The Real (plural “réis”) was the standard unit of currency in Brazil from the first landing of the Portuguese in 1500 until the transition to the Cruzeiro in 1942.  It was quite a stable monetary system when compared to currencies in modern Brazil, which switched a shocking seven times during the twentieth century!

So, at the time Gerard van Oost and Oludara visited Brazil in the late sixteenth century, the Portuguese real was firmly established as the principal currency.

However, actual coinage in Brazil was scarce at the time.  So rare, in fact, that in 1614, the Governor of Brazil decided to use sugar as valid coinage!  This lack of money occurred because the Portuguese crown did not allow minting coins in Brazil until 1694.  Ironically, the Dutch were the first to mint coins in Brazil, during the time of their colony in Recife (1630-1654).  These coins became known as Brazilian Florins (or Ducats):


(Image: Museu Histórico Nacional)

To compensate for the lack of coinage, coins from all over the world entered circulation, though most came from Portugal, Spain, and their colonies.  So during the sixteenth century, people were using coins all the way from the copper Ceitil (worth only one-sixth of a real) to the huge golden Português (4000 réis!), both shown below (not to scale):


(Image: Banco Central do Brasil)


(Image: Museu Histórico Nacional)

The Portuguese were meticulous record keepers, using réis for all their accounting.  To write values above one-thousand, the “$” was used, so twenty thousand reís would be written as 20$000.  And in Renaissance Europe, royal bookkeeping often required numbers in the millions, which were known as “contos” of réis.  These numbers used a colon to separate the millions, so 2:000$000 would be two-million réis or two “contos de réis”.

The real is also the name of Brazil’s currency today (since 1994), although it now uses the plural “reais” instead of the old form of “réis”.

In “The Fortuitous Meeting”, the slave trader Pero de Belém offers to sell Oludara for forty thousand réis (40$000), around double the normal price of a slave at that time, and more than all but the affluent could afford.  For comparison, the Governor’s personal guards at the time earned just 6,000 réis a year!  You’ll have to read the story to find out how Gerard manages to attain such an exhorbitant sum and help his friend.

Note: This post is dedicated to M. G. Ellington, a huge supporter of the Elephant and Macaw Banner series, and the first person to comment on the website. Thanks, M. G.!

2 Responses to “Réis”

  1. MG Ellington

    Thank you so much for this. It was a terrific post. I was an accounting major. This is the sweet spot! Nicely done.

  2. Christopher Kastensmidt

    Thanks, MG! Glad you liked it!

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