Aprils Coin of the Month (Volume 2 Number 8) is an NGC MS-63 1896/5 Guatemala Peso (KM #210)
The 1896/5 Guatemalan Peso is 37 mm in diameter and weighs 25 grams. The silver fineness as engraved on the coins reverse is .900 and the ASW is .7234 oz. The mintage of this coin is 1,403,000. The obverse design is engraved by Jean Lagrange who was the chief engraver at the Paris Mint from 1880-1896. The reverse depicts a representation of the Guatemalan Coat of Arms designed by Swiss artist and engraver, Johan-Baptist Frener. Johan-Baptist Frener lived in Guatemala from 1854 until his death in 1897.
In my research of allegorical coins from around the world, I have often found that the allegories contained thereon are born of an oppressive past. Consequently, the re-occurring images on many of those coins are personifications of Liberty and Justice. Therefore, to understand Guatemalan history is to understand the allegory of the 1896/5 Guatemalan Peso.
Before the Spaniards arrived in Guatemala, it was the ancient home of the Mayan Indians. With the Spanish conquest of Central America beginning in 1519, Captain Pedro de Alvarado under the authority of Hernan Cortes methodically subjugated the Mayans. To make matters worse Captain Pedro de Alvarado had a reputation for being both cruel and ruthless. The Mayans fought bravely for their lands, but their weaponry was no match to that of the Spanish conquistadors. After the final defeat of the Mayan Indians, Pedro de Alvarado became the governor of Guatemala. Subsequently, the entire region from Mexico all the way to Panama became known as New Spain.
If being subjugated to a conquering enemy isnt bad enough, the Spaniards unknowingly brought with them diseases to which they themselves were largely immune. Conversely, the Mayan Indians had no such immunities, and those diseases devastated them. By some estimates, up to 90% of the Mayan population died of smallpox. Because the smallpox epidemic did not seem to affect the Spaniards, the Mayans came to believe that the god of the Spaniards was superior to their gods. This resulted in the rapid growth of the Roman Catholic Church, both in terms of political power and influence, and in an acquiescing of the Central American natives to Spanish rule.
Generally speaking, when the church acquires political power, it opens itself up to corruption. Now I am not against the church spreading the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, but when the church veers from its core mission, it loses credibility and opens itself to corruption. This became evident when under the governance of dictators, the wealthy landowners and the church clergy held all the power, land, and money in Guatemala.
This brings me to the reverse of the 1896/5 Guatemalan Peso and the date on the scroll in the center of the Guatemalan Coat of Arms. That date, 15 September 1821, is the date of Guatemalan independence from Spain. Afterwards, on July 1, 1823, the Federal Republic of Central America consisting of Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras declared their independence from the First Mexican Empire, which had annexed them. The bird perched on the scroll is Guatemalas national bird, the Resplendent Quetzal. This bird is a symbol of liberty because oftentimes the resplendent quetzal will kill itself rather than face capture and captivity. The crossed Springfield Rifles with Bayonets represent the willingness of Guatemala to defend itself. The crossed sabers represent honor, while the laurel wreath symbolizes victory. Interestingly, while governments have come and gone in Guatemala, the coat of arms has remained to this day.
The liberal factions of the new Federal Republic of Central America had hoped that the Republic would bring about democratic reforms. However, the conservative factions allied with the Catholic clergy, and wealthy landowners fiercely resisted efforts at reform. This led to political wrangling and an ensuing civil war between 1838 and 1840. Consequently, the civil war led to the dissolution of the Federal Republic of Central America into its separate states.
Over the course of time and regardless of who was in command, not much has changed for the people of Guatemala. That was until June 30, 1871, when Guatemalas Liberal Revolution toppled the dictatorial government of Vicente Cerna under the command of General Justo Rufino Barrios.
Through the reforms implemented by Justo Rufino Barrios, much of the Catholic Churchs land was seized and the churchs power stripped by expelling the Jesuits and instituting the freedom of religion. Additional reforms led to freedom of the press and compulsory education. Under Justo Rufino Barrios, the economy was reformed enabling it to compete for international trade. The introduction of the telegraph to the country and the building of railroads modernized the infrastructure of Guatemala. In 1879, the Republic of Guatemala implemented its first constitution.
Nevertheless, Justo Rufino Barrios ruled by an open dictatorship only slightly moderated by a constitution that gave him broad executive powers. In the opinion of Justo Rufino Barrios, the native Indian culture had nothing to offer to his modern society, and he despised them. Justo Rufino Barrios also dreamed of restoring the old Federal Republic of Central America back to its original form. However, he died on the battlefield trying to restore the Republic by force, and his vision of a new Central American Republic died with him.
This leads to the significance of the allegory portrayed on the obverse of my 1896/5 peso that has appeared on Guatemalan coinage beginning in 1873. The plinth in the right hemisphere of the obverse represents the Liberal Revolution of June 30, 1871. The broken chains at the base of the plinth represent the breaking of the Conservadoras dictatorial bondage over the people. The seated female personification holding a scale in her left hand supported by the plinth represents Justice. The cornucopia in Lady Justices right hand symbolizes economic prosperity and plenty for all under the justice won through the revolution.
In the end, I wish I could say that the Guatemalans enjoyed peace and prosperity from the revolution onward, but such is not the case. Other dictators rose to power supported by American corporations (the United Fruit Company), and the country suffered under a 36-year civil war (1960-1996). All too often, even our own government has found itself on the wrong side of Guatemalan history. However, this does not diminish the truth of my coins allegory when it is properly applied. Additionally, the churches complicit support of oppressive governments and methods has nothing to do with the Christ of the Bible and does not diminish the truth of the Bible either.
In summary, all those who gloss over or ignore the inconvenient truths of history are doomed to repeat them. The lessons of history are there for all those who have the courage to face the truth.
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