Updated: May 26
This article is published in the 1st issue (Vol. 1, No. 1) of the Bayanihan Collector's Club (BCC) Exposition, page 56-59
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would be able to get hold, handle, examine and much more get a chance to own any of the Carolus Medals issued by the Real Sociedad Economica Filipina De Amigo Del Pais (Philippine Economic Society of the Friends of the Country). I consider this one of the “must-have” medals and any collection of Philippine exonumia cannot be complete without these late 18th century medals. But what lends an aura of mystery to these medals is the lack of information surrounding them. The only piece of work that I came across was written by Dr. Quintin Fortich Oropilla, M.D. for the Philippine Numismatic Monograph issue dated November 1980, more than 40 years ago, and, since then, no one has come up with an updated “information sheet” about these so-called Carolus medals, which, I believe has added to its mystery.
But before we do talk about these medals a bit of history lesson I believe, is in order. In the late 18th century, Spain was at a crossroad. The Spanish Monarch, King Carlos III was faced with the problem of having to deal with declining income that brought Spain to the brink of bankruptcy. Spain needed to increase its income to support its growing population as it had become too dependent on its colonies, one of them being the Philippines. It also didn’t help that the Galleon Trade had begun to slow down with a number of ships either getting shipwrecked, captured, embargoed or even lost between Manila and Acapulco. Thus, there was a need to look for other sources of income to augment its dwindling reserves. There was also a need to stimulate the economic and intellectual development of Spain as a number of Spaniards recognized that Spain began lagging behind other European states, and these individuals made sure the King was made aware of it.
Around this time Don Jose Basco y Vargas began his term as Governor-General of the Philippines. It was obvious that Vargas was faced with a very challenging job in the Philippines as Spain began to feel the heavy burden brought about by the “situado” or cash subsidy that had to be sent periodically from Mexico to meet their expenses in the Philippines. Thus, Vargas may have started feeling the pressure of having to “lighten the load” for his Spanish counterparts back home, most especially his King. (picture of Varga from https://alchetron.com/Jos%C3%A9-Basco-y-Vargas)
According to Oropilla, Vargas wanted to spur economic activity by instituting reforms to free the economy from its dependence on Chinese and Mexican trade. I would assume that he had lobbied this to the King, who was dealing with his own issues and pressures back home not to mention his other colonies around the world. It was against this backdrop that King Carlos III issued a decree on August 27, 1780 creating the Sociedad Economica de Amigos del Pais (Economic Societies of Friends of the Country), and less than a year later the Sociedad in the Philippines was inaugurated. Its main objective was to “develop and promote AGRICULTURAL, COMMERCE, INDUSTRIES, NATURAL HISTORY and POPULAR EDUCATION in the Philippines. It is important to note that this Philippine Economic Society was one of more than 60 set up and created around the world to support the Monarchy of Spain.
Enough of history, let’s get to the juicy numismatic details of the medals. According to Oropilla, a year after the inauguration of the Sociedad in the Philippines four medals were struck in gold (most probably Gilt), silver and bronze by the Mexico mint and were called the INSTITUIDOR BENEFICO MEDALS. These medals were designed and engraved by Geronimo Antonio Gil, a Spanish engraver and administrator of the Royal Mint of Mexico. All four medals had the same obverse paying homage to their monarch with the popular bust of King Carlos III facing right, while the reverse side of the medal represented the themes of the Sociedad it was focusing on, namely:
The chosen design on the reverse was the engraving of a plow superimposed on a plant Oropilla described as a tobacco plant. However, I disagree with this given that the tobacco plant is a more leafy type of plant, as seen from the image on this postcard from the early 1900's below. The image engraved on the medal looks very much like a palm tree. However, I believe Oropilla may have thought it was a tobacco plant because it was one of the more popular agricultural crops at that time. It was the crop that Spain used to establish a monopoly and for the first 50 years of its existence, this monopoly was able to do exactly what it was designed to do and that was to extract maximum return by establishing and maintaining a monopolistic structure in the marketing of tobacco in the domestic market. It is important to note that when Vargas arrived in the Philippines his main objective was to establish "massive growth" of Philippine agricultural export, however it was the domestic market that had blossomed.
