The Treasure Fleet That Ruled the World

 

Locations like the Caribbean and the Spanish Main can bring to mind romantic images of clear blue waters, chests of gold, and massive ships loaded with treasure. These waters were once part of some of the busiest trade routes in the world.

 

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From the 1500s through to the early 1800s, fabulous amounts of wealth passed through the Spanish Main on its way to Spain: gems, precious metals, spices, hides, and other items were loaded onto the ships from all over Mexico, and Central and South America. Trade ships from the Far East delivered their goods to Acapulco, which were then brought across the mainland to the Pacific ports.

 

The Silver Fleet

The Spanish empire established the silver fleet (a common nickname for the Spanish treasure fleet) to act as a convoy between Spain and the New World from 1566 to 1790. Despite the romantic name, the fleet carried an assortment of goods, including precious metals, but also lumber, pearls, sugar, tobacco, and other goods the Empire needed. People and goods went the other way, too; by 1500, there were up to 1000 Spanish settlers in Hispaniola, and the numbers continued to grow as trade increased.

 

1280px-16th_century_Portuguese_Spanish_trade_routesWhile many ships and explorers had ventured to and from the New World, the Spanish fleet maintained the first permanent trade route across the Atlantic.The convoy system was established in response to French privateers sacking the city of Havana in the 1560’s. The route over the Atlantic, sailed by the Caribbean Spanish West Indies Fleet (Flota de Indias), departed from Seville and stopped at ports like Veracruz, Cartagena, and others, before rendezvousing in Havana to make the journey back to Spain. The Pacific route, sailed by the Manilla Galleons (Galeón de Manila), joined the Philippine Islands to Acapulco. From there, the goods were loaded onto mules and taken overland to the Atlantic ports to be shipped to Spain.

 

Pirates and Privateers

Naturally, these prolific trade routes, full of ships heavy with goods and gold, were a tempting target for pirates and privateers. Many countries participated in privateering. One of Canada’s most popular modern folk songs, “Barrett’s Privateers,” recounts the story of a young Canadian man whose privateering in the Caribbean goes badly awry. Only marginally more legal than outright piracy, privateers (sometimes called buccaneers or corsairs) were private individuals commissioned by a government to attack and raid ships from foreign governments, and bring those ships in as prizes. These battles rarely resulted in sunken ships or lost treasure, since the goal was to capture a ship and cargo intact; most such losses occurred during harsh weather rather than battles at sea.  
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In the two hundred and fifty years that the flota operated, it was only captured once; Piet Hein successfully captured the ships in 1628, bringing the cargo and ships to the Dutch Republic. The crews of the ships were deposited on the Cuban cost with enough supplies to march back to Havana; Hein collected 11,509,524 guilders of loot from the fleet.

 

 

Robert Blake attacked the flota in 1656 and 1657, but only made off with a single galleon; the Spanish officers preserved most of the silver on board the other ships. The Atlantic fleet was destroyed in 1702 in Cadiz, Spain, during the War of the Spanish Succession, but little cargo was lost; most of it had already been unloaded. While losses did have a heavy impact on the Spanish economy, the fleet was one of the most successful and lucrative maritime operations of all time.

Amazing Sunken Treasures of the Caribbean

 

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.

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Cannon from the Atocha

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.

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Silver ingots from the Atocha

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.)

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Chagres River, Panama

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

Capitana

Diver investigating artifact from the Capitana

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.

 

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