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History in our wallets

/ 12:22 AM January 22, 2016

Once I gave my students a quiz that required them to list, in order of monetary value, the names of the people featured on our coins and bank notes. The instruction seemed simple enough, except that they were not allowed to open their wallets and examine what they had. Lesson of the day: We often go through life seeing things but hardly noticing them.

After a few minutes I allowed the students to check out the money they had on them, and asked if there was a rationale behind the choice of person for either coin or bank note. Was there a pattern? Then there was the issue of relevance and value: Jose Rizal is on the P1 coin, while Ninoy Aquino is on the P500 bill. Does this mean that Ninoy is more important than Rizal?

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I wonder how a grandstanding politician would fare in that quiz. This politician wanted to conduct an inquiry in order to compel the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas to explain why the P100 and P1,000 bills had a similar color that led to some confusion. While it is true that some people determine the value of bank notes according to their color, one would think that the value of the note in words and figures is clear enough to most people. Even if you are illiterate, you can still differentiate between the two because the P100 bill has one image on it and the P1,000 bill has three! If you know some history, you will recognize Roxas on the P100 bill and the trio of Abad Santos, Lim and Escoda on the P1,000 bill.

I remember that when I was a boy, our family driver was a magnet for kotong  (mulcting) cops: He would be pulled over for some real or imagined traffic violation and, after some discussion, the exchange would be concluded with the cop asking who his lawyer was: “Sino ba ang abogado mo?” To which the driver would reply “Quezon” (P20) or “Osmeña” (P50).

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I am told that inflation has made the Commonwealth Duo, even in combination, useless against  kotong  cops. Who is the streetside “lawyer” of choice today? That I need to find out.

My long and happy association with the Numismatic Committee of the Bangko Sentral taught me two things: First, I learned to pay attention to bank note design, paper, and security features; second, I learned to appreciate the hard work that goes into the production of each bank note that most people take for granted.

Have you ever wondered, for example, why our bank notes come in different cheerful colors while the US dollar denominations are all in green? One side of the euro has doors and windows while the reverse has bridges. If you look closely at the design of these doors, windows and bridges, you will be educated on the chronology of architectural styles from the ancient to the modern periods. You look at the euro and presume that these doors, windows and bridges are to be found somewhere in Europe, but actually, for the sake of unity, the European Union chose to keep things generic and avoided landmarks identified with certain countries—to cite some examples, the rose windows of Chartres, the Brandenburg Gate, or London Bridge. The euro is amazing because the images on it are all made up; they do not exist.

If Asean adopts a common currency, what image would be relevant to all the member-states? I think it would be rice.

We know our money has a long history stretching back to the 10th century because of the Laguna Copper Plate Inscription, a piece of copper incised with ancient Javanese characters that document a transaction in gold, the payment of a debt. I would have wanted the earliest written document in Philippine history to be a fragment of a poem or epic. I wished that our earliest writing had something to do with literature or history, but our ancestors were more pragmatic: They left us with a receipt that gives us important clues into the social and economic life in 10th-century Philippines.

As it is now, gold was used as an indicator of trade and social class in pre-Spanish times. Archeological evidence reveals that early money took the form of small gold pellets. These were known in numismatic circles as “piloncitos” and stamped with the pre-Spanish character for “ma,” which some historians claim was short for “Ma-yi,” one of the ancient names of one of the islands in an archipelago that is now the modern Philippines.

These piloncitos have also been found in archeological sites in Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of insular Southeast Asia, suggesting a currency that was in use before the coming of the Westerners in the 16th century. It is significant that the character “ma” stamped on the piloncitos could mean “mas,” short for “emas,” the Malay word for gold. (If you want to be dazzled by ancient gold, visit the Ayala Museum and BSP Museum collections and take pride in what was literally a Golden Age. Unfortunately, the usual follow-up question to the visit is: If our ancestors were so rich in the past, why are we poor today?)

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Then the Spanish came to our shores, and the Manila galleons connected the world through the exchange of goods in the ports of Manila and Acapulco. For centuries the Spanish silver dollar, a beautiful coin better known as the pirates’ “pieces of eight” (ocho reales), was universally accepted just as the US dollar is today. Gold coins were first minted in Manila in 1859. This piece of information reminds us of a time when coins literally had metal value, unlike the present coins in fractions of a peso that most Filipinos consider a nuisance. There is a lot of history in our wallets waiting to be appreciated.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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