The design of the reverse of the medal also had the words PERFECCION AUMENTO (translated as 'Perfection increase')/MANILA/GIL engraved. It measures 48.6mm in diameter and weighs 34.2 grams. It came in gilt, silver and bronze variants, where some medals were supposedly thicker than others. It has been said that the bronze variant is the hardest amongst the 3 variants to acquire, where only 3 specimens have been seen in the wild over the last 10 years. It was also mentioned that some medals may also have been thicker and heavier than the others. There have been claims also of a numerous counterfeits of this medal, given its popularity in the 90's
The next theme that Spain wanted to focus on was COMMERCE and this was represented in the official seal of the Sociedad by an anchor. The medal had the design of a Galleon ship traversing the ocean with the words COMERCIO FILIPINO RENACE, translated as "Philippine Trade Renaissance." The Galleon was the obvious choice to symbolize "commerce" as it played a significant role in turning Manila and Acapulco into centers of the early-modern global economy. Eventually this transpacific commerce marked the beginning of a globalized world economy and it was not only in the field of business where it had a significant effect, but definitely in the "transculturation" of three continents that brought about Spanish Christianity and western thought to Asia. This eventually led to the spurring of consumer interest in Chinese and Asian goods in the Americas and Europe. At the end of the Galleon trade a total of 799 voyages on 181 vessels were undertaken across the Pacific of which 51 galleons were wrecked or lost at sea, 3 were captured by pirates and 2 were embargoed by foreign powers. I think that's a good enough reason to put the image of a Galleon as the symbol of Commerce on this medal.
This particular medal was the largest of the 4 medals at 49.4mm in diameter and was also the heaviest at 44.8grams. According to Honeycutt, in his book "Philippine Medals & Tokens, 1780-2020" this variant came in silver, gilt (bronze), bronze and brass. With the bronze variant being the heaviest and the thickest.
The third theme commemorated in these medals is INDUSTRY. symbolized by a woman seated near a spinning wheel and a man standing beside her holding a basket and offering the woman a package. The words APLICACION AL TRABAJO translated as "application to work" are inscribed on top, with the word MANILA at the bottom. This particular medal not only symbolized the job creation portion of the Sociedad's thrust, but also the symbol of cooperation and harmony. It symbolized the society working together as one to achieve its goals and the important part played by society in spurring economic activity to generate the needed income for a country that is currently in the brink of bankruptcy. If you look closely at the face of the woman seated by the spinning wheel, you would notice that she looks like a girl version of Carolus III, is this a coincidence?....I would think not.
The fourth medal has the theme of VALOR as it depicts a shield on top of two daggers with a ribbon surrounded by a wreath. The dagger and the shield, according to Oropilla signified "royal protection" by the King of Spain. While the the words PREMIO DEL VALOR, translated loosely by Google as "Price of Valor"are inscribed around the reverse of the medal right on top of the wreath. It is important to note that Oropilla mentions that this medal was actually the first medal amongst the 4 issued by the Sociedad and because of the word VALOR, some collectors and numismatists claimed that it was a Military medal awarded for bravery. However, this was far from the truth. Oropilla mentions that if one reviews the Statutes of the Sociedad from 1781 to 1881 it would reveal that military matters were never part of the Sociedad’s concern. In fact, when one thinks about it, one would remember that this was a time when Spain’s focus was to generate income through other alternatives after having to go through the Seven Year’s War (1756-63) that threatened the European balance of power. Military policy was never part of the Sociedad’s plans and the actions of the Sociedad were really more economic than military. In fact, it was established that the Sociedad was very active in exploring and exploiting all the natural resources of the Philippines and it did this by establishing monopolies over some products such as tobacco, explosives, gold, silver etc.
