Thursday, November 15, 2018
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Looking Back

‘Piloncitos’ and the ‘Philippine golden age’

With state economies in turmoil, those who worry about paper money losing their value have turned to precious metals like gold as a safe haven for part of their portfolio. Those more attuned to the finer things in life park their funds in gold jewelry or antiquities. We must admit that a painting by Amorsolo, Bencab, Luna, Resurreccion Hidalgo, Fabian de la Rosa, Borlongan or Ventura provide more enjoyment than blue chip stocks or cash. Nobody hangs their stock certificates, passbooks and banknotes on a living room wall, and hope to impress. Gold bars or gold certificates, unlike diamonds and Philippine-excavated gold that are classic adornments of the fashionable, can’t be worn.

Pursued by Filipino collectors, coveted by gold speculators, are 19th-century gold coins with the profile of Spanish Queen Isabel II. These are better known as “Isabelinas”; the rarer ones with the profile of Alfonso XII are referred to as “Alfonsos.” These striking gold coins were minted in the Philippines and carry the name “Filipinas” together with the Spanish coat of arms.

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For those with a smaller budget, there are the impressive, silver coins minted in 1897, the tail-end of the Spanish Empire. These carry the profile of the boy-king Alfonso XIII and they are referred to by dealers as “Alfonsinos.” There are even coins that carry the profile of Alfonso XIII as an infant with short hair, which gave rise to a hair-cut style known to pre-war Filipino barbers as the “Alfonsino corto.” Although I do not collect coins and banknotes, I appreciate them as a way of understanding Philippine history.

Paper money is fascinating; as a piece of paper it is almost worthless, unlike gold and silver which are worth their weight. In the past paper money was exchangeable for gold or silver, but today we take its face value on faith in the issuer of the banknote. When does money become money? That is a question we should ask ourselves when we use plastic credit cards or do Internet banking because no physical money changes hands anymore. The world has evolved since the age of barter, when our ancestors exchanged goods for goods, or when gold ling-ling  or  pendants on a Cordillera warrior’s neck was worth a herd of carabaos.  Or when our ancestors paid for goods with  “barter rings” of round and hollow gold referred to as “doughnuts” by antique dealers on account of their shape.

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In September 1887 Jose Rizal sent a package to Ferdinand Blumentritt in Bohemia. The package contained gifts from Calamba: six cigarettes of fine Philippine tobacco; an early Philippine lighter or sulpakan; sampaguita and kamuning flowers to counteract the disagreeable scent of burning tobacco; and a small piece of gold (Stücken) from a hoard that was found in a jar excavated in Mandaluyong. Rizal believed this gold piece was the small change (münzen) of the ancient Tagalogs.

There is little doubt that what Rizal sent is what is now known as a “piloncito.”

Described in some early Spanish chronicles as granitos de oro, the  piloncito got its name from Filipino numismatists who thought these resembled the pilon of sugar. These cone-shaped gold pieces were like small pilones, hence piloncitos. It was a name that stuck even to specimens excavated outside the Philippines.

Piloncitos are small and bead-like pieces of solid gold that, magnified in photographs, look very impressive. They are round and stamped with what looks like the pre-Spanish baybayin character “ma,” leading  historians to guess that it could be short for “Ma-I,” a name used for the Philippines or one of the islands in 10th-century Chinese  chronicles. Another theory is that “ma” was short for “Madjapahit,”  since the piloncitos resemble those excavated in Southern Thailand or those from Indonesia that were recognized as currency in the 10th-11th centuries. It could also mean “e-Mas,” the Malay word for gold; or even “mas,” the standard weight in insular Southeast Asia.

Piloncitos are so small—some are of the size of a corn kernel—and weigh from 0.09 to 2.65 grams of fine gold. Large piloncitos weighing 2.65 g approximate the weight of one mas. Piloncitos have been excavated from Mandaluyong, Bataan, the banks of the Pasig River, Batangas, Marinduque, Samar, Leyte and some areas in Mindanao. They have been found in large numbers in Indonesian archeological sites leading to questions of origin. Were piloncitos made in the Philippines or imported? That gold was mined and worked here is evidenced by many Spanish accounts, like one in 1586 that said: “The people of this island (Luzon) are very skillful in their handling of gold. They weigh it with the greatest skill and delicacy that have ever been seen. The first thing they teach their children is the knowledge of gold and the weights with which they weigh it, for there is no other money among them.”

Dictionaries of Philippine languages compiled by Spanish friars are documents of our ancient golden age. They carry specific words for types of gold with different levels of quality or fineness. Piloncitos must have come in standard weights and sizes, making transactions easier in an age that came long before the advent of coins and paper currency. Piloncitos, if you can find them, make solid investments today, as a tangible marker of ancient civilization and history, and for its metal value.

Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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TAGS: banknotes, featured columns, History, opinion, Philippine coins, piloncitos
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