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In the 16th century, Europeans believed in the legend of El Dorado – that a wealthy tribe existed in the Andes, in what’s now South America, which had fabulous amounts of gold and jewels.
Spanish explorers took the tale seriously and launched expeditions to find the treasure. Although there was no fabled El Dorado, after Spain conquered the Inca and Aztec empires, they found their new territories in the Americas were awash in silver.
The colonisers soon began extracting the metal using a labour force of indigenous people and African slaves, who mined 100,000 tons from the 16th to 19th centuries. Silver coins and bullion were first exported to Spain, and from there to other parts of the world.
“A large quantity of silver flew out of Spain, so much so that Spain did not remain the biggest beneficiary of the New World silver,” said Najaf Haider, a professor of medieval and early modern history at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “And it gravitated towards areas which were highly commercialised, where there were goods and services. And I would consider Mughal India to be a very important zone towards which these coins gravitated.”
One of the most powerful economies in the world, Mughal India received the majority of Spanish American silver. Haider estimates India received about 60 percent of the silver from the New World, importing more than 120 metric tons every year.
As the world’s “sink pit of silver,” the Mughal Empire re-minted all the imported coins. Skilled artisans melted and refined them, and then handstruck new coins, which were called silver rupiah.
They were used as currency not just by India’s emperors, traders and merchants, but also by foreign powers trading along the Silk Route and in the Indian Ocean world. Hoards of silver coins have been discovered in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
And one hoard was found at the bottom of the sea off the coast of Sri Lanka in the 1960s. To hear the unusual story of its discovery and its links with noted science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, listen to Episode 7 of the Scrolls & Leaves podcast. Listen using the audio player, and subscribe here. Please be sure to wear your headphones because the episode is produced in immersive audio – sound comes at you from 360 degrees.