Sunken treasure in Corregidor
Browsing through antique shops, malltiangge and swap meets in search of old books, I come across a lot of Philippine stamps and coins that served to start up many collectors who later branched out into: phone cards, paintings, action figures, movie memorabilia, colonial furniture, or jewelry. There is no limit to what one can collect because in the Bayanihan Collectors Club you will meet people who collect old maps and Spanish-era gold and silver coins under the same roof as those who get their kicks from collecting bottle caps and cigarette wrappers. Two weeks ago at the Bayanihan Collectors Club’s quarterly auction, I came across porn magazines (straight and gay) published in Manila in the 1960s and 1970s when “bomba” could mean: literally a bomb, or an exposé in the Senate, or porn. These magazines are quite rare, having survived confiscation and public burning to please the Church and people of high morals. The regular campaign against printed porn also served to distract the public from politics or issues against the government. When placed in its historical context, every old item, including used porn, has a story to tell.
Coins have a lot of history in them, and if they are made of precious metal like gold or silver, they are worth something even if they are old and demonetized. Some people keep coins for metal value, others keep them for historical or sentimental value. A few gather 13 pieces and use them as “arrhae” or “arras” at weddings.
Because of my interest in Spanish Philippines I have picked up some silver coins over the years to let my students handle something really old, like the “Pillar Coins,” referred to in Pinoy coin circles as “Dos Mundos.” These remind me of pirate treasure from storybooks and films I saw as a boy—the “pieces of eight” (real de ocho or peso de ocho) coveted by Captain Hook and other villains. Then there was the last silver coin minted in Spain for the Philippines in 1897. It is a large and heavy coin with a portrait of the boy-king Alfonso XIII, but what makes this significant for a historian is the back that states its value (“Un peso”) and where it was to circulate (“Islas Filipinas”). By the time the coin was made the Philippine Revolution was on, and Spain would later sell the Philippines to the United States after the Spanish-American War.
American-period silver coins used in the Philippines I did not need to collect because I found a number of these in my mother’s drawer. She kept them for their metal value, but I liked them because of the sensuous image of Filipinas whose sexy body was emphasized under a flimsy dress blown by the wind. Filipinas strikes an anvil with a hammer and Mayon Volcano can be seen in the background, smoke spewing from its perfect cone. On the face the coin states “One Peso Filipinas” but on the reverse it says “United States of America.” Some of these Philippine silver pesos can be found in antique shops, some in bunches encrusted with coral or shell that come with a fantastic story.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 8, 1941, followed by the invasion of the Philippines, arrangements were made to move such valuables as gold bullion, silver pesos, bank notes, official US documents, and Philippine securities to a safe place—Corregidor. I haven’t verified the story yet, but it is said that the US Treasury had worried about the capture by the Japanese of: 1,330 kilos of gold bars, P16.5 million worth of silver coins, and P70 million in bank notes. So in February 1942 the US submarine Trout, which delivered ammunition to the Philippines, took on its return to the United States all the gold and 18 tons of silver valued at $360,000. The bank notes were destroyed, leaving the American defenders in Corregidor with 350 tons of silver pesos estimated to be worth P15,792,000. The solution to the problem was to simply dump these into Carballo Bay on the southern part of Corregidor in numerous wooden crates, each of which contained P6,000 (in three cloth bags each filled with P2,000).
This was a major operation and was known to the Japanese, who then forced Filipino and American divers to undertake salvage operations. We do not know how much the Japanese were able to recover using the uncooperative divers who kept part of the loot themselves. It is said that the Japanese got about P2 million worth, leaving much more underwater for the Americans to recover nearly P5 million between May 1945 and April 1946. Enterprising Pinoys came up with an additional P6,532,297.
It was estimated that by 1958, around 75 percent of the total, or some P12 million, had been salvaged. Where did the rest go? Now that is the fascinating story that comes with some of the eroded or coral-encrusted silver coins displayed in antique shops today.
Many of my students are too young to remember the days when fractional currency, the coins we call “barya,” could actually buy something. These days we usually deal with coins in denominations of P10, P5, and P1. We consider those small fractional coins a nuisance; thus, they are kept at home and do not circulate. Some establishments replace these coins with candy, some don’t even care to hand them out, giving new meaning to the term “short-changed.”
Coins can tell us a lot if we examine the images and texts on them.
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