Eventually this confusion on the use of the word valor would change during the reign of Ferdinand VII when a medal was issued and had the legend SOCIEDAD ECONOMICA DE FILIPINAS on its obverse and had the same design on the reverse as the Carolus' Valor medal. This further strengthened the case that the Carlos III PREMIO DEL VALOR medal was indeed an economic one. Eventually, the legend PREMIO EL VALOR would change to PREMIO DEL TRABAJO to assuage any confusion as regards whether it was a military medal or an economic one. The medal featured below was issued in 1880 to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the birth of the Sociedad, and this medal has now been popularly called the "Trabajo Medal."
In summary, as I perused the other readings and discussed with some other collectors about their thoughts and views on these medals, not to mention some observations in the market, which is sometimes the best source of information given the dearth of information, here is what I discovered and realized:
1. It seems the first issue of this medal was with the signature of Geronimo Antonio Gil on the obverse as seen on this example on a picture from the Philippine Numismatic Monograph. As you look below the bust of Carlos III, the signature of the father is written discreetly, though not very obvious on this picture, while succeeding issues of these medals had the signature of “J. Gabriel Gil” or short for Jose Gabriel Gil who was one of two sons of Gil and were known as his “apprentice grabadores” in the Mint of Mexico. I assume that Geronimo Antonio Gil issued the first medals and succeeding orders had the signature of his son. I have not gotten hold of a medal with the signature of the father, and the only sample of the first issue of the medal was this picture used by Oropilla in his article, which was the obverse of the Valor medal.
2. Some of these medals have come up individually in auction houses. In fact, a medal recently came up for sale on Ebay from a British seller but the seller refused to sell the medal internationally and was only willing to deliver the item to anyone in the UK. This was the gilt variant of the Valor medal and it sold for Php22,230 ($444), which, in my opinion is a fluke. Some other auction results resulted in the medals being sold also individually, which didn't really result in the true values of these medal being realized. In my opinion, the true value of these medals lies in the history and stories behind them. On how a country as large as Spain, one who had conquered and colonized most of the world had to do a "hard reset," reflect and was humble enough to admit that there were a lot of things wrong within and they needed to find real solutions to fix these real problems.
3. The real value of these medals is seeing them sit side-by-side in your medal collection display case and realize that they symbolized the solutions that Spain had proposed to carry out in the Philippines, the exploitations made by the Spanish on the Filipino people that occurred when Spain executed this plan and how the lives of many Filipinos were influenced and affected up to this day.
The real value of these medals lies in the Medals being passed down to one's kids maybe even grandkids with all the stories backing them and seeing the look on their faces as they are told about its history. The look of awe, wonder and appreciation for a history so rich and vast; and how that abundant history is encapsulated in 4 silver medals lying in a simple display case in their living room,
But for me the real value of these medals is in my kids knowing how a kind gentleman from Idaho, who married a beautiful Filipina and moved to the Philippines had helped their father acquire these medals so that it could be brought back to the country where it belongs; and whenever they take a look at these 4 medals in their own encapsulated display cases they see that act of kindness that symbolized friendship, trust and most especially mutual respect.
Bayanihan Collector's Club (BCC) Exposition, 1st Issue (Vol. 1, No. 1) page56-59
Oropilla M.D., Quintin Fortich, "The Real Sociedad Economica Filipinas De Amigos Del Pais and its Medals," The Philippine Numismatic Monograph Number 20 (Nov. 1980)
WIKIPEDIA, Sociedad Económica de los Amigos del País https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociedad_Econ%C3%B3mica_de_los_Amigos_del_Pa%C3%ADs
Pelzer, Karl J. "The Spanish Tobacco Monopoly in the Philippines 1782-1883 and the Dutch Forced Cultivation System in Indonesia 1834-1870" https://www.persee.fr/doc/arch_0044-8613_1974_num_8_1_1192
Madrid, Carlos, "Transpacific Maritime Networks and the Manila-Acapulco Galleons, 1565-1815", p273 of "More Hispanic Than We Admit 3, Vibal Publishing 2020
Honeycutt Ph D., Earl D. "Philippine Medals & Tokens (1780-2020)" Mactan Press, 2021