Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Numismatic Symbolism: Around The World From 80 Countries

Recently I was watching the PBS show on Great Civilizations of Africa and one of the experts noted that although coins are small, they can tell us a lot about their place of origin. Coins from Central America tell us something of the history of the region.

Between 1510 and 1540, conquistadors claimed the lands of Central America for Spain.  To administer these territories, the Spanish government established the Kingdom of Guatemala and appointed a governor and other officials.  Both El Salvador and Nicaragua were part of this area, along with of modern-day Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and the Chiapas area of Mexico. Spanish became the official language and is used on both coins featured here. 

The Kingdom of Guatemala was never as prominent as Mexico or Spain's South American colonies which had larger deposits of precious metals, less rebellious natives, and more European settlers. Exports were primarily cacao and indigo and animal skins.   Over time, conflicts with Spain over its colonial policies led to revolts in both Mexico and South America. The Kingdom of Guatemala followed its neighbors by declaring its independence from Spain.  The date of that declaration, September 15, 1821 appears on both the Salvadorian and Nicaraguan coins.

Both coins also feature a cap perched atop a pole.  This cap, known as a Phrygian cap, was worn by ancient Roman slaves after they had been emancipated. After Julius Caesar was assassinated, those responsible marched out with one of these caps atop a spear, indicating freedom from Caesar's rule.  The cap on a pole then became a symbol of liberty and was used as such during both the American and the French Revolutions.  The Phrygian cap appears on some 19th century U. S. coins and was emulated in the coats of arms and coins of both Central American countries. 

Volcanos are prominent features of the landscape in this area.  The coin from El Salvador features one while that of Nicaragua shows five.  The five volcanoes also represent the five Central American nations which, after independence, joined together to form the Federated Republics of Central America (also known as the United Provinces of Central America) before separating in 1840.  Salvadorian coins from later years also feature five, not one, volcanos celebrating this common history. 

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

Note: These coins are two of the many artifacts in the Benton County Historical Society artifact collection which fits the theme of the 2017 “Around The World From 80 Countries” exhibition but are not currently on public display.

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