Archive for March, 2017

A VISIT TO THE MINT AT LIMA, PERU IN 1805 – PART I

Posted on March 17, 2017 by No Comments

1805 PERU 8 Reales

PERU 1805-JP 8 REALES
PCGS MS63

In 1817, Captain Amasa Delano published a book titled “A Narrative Of Voyages and Travels, In the Northern And Southern Hemispheres: Comprising Three Voyages Round The World; Together With A Voyage of Survey And Discovery, In The Pacific Ocean And Oriental Islands.” Delano described his extensive voyages aboard the American ship Massachusetts as it traveled around the world. For general readers, this is a detailed description of Delano’s voyages to parts of the world that were mostly unknown at the time. Numismatists will be particularly intrigued by Delano’s visit to the Mint at Lima, Peru in 1805. Thanks to special access, Delano provided insider details of the Mint and its procedures.

Ken Bressett referred to the Delano story in Bowers & Borckardt’s 1993 reference book on U.S. Silver Dollars, where he pulled in a portion of the narrative relative to the use of silver plugs to raise underweight planchets to the required legal standard. However, there is a lot more to the story.

Original copies of the Delano book are quite rare. Fortunately, several modern reprints can be found on sites such as AbeBooks.com for as little as $13 plus shipping. Even better, digital copies of the original are available for free at Google Books.

This installment presents the first half of Delano’s mint visit (his story appears in the highlighted text blocks below):

The next curiosity here, that is worthy of mentioning, is the mint; which I visited and was shown every thing worth my attention in it. Two or three gentlemen accompanied me to see it, first having sent to know when we could be admitted, and the answer being returned appointing the day.

The Spanish King, Philip II, established a mint at Lima, Peru in 1565 by royal edict.  In 1568, production began of silver “cobs” (crudely shaped coins cut from the ends of silver ingots).  In 1659, the Lima Mint added gold “escudos” to their lineup.  By 1805, Spanish colonial coins were made of a more uniform size and they bore the portrait of the King (as seen on the 8 Reales illustrated above).

When we went we were received with every degree of attention that could be shown. The master or conductor went with us over all parts of it, and shewed [sic] us all that was worthy of seeing, and explained every thing to my satisfaction. The building forms a square, one part of it fronting on the street. It has a strong wall on all sides of it, which forms a large square that is about one hundred and fifty feet each way. The gate is in the middle of the front side. We entered a row of buildings on the left hand after passing through the gate, in which the process of refining and separating the ore is performed; and as we proceeded on the left hand side, we came to where they were melting and casting gold and silver in iron moulds. It was cast in a proper shape to be drawn down cold. The process with the gold which was performed in my presence, was by bruising the ore fine with mauls, and then wetting it with some liquid, and working it over in the same manner as lime mortar is prepared in this country. This is done on the floor of the room, which was all paved with smooth stones, or bricks. This labour is done by negroes, who tread it over with their feet and kneed it like dough…

The implication here is that Peru used slaves to produce coins.  The U.S. Mint, from its establishment in 1792, relied entirely on paid laborers.

…after which they put quick silver amongst it, as I was informed, which separates the ore from the other metals that are mixed with it. It had the appearance as they worked it, of yellow mortar, or dough. After it was separated, it was cast into ingots or bars. The silver is separated previous to its being brought to the mint, and cast into pigs that weigh from eighty to one hundred and sixty pounds each. Many tons of these bars I saw piled up like cord wood.

There was another method by which I saw them separate gold dust (so called,) which is by putting it into a little trench, that runs through one part of the mint. It is made serpentine, and is about one foot wide and two feet deep, with a little descent. Its sides and bottom are made as smooth and even as possible with stone and lime cemented together. In each of the turns of this trench a small ragged iron wheel is sunk, like the sunk wheel of a watch, in the cement at the bottom of the trench. This wheel has a shaft, or spindle in the middle, which comes above the top of the trench, and has another wooden horizontal wheel on the top of this spindle; to which were fixed bands that were brought from the barrel of a large wheel, which being put in motion moved all the small ones. The gold dust, sand, and all together as it was taken up, was put into the upper part of the trench, and a gate hoisted that set the large wheel going which moved the horizontal sunk wheels. The water running likewise through the trench carried the dust down, and at every sunk wheel it got a scouring; and by the time it had passed through the trench, the sand and other particles of matter lighter than gold were swept away, and the gold dust left in the basins formed for the ragged wheels to move in.

This sounds a lot like the way gold is processed in the field by modern mechanical devices (see the popular TV series “Gold Rush”).  At Lima, this would been a big operation that required a lot of labor and a reliable source of significant amounts of water.

The next process is the melting of the metal. The method for this was to have crucibles made of a kind of clay which will stand fire. These are made in the form of a tub as large as aa half hogshead, with the top a little contracted, which were suspended by axles fixed to their sides, and placed in a frame similar to the method that blacksmiths hang their bellows; by which means they can tip them backwards and forwards. They then have an iron crutch, or brace, which hooks into two eyes like crane eyes, put into the side of the crucible for the purpose of commanding it. The crucibles are filled with charcoal, after a fire being kindled in them, and two or three hundred weight of gold or silver put on the coals. Two large bellows of a curious construction, worked by hand, were brought up to the front of the crucibles, and their pipes introduced into two holes made for that purpose, which blows the fire with great force. The fire is constantly fed with coals until the ore is sufficiently melted for casting. Whilst it is running into the moulds, it cannot be destinguished [sic], the gold from the silver, both being all red as blood. When the ore is sufficiently heated, the bellows is moved back by means of something similar to cogs or rollers; the crucible is then tiped [sic] backward, on account of the holes made for the bellows pipes, until the metal rises above the top of a little spout like that of a pitcher, but it will not run until it is touched with a small stick with a piece of cloth round the end of it and moistened with some kind of oil; this when touched to the spout where it is wanted the metal to run from, will flash in a blaze like powder, and immediately the ore will run in a small stream not much larger than a pipe stem, into moulds cut in small flat iron bars, about twenty inches long, one inch and a quarter wide, and half an inch deep, with wooden handles to them. After the ore is drawn off in this way in bars, according to the dimensions of the mould, they are taken to a room further to the right in which the grand water works are fixed; in this room were more than ten pairs of rollers arranged very much like those that sugar cane is run through in the West Indies, made horizontal, and gradually decreasing in space. The bars of gold and silver are run through between these rollers, from one to the other, until they are laminated to near the thickness of a dollar, and the gold to that of a doubloon, having by that time the requisite width. By the time they are nearly reduced to a right thickness they are more than four feet long, the silver having a similar appearance to iron hoops. They are then taken to another room still to the right, and run through a plate which brings them to an exact thickness, at which time they are wide enough to cut out the dollar. After this they are passed under a sharp steel trepan of a roundish figure, hollow within, and of proportionable diameter to shape and cut the piece at the same time.

The “trepan” (from the Spanish “trepanar – to create a hole) was used to produce blank planchets of a uniform diameter.  If the thickness of the silver or gold strips were exact, each planchet produced using this method would be of consistent weight.  However, such technical perfection eluded the Mint, as will be shown in the discussion of silver pins and plugs in the next installment.

This instrument is fixed at the lower end of a screw which is made with a very large worm; this causes it to descend very forcibly, and when the laminated bar is held under it, every time the screw is turned it comes down and cuts a piece out of the silver the exact size of a dollar; but when a gold laminated bar drawn to a proper thickness, is placed under it, the screw is supplied with another instrument to pierce out a piece the exact size of a doubloon.

The next (and final) installment of Delano’s narrative will include details of actual coin production at Lima.

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