The greatest loss of Spanish treasure happened during storms, the worst of which took place in 1622, 1715, 1733, and 1750. Many of these sunken treasure ships have been salvaged; though some treasure is still unaccounted for.
The Nuestra Señora de Atocha, 1622
The Atocha was late reaching the rest of the fleet in Havana in late 1622; it had taken two months to load the unusually large mule-carried treasure from the Pacific fleet. The convoy, numbering twenty-eight ships, suffered other setbacks, and was not able to depart until September 4, 1622. This put the ships six weeks behind schedule, and in danger of bad weather.
A hurricane struck the Atocha on September 6, and she ran into coral reefs nearly forty miles west of Key West. Her hull crushed, the Atocha sank quickly; only three sailors and two slaves survived. When the remaining ships returned to Havana with news of the wreck, five more ships were sent to salvage the Atocha and another ship of the fleet, the Santa Margarita. While the Santa Margarita had simply run aground, the Atocha was lying on the seabed in over fifty feet of water. An October hurricane complicated the situation, and scattered the wreckage of the Atocha even more. While salvage commenced quickly on the Santa Margarita, the wreck of the Atocha could not be located.
In 1985, American treasure hunter Mel Fisher and his crew found the wreck of the Atocha; however, the sterncastle of the ship was missing. Since the most valuable items would have been stored in this part of the ship, in the captain’s cabin, it is believed that many valuable items are still waiting on the ocean floor.
After a battle with the state of Florida, Fisher was awarded title to the wreck. Many of the coins salvaged from the wreck were minted in gold and silver, between the years of 1598 and 1621; since some of these coin types and dates were rare prior to the salvage, the Atocha has a great deal of historical and numismatic significance.
One last treasure from the Atocha emerged in 2011: divers found an emerald ring that likely came from the treasure hoard of the sunken ship. Its estimated value is $500,000.
The Santa Margarita
Sister ship to the Atocha, the Santa Margarita was part of the doomed fleet of 1622. She carried 166,574 silver peso (the legendary “pieces of eight”) coins, ingots of gold and silver, as well as indigo, copper, and precious jewelry. She was wrecked near the Marqueses Keys, off the coast of Florida.
Salvage operations commenced almost immediately; Spanish captain Gaspar de Vargas sent for pearl divers to search the ocean floor for treasure. Spanish authorities worked salvage operations at the site of the Santa Margarita for years, using slaves in a newly-invented brass diving bell to reclaim the treasure. The first slave to locate treasure from the ship won his freedom. Needless to say, this salvage work killed many men, but was deemed effective by the Spanish government; salvage ship captains simply wrote dead slaves off as a business expense.
While salvage operations continued for several years, eventually the Santa Margarita slipped from memory. However, the records of salvage attempts survived, buried in archives in Spain. A portion of the ship was discovered in 1980, but some of the wreck-and the treasure-remained lost. Recently, the salvage company Blue Water Ventures has begun to recover more of the goods from the bottom of the ocean; it is estimated that they have recovered up to $16 million to date. One extraordinary discovery was a lead box, containing over sixteen thousand natural pearls. Some of the artifacts are on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum in Florida.
The Nuestra Señora de Encarnación
The Encarnación left the port of Cadiz, Spain, in January of 1681, as part of a fleet headed to the New World. In November, the fleet was caught by a storm, near the Chagres River in central Panama. The ships were ordered to weigh anchor in the shallow water; most of the ships survived the storm, but the Encarnación struck rocks, and most of the crew was lost. (While the fleet did arrive at their destination, several ships were lost due to the storm and other circumstances.)
The Encarnación now sits on the ocean floor under forty feet of water; the wreck is incredibly well-preserved, and does not appear to have been plundered or disturbed in over three hundred years. The cargo of the ship includes swords, nails, cloth, horseshoes, and pottery, all bound for the Spanish Main. (To see photos of the shipwreck, visit this National Geographic story.)
The Capitana (El Rubi), flagship of the 1733 fleet, sank off the Florida Keys during a hurricane. Only three men were lost during the storm, and most of the treasure was recovered immediately afterward. The Capitana was the first of the 1733 to be located in 1938; salvage operations have occurred during several periods, with gold recovered as recently as June of 2015.
Treasure Hunting or Looting?
The line between treasure hunting and outright looting can get blurry, especially when the goods of another country are involved. Modern treasure hunting is complicated by the fact that many indigenous peoples have spoken up in defense of cultural treasures taken from their people by invading Europeans. Professional treasure hunters endeavor to make sure that their searches are legal and valid by current law. Some treasure recovery efforts are headed by individuals or very small companies, working in shallow waters without a massive undertaking. Others are large companies funded by investors, or professionals funded by collectors. Treasure hunters must abide by the relevant salvage and antiquities laws. Many modern companies have begun investing in archaeologists and marketing, hoping to placate both preservation concerns and public opinion. While some protest that treasure hunting disturbs the artifacts and destroys archaeological evidence, the companies insist that without their efforts, many artifacts and historical objects would be lost to time and the forces of nature.