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A Chattel Coin from the Plantation Era

Contributed by Lynn Lockhart

Among the most important of these coins were the Portuguese Johannes and moidore (more formally, the moeda d’ouro) and the Spanish dollar and pistole. The Johanneses were gold coins, 8 escudos (12,800 reis) in denomination; their name derived from the obverse of the coin, which bore the bust of Johannes V. Minted in Portugal and Brazil they were commonly known in the colonies as “joes.” The fractional denominations were 4 escudo and 2 escudo coins of the same origin. The 4 escudo (6,400 reis) coin, or “half joe,” was one of the most commonly used coins in the late colonial period.

There is a conversion table on that page from 1771.

Thank you, Lynn. This is a priceless—of course the pun is intentional—resource on this matter. Below is but one paragraph that indicates the confused monetary landscape in Plantation America. Later on the authors go on to note that P. T. Barnum once had difficulty purchasing a piece of fruit, as he was operating on a Connecticut pence and the seller on a New York pence, scale, respectively.

"The units of account in colonial times were pounds, shillings, and pence (1£ = 20s., 1s. = 12d.).1 These pounds, shillings, and pence, however, were local units, such as New York money, Pennsylvania money, Massachusetts money, or South Carolina money and should not be confused with sterling. To do so is comparable to treating modern Canadian dollars and American dollars as interchangeable simply because they are both called “dollars.” All the local currencies were less valuable than sterling.2 A Spanish piece of eight, for instance, was worth 4 s. 6 d. sterling at the British mint. The same piece of eight, on the eve of the Revolution, would have been treated as 6 s. in New England, as 8 s. in New York, as 7 s. 6 d. in Philadelphia, and as 32 s. 6 d. in Charleston (McCusker, 1978)."

Contributed by the Author

Below is a repost of the monetary table from So His Master May Have Him Again.

What You Bought Your Boys With

18th Century Currency & Coinage and Un-Free Labor Costs

-Pence [English, penny] 12 = 1 shilling

-Shilling [English] = 1 day’s wage

-Dollar [Spanish, silver peso “piece of eight”] = 4 shillings & 6 pence

-Pistole [Spanish, gold dabloon] = 18 shillings

-Pound [English] = 20 shillings

-Guinea [English, coin] = 21 shillings

The pound was a unit of measurement and was not represented by a minted coin, making the pistole the defacto capital coin, although the guinea was used as a pound coin, though it was rare in the colonies.

The colonial administrations of the Plantation provinces were not permitted to coin their own currency.

The pistole was the primary medium of exchange in Virginia from 1700-1750. Usually a century old Spanish coin, but sometimes a French gold louis d'or, minted in the late seventeenth century, it was highly sought.

The term "shill" as in a paid advocate, comes, ultimately, from the shilling.

Three shillings were sometimes termed a “bob”

Servant Cost

-A shilling was the basic value of a laborer's day wage at the beginning of the period in the 1600s.

-The purchase price of a servant was a median of 15 pounds, or 300 shillings.

-The reward price of a servant ranged from 20 to 200 shillings [up to 5 pounds]

-A servant served for 7 years, for just over 300 days per year, including Sabbaths and holidays, bringing 3,500 days of labor to his owner.

-A man who buys a servant to ditch for 7 years would typically pay 300 shillings.

-A man who paid a ditcher by the day would expend 3,500 shillings over the same period.

-If a free man hired a ditcher and competed with a servant speculator for a ditch-digging contract, his single day laborer would cost him more than a servant speculator's crew of 10!

-Peter Williamson was sold for 16 pounds.

-African slaves sold for 25-100 pounds, with a median that seemed to be about 50, or 2,000 shillings, meaning a slave owner would have a hard time competing with a servant speculator but would still have much cheaper labor than a contractor paying a free wage laborer.

-The problem with servant speculation was runaways, expressed in reward costs and newspaper subscriptions, if the servant was recovered, which was paid for by the servant, who had time added to his term to compensate.

-Ultimately, the prime factors that turned the elite from servant speculation to slave owning were: homebred slaves cost nothing, then lived at the place of their birth, making them less likely to flee than the kidnapped, convicted and indebted servants who had preceded them.

Food is not calculated in the labor comparisons. However, servants and slaves usually ate nothing but water and corn, and were therefore more cheaply fed than cattle.

So Her Master May Have Her Again

A History of Runaway White Slaves in Plantation America: Part Two

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LynnAugust 6, 2017 12:39 PM UTC

It should be noted that the first paragraph from me above is a quote from the linked Economic History Encyclopedia article.