Cuban colonists traded bootlaces for gold
Campaign News | Monday, 9 October 2006
Monday October 9, 2006
The people of El Chorro de Maita, a fishing and farming village on the east coast of Cuba, were buried with their greatest treasures: jewellery made of stone, coral, pearl, gold and silver alloy, and odd little tube shaped metal beads. Meanwhile the first Europeans to make contact with the island were sailing home, well pleased with their barter: they'd swopped their bootlaces for pure gold.
Details of one of the meanest bargains in history have emerged after 500 years, in the laboratories of the Institute of Archaeology in London.
The cemetery, dating from the decades after Christopher Columbus's fleet first made landfall in 1492, was excavated 20 years ago - and has become an eerie tourist attraction, with the mouldering skeletons replaced by plaster casts exactly as they were found - but the origin of the heavily corroded little metal tubes found scattered all over the bones remained mysterious.
It was only when Cuban government archaeologist Roberto Valcarcel Rojas brought them with him to the Institute that they were finally identified: they were the cheapest scraps of metal the Europeans would have had with them, the little brass tags from the ends of the laces which tied their boots and fastened different pieces of clothing together.
The Europeans must have been happy to go home with their trousers tied up with string. Jago Cooper, an Institute archaeologist working with the international group studying frequently disastrous first encounters between the west and Cuba, has worked out the rate of exchange from contemporary documents: one lace tag for nine grams of pure gold.
The Cubans had pure gold - though probably panned from streams, not in the rich mines the Europeans hoped for - but apparently valued it less than Guanin, a gold, silver and copper alloy, which had spiritual as well as material significance. But they had no brass, a zinc copper alloy which they called Turey, and apparently loved for its cold smell and shimmer, which to them had qualities of the sky and rain. The Europeans would have had no idea humble brass had such value, and wouldn't have brought it to trade, so they eagerly swopped whatever they had.
The group will publish its findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science next month, including the full analysis of the metals suggesting the brass had already found its way from Nuremberg in Germany to Spain before being carried to the New World.
The prosperous El Chorro de Maita settlement seems to have died out a few decades after the first western contacts. The traditional explanation is that indigenous populations were decimated by imported diseases to which they had no resistance. Jago Cooper has doubts: "I wonder if the common cold from Europe isn't often just a convenient excuse - I wonder if the Europeans didn't just kill them all."