La Girona V

Gold and Silver

Today’s focus from Belfast’s Ulster Museum permanent exhibit “Treasures from the Girona” is the lengths the Spanish went to acquire costly metals. Gold was the lure Columbus held out to Spanish royalty. The Spanish found their El Dorado in the accumulated wealth of the Incas, acquired through force and murder.

Inca temples were covered in gold. The Spanish needed only to peel it off and carry it away. They found some gold to mine, minimal compared to the silver. Armada ships did not haul gold and silver from the American and the modern treasure hunter’s yield was not expected to be huge, nor was it. As silver and, to a lesser extent, gold filled Spanish coffers the ambitions of the Spanish monarchs were unleashed. It financed the building and launching of the Armada.

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Among the hundreds of silver coins were many eight-real pieces, often called “pieces of eight”. The “silver hill” of Potosi, discovered in 1544 in Bolivia, provided most of the silver bullion for the Spanish Empire. Ten percent of mine workers were Inca slaves. After these were worked to death, the Spanish acquired African slaves.

I wonder if the ship Captains discarded their kilogram of gold chain to the enveloping waves, in exchange for survival. My guess is, “no”. It was an emblem of rank, losing it was a personal disgrace.

(from the Museum Placard) The jewel in the following photograph epitomizes the wealth and outreach of the Spanish Empire in the late sixteenth century and has become an icon for the Armada. Just three of the original nine rubies survive. The jewel takes the form of an exotic animal, either a real Mexican salamander or a mythical creature, and reflects the great importance of the gold and silver brought from the colonies. The gold came from South America, with the rubies probably came from Burma. In legend, the salamander had the twin magical properties of being able to both extinguish and survive fire. This made it a powerful good luck charm on a wooden fighting ship, where fire was one of the greatest dangers.

Odds and ends….

To be continued….. (Click for the first post of this series)

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Copyright 2020 All Rights Reserved Michael Stephen Wills

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