The World of Gerard van Oost and Oludara

Posts Tagged ‘currency’

Weight of money

When it comes to historical fiction, I’m a stickler for details.  One important detail from “The Fortuitous Meeting” is the price Pero de Belem sets on Oludara: 40,000 réis.  Since this detail is so relevant to the story, I performed careful research to make sure I got the number correct, looking up values on old tables.  I used exactly twice the normal value of a slave at the time.  I also researched all the coins in use and decided that Gerard would pay with a hundred gold coins known as the cruzado.

However, I never did look up the weight of the coins.  It wasn’t relevant to the story and I just asumed that a hundred gold coins would have at least a bit of heft.  But I recently discovered how far off my conception of their weight had been.

It all began when I purchased a couple of coins from the time of Gerard and Oludara, to get a feel for money from that time period.  In the picture below, the coin on the left is a five réis copper coin, and the one on the right is a silver vintém, worth 20 réis.  The coins are worn down, but still retain a good part of their original mass.

I was quite surprised by the difference in size and weight of the two coins.  The silver piece, worth four times the value, has only one-fifth the weight.  It weighs around one and a half grams: so light you can hardly tell when you have it in your hand.

So I went and looked up the original weights of coins at the time, and I confirmed that the weight difference was indeed huge.  At the time, the values of the three metals in use (in coinage) were approximately:

Gold = 130.9 réis/gram

Silver = 11.4 réis / gram

Copper = 0.6 réis / gram

So, 40.000 réis of gold would have been a little over 300 grams, or about the weight of a full can of soft drink.  The same in silver would have been 3.5 kilograms or around 8 pounds.  And the same value in copper would have been 71.6 kilos – just a few kilos below my weight!

We’re all familiar with the cliché of the heavy sack of gold, and gold does have around twice the weight of silver and three times the weight of copper.  However, at the same weight it was worth over ten times the value of silver and over 200 times the value of copper!  So the lightest, most efficient way to travel was in fact by carrying gold.  Thus, the concept of the “heavy purse” becomes quite the opposite.  A heavy sack of gold would be an insane fortune, highly unlikely for anyone to carry around in a purse.  A heavy purse would almost certainly be filled with copper.  To put it into perspective, the four gram (0.15 oz.) engenhoso, a piece of gold at the time, was by itself worth around one pound of copper.

In the story, Gerard says “I came running with a sack of gold weighing me down.”  But I suppose that Coke can’s worth of weight probably didn’t slow him down so much after all. 🙂


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.!