Sante Fe de Bogota, ending w ith some concluding remarks. There is a useful appendix on the classification of Mexican doubloons by Frances Keith, and another that lists the coins illustrated in the volume in much the same manner as in the volume on the silver coins. There is again a bibliography and general index. Some of the material in this volume, especially the discussion of the composition of the collection, repeats information given in Spanish Colonial Silver Coins. It is indeed easy to imagine that these two volumes could have been published together in a single volume of about the same length as the volume on the silver coins. With that said, it must be acknowledged that Spanish Colonial Gold Coins includes a number of improvements on the volume covering the silver coins. The text engages the literature to a greater extent, and in general is much more professional and thorough. This probably owes much to the fact that this volume incorporates material from the author's earlier work on the Gold coins of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet (Tallahassee, 1988). The color photos of the gold coins are far better than the black-and-white photos of the silver coins. They usually show the coins at actual size, and they are otherwise careful to indicate the relationship of the size of the coins in the photos to the size of the actual coins. The list of the coins illustrated in Appendix B still lacks essential information on coin inscriptions and designs, but Frances Keith's appendix on classification partly makes up for this shortcoming. The absence of standard references for each coin is still troubling, though. Both volumes have a forward by James Miller, State Archaeologist and Chief of Archaeological Research in Florida.

Ultimately, it is difficult to determine the audience for which Craig intended his volumes. Despite the welcome improvements in the volume on the gold coins, neither volume really succeeds as a collection catalogue. They certainly were not written to the highest standards of numismatics or monetary history. This reflects the fact that Craig himself is not a specialist in either discipline. He is Professor Emeritus in Geography and Geology at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, but his interest in Spanish colonial coins is more at the level of an enthusiast, and this comes through in these volumes. They have a distinctly popular flavor. Serious scholars and students of Spanish colonial coinage and history will be disappointed with these volumes, even though they are useful. Nevertheless, collectors and numismatists with an interest in Spanish colonial coinage and libraries with holdings in Spanish colonial numismatics and history will welcome their publication and will want to obtain copies, despite their shortcomings.

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Citation: William R. Day. Review of Craig, Alan K., Spanish Colonial Silver Coins in the Florida Collection and Craig, Alan K., Spanish Colonial Gold Coins in the Florida Collection. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. November, 2002.

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