“The 500 peso denomination is not new to Philippine numismatic history,” begins a page in the new book “Yaman: History and Heritage in Philippine Money.” Launched recently by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), the book says there was, at one point, 500 peso Commonwealth Treasury Certificates graced by the mug of Spanish Governor-general Miguel Lopez de Legazpi.
This certificate was followed by the 500 peso banknotes released by the Japanese Occupation government, and the postwar 500 peso denomination which came with a portrait of Philippine President Manuel Roxas. The 500 peso would disappear from circulation for years until its revival in 1987 during the Cory administration. Still being used up to now, the predominantly yellow bill carries Ninoy Aquino’s face resting on his clenched fist as the bill’s central image. It was launched on the fourth anniversary of his assassination.
These and more Philippine money trivia can be found in the 500-pager “Yaman,” a 3.2 kilogram coffee table book considered by its author and researcher Ambeth Ocampo as literally his heaviest book to date. It showcases the numismatic collection of the BSP as photographed by veteran lensman Wig Tysmans, but more than anything it’s a journey back to the country’s history with our many coins and bills as guides.
The book travels to as far back as the time of the barilla, the first coin discovered in the Philippines (also the origin of our term for loose change, “barya”). “While the earliest sample of a barilla minted in Manila is dated to 1728, these seem to have been around way earlier, because they were in use in 1674 based on a list of government regulated prices for food stuff,” says Ocampo when asked about his most interesting discovery while working on the book. “One barilla could either buy either 8 tomatoes or 2 lettuce, 8 eggplants or 12 fresh green cabbage, 4 small cucumbers or 2 big cucumbers, 8 fresh coconuts or 12 dessicated coconuts and so on. More than the prices, the list provides an idea of what was sold in the market in Intramuros at the time, making history much more relevant and a-live!”
The book also talks about piloncitos, considered the earliest form of coinage Filipinos used, the little gold pellets discovered inside a jar excavated in Mandaluyong in 1887. “One or two of these were sent to Rizal who rightly identified them as ancient money of the Philippines,” says Ocampo, considered the country’s foremost expert on Jose Rizal. “It seems they were in use in insular Southeast Asia as I have seen similar samples in museums in Bangkok and Jakarta. These gold pieces predate Magellan's arrival in 1521 and must have been used as money because they come in set sizes, weights, and gold fineness. The baybayin character ‘ma’ is stamped on them leading to many guesses as to its meaning, like MA-i (one of the ancient names for one of the islands, probably Mindoro or Manila) or [e]MAs the Malay word for gold.”
Coin collectors, money geeks and history buffs will enjoy the book. It explains the whys and hows of the images that end up embedded in our money, the transition of one series of designs to the next, and will introduce readers to Melecio Figueroa, the Filipino engraver schooled in Madrid, a noted watch repairman who designed the US Philippine peso called the Conant.
But anyone who transacts in Philippine money should find the book worth the read, and find a new appreciation for our bills and coins at a time when online transactions are taking them farther away from our daily life.
“Money changes hands daily, it is so common , so ‘everyday’ that we see but do not notice them,” Ocampo tells ANCX. “We hardly look at the faces on the coins and banknotes. I want people to give money a second, more nuanced look, and by appreciating the details perhaps realize that they have history in their pockets.”
[Consistent with BSP’s advocacy to promote cultural awareness and bring it closer to the people, complimentary copies will be given to libraries all over the country. The 400-page hardbound book is sold at P6,500. For details, visit www.bsp.gov.ph or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Photos courtesy of Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas