Mountain men and the Counterfeit Coins

Igorrotes coing their own currency

This intriguing photograph was posted by Pepito Achicocho on the excellent Philippine-American War facebook page with the caption:”General view of an Igorrote counterfeiting outfit – Man in centre operating bellows, man on left filling crucible-mould with broken copper, and man on right breaking copper into fragments.” (Leslie’s Weekly).

Later, trawling through Insular accounts, reports and Jenks’s The Bontoc Igorot I found the rest of the story.

Igorots and other Cordilleran mountain people don’t get nearly as much attention as they should. Other than their reluctant participation in the Battle of Caloocan, which they were conned into participating, mentions of them as Aguinaldo and later Funston, passed through the mountains on the way to Palanan, and photographs of them demonstrating their culture  at exhibitions in the US – usually accompanied by lot of lowlander comments tutting because the Igorrotes weren’t dressed like Spaniards, and, of course, their habit of taking heads, they tend to be very much in the background. That means that many aspects of their lives go under the radar of history.

The Igorots were never conquered, at least by force of arms and play little role in history teching in the Philippines. As William Henry Scott observed in his paper Igorot Responses to Spanish Aims: 1576 to 1896:

“Modern writers of the Republic of the Philippines have been almost as slow as their Spanish predecessors to give credit to the Igorots for this defense of their territory, and lecturers in college classrooms in the nation’s capital have been known to dismiss the accomplishment as a simple accident of geography or international politics-that is, that it was too much trouble for the Spaniards to invade the rugged mountains or that they didn’t want to do so in the first place. The idea that the Spaniards did not want to invade Igorot territory is flatly contrary .to the historic record. ”

They didn’t even surrender to the Americans, as Frank Jenista shows in his The White Apos, the Igorots and the Americans came to a mutually beneficial understanding.

In fact, when threatened by Spanish forces the Igorots said the equivalent of “Hold my tapuy” and gave the invader a good thumping.

That is why few people are aware that Igorots had their own currency for many years — discs of copper, called sipen, made from almost pure ore found in the region which was smelted and formed into coinage.  The exchange rate was 80 sipen to the peso.

Low value copper Spanish coins did not make it into the Cordilleras so the Igorots, being a resourceful people, made their own, pressing a rare Spanish coin into clay to make a crude die, each coin requiring a new die.

One thinks of these mountain people only trading the gold from nearby mines, the same mines this copper came from. That appears to be, as some of my Filipino friends say, a wrong mistake.

These copper coins found their way throughout Northern and Central Luzon and farther afield. In other words, they had their own currency that was widely used and accepted. This is not what one expects of a tattooed people who walk around in breech-cloths. In fact, this suggests that the supposedly primitive people of the mountains had a rather more sophisticated economy than most give them credit for.

The 1902 Census observed the following:


In 1905 the Insular government decided to take the coins out of circulation since it could not control their value. Orders went out to buy up these copper disks, and copper coin that belonged to no particular country, for 40 centavos a pound avoirdupois. That specification was probably because gold, which Igorotes mined, was sold by the Troy ounce.

Unfortunately, we don’t know the weight of the individual coins but over a four and a half month period, the Insular treasury bought almost fifteen and a half tonnes of them at a little more than six thousand pesos. that is around $90,000 dollars today.

All in small change.

Sadly, no known examples of the coin appear to exist. If I was going to search, I’d be looking for antique Ifugao costumes where they may have been used as decorations.

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4 thoughts on “Mountain men and the Counterfeit Coins

  1. Im a professional historian mainly of Africa but now living in Philippines. Studying Philippines history now.

  2. Very interesting read. It’s only now that I’ve learned about this coin. Would you have details, like size (is it the same size as the two-quarto coins?) and how the coin looks like (are they plain copper disks)?

    1. Unfortunately I’ve never seen one, all I have is what is in the post. I think the only place one might find one is on heirloom clothes.

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