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Shipwrecked Treasure Galleons
By Cindy Vallar


While pirates and privateers were a constant threat to the treasure fleets, hurricanes became a greater enemy. The torrential rains and violent winds whipped the seas into savage furies that destroyed more ships, claimed more lives, and engulfed more treasure than the outlaws who preyed the high seas.

By the end of the 1400s, the Spanish knew about the hurricane season. For this reason they devised a schedule to lessen the risk of a treasure fleet sinking. Ships left Cadiz in January (later this was changed to March) and from Havana in May or June. The timetable worked well in theory, but failed to account for a variety of delays the ships encountered both at sea and in port.

The first treasure fleet disaster occurred in April 1554. A few weeks prior to the arrival of the Nuevo España Flota, four ships departed Veracruz under the command of Antonio Corzo. Twenty days later a hurricane sank three of the vessels off Padre Island (Texas). Although the San Andres escaped and finally reached Havana, she was battered beyond repair. About half of the three hundred people aboard the San Esteban, Espiritu Santo, and Santa Maria de Yciar perished.  With the exception of a single person, those who survived died trying to walk back to Mexico, which they believed was closer than it actually was.

Within two months after those in Veracruz learned of the disaster, they sent out a salvage expedition. Divers located the wrecks and retrieved about half of the silver coins and bullion before nasty weather forced them to abandon their salvage operations. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers most likely destroyed the Santa Maria de Yciar while dredging in the 1940s.  After an Indiana businessman discovered coins along the beach in 1967, treasure hunters discovered most of the remaining riches from the Espiritu Santo. In 1973 the Texas Antiquities Committee excavated the remains of the San Esteban.  Although much of the hull had been destroyed, archaeologists recovered enough to reconstruct and study the Spanish colonial ship. After lengthy litigation between the State of Texas and the company that recovered artifacts from the Espiritu Santo, a settlement was reached and the University of Texas preserved the artifacts -- including anchors, guns, coins, crucifixes, gold jewelry, pre-Colombian objects, tableware, and three astrolabes -- for future study.

Perhaps the best-known treasure ship a hurricane sank was the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, the Almiranta or vice-flagship of the 1622 fleet. The 550-ton Atocha carried 133 seamen, eighty-two soldiers, forty-eight passengers, and twenty guns. Copper, silver, indigo, tobacco, cochineal (a scarlet dye), and rosewood filled her holds, while amongst the belongings of passengers and crew were hidden precious jewels and gold bars. When the hurricane struck, it destroyed eight of the twenty-eight vessels comprising the Tierra Firma Flota and scattered the wreckage across the lower Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas.

The Atocha struck a reef, which ripped out her hull and sank her. Only five people aboard survived--three seamen and two slaves. Of those aboard the Santa Margarita, which was equal in tonnage to Atocha, more survived because the waves carried the Santa Margarita over the reef and she wrecked on a sandbank.

TreasureSpanish salvagers located the Nuestra Señora del Rosario, a privately owned galleon, in shallow water and retrieved her cargo. The Santa Margarita was found in 1626 and eventually divers salvaged most of the silver, guns, and other cargo she carried. The Atocha, however, remained hidden until 1985 when Mel Fisher and his crew located her near Marquesas Key. Over time they recovered a silver box containing an emerald cross with a matching ring and a gold coin, some of her twenty bronze guns, forty-six tons of silver, forty thousand coins, many emeralds and gold bars--artifacts worth more than four million dollars.

One of the richest treasure galleons to sink was built in 1620 and continued to sail across the Atlantic Ocean for two decades. The Nuestra Señora de la Concepción arrived in Veracruz in June 1640. The only problem of consequence on the voyage from Cadiz occurred when pirates dared to attack the forty-gun galleon. They were rebuffed.

Careened and twice repaired during her lengthy stay in the New World, the twenty-year-old ship set sail for Cadiz on 20 September 1641. At the time a seaman earned two pieces of eight for one month’s work. Stowed within Concepción’s hold was a cargo valued at one million pesos, according to Dr. Eugene Lyon, a Spanish colonial historian.

The fleet, which numbered about thirty vessels, departed Havana at the worst possible time--the height of the hurricane season. Nine days later a hurricane destroyed all but one ship, the Concepción. When the storm felled her main mast, the crew cut it away and jettisoned the anchors and some of the guns, thus giving the ship and themselves a chance to survive.

The admiral decided to sail her to Puerto Rico, but the pilots determined how to get there. They believed they were due north of the island, but the admiral knew otherwise. The chosen course would take the galleon through a treacherous and barely charted coral reef. In protest, the admiral washed his hands in a silver bowl, thus relinquishing all responsibility for the ship’s fate. On All Soul’s Day, violent seas smashed the Concepción into the reef and she came to rest on one of the reef heads with her stern in the air. The survivors fashioned ten crude rafts from the wreckage, but many became easy prey for the sharks.

Eventually, 190 men lived to tell their harrowing story.  They also told tales about a mountain of gold and silver fashioned from the coins rescued from the hold before Concepción slipped beneath the water. An inquiry absolved the admiral of any responsibility for the disaster and he convinced the officials that the pilots should be blamed. Although they were arrested, the pilots escaped and were never seen again.

TreasureAttempts to find the wreck and recover her cargo of silver failed until William Phips discovered the Concepción in 1687. Aided by a survivor of the ill-fated galleon, Phips and his crew of native divers salvaged 68,511 pounds of silver and some gold, believed to be about one-fourth of her cargo. Phips paid his backers, including James II of England, and returned to the wreckage to gain greater wealth. Others, however, had come after him and he gave up his second salvage attempt. After unsuccessfully serving as governor of the Massachusetts Colony, Phips returned to treasure hunting, but never found any other treasure. He died of fever eight years after he discovered the Concepción’s silver.

With time the seventeen-mile reef that claimed the galleon became known as Silver Shoals. Subsequent treasure hunters failed to uncover her remaining cargo until 1978 when Burt Weber succeeded in his second attempt to locate the wreckage of Concepción with the aid of a historian who had located the log of one of Sir William Phips’ ships. In a single day of diving, they salvaged six thousand coins, a teacup from the Ming Dynasty, indigo, an astrolabe, a sword, and a silver bowl. They also retrieved a chest that contained more than one thousand pieces of eight hidden under a false bottom. At first Weber believed he had found Phips’ wreck, but a trail of ballast stones revealed that he had actually discovered the stern whereas Phips had found the bow. Appraisers valued the treasure recovered from the Concepción’s stern at about thirteen million dollars.

The largest treasure galleon to sink was the Jesus Maria del Limpia Concepción, commonly called La Capitana, for she was the flagship of the South Sea Armada. Four times the size of the Atocha, she was built for Philip IV of Spain. At the time of her sinking off the coast of Ecuador on 26 October 1654, she carried a treasure worth ten million pesos.

Padre Diego Rivadeneira watched La Capitana sink from the deck of another ship in the fleet and wrote about it in his diary. Two years later, he sailed aboard the 900-ton Maravillas. When she sank off the Bahamas, six hundred souls perished and five million pesos in silver and gold were lost. Padre Diego was one of forty-five who survived. His diary eventually found its way into the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, where its rediscovery provided Robert McClung with the clues he needed to locate and salvage La Capitana in 1996. Among the artifacts recovered were four thousand silver coins, pottery, two silver ingots, and bronze cannon balls. Dave Horner’s Shipwreck contains a complete recounting of La Capitana and the salvaging of her cargo.

Treasure Fleet of 1715
One of the most devastating losses for Spain involved the Treasure Fleet of 1715. On 24 July twelve ships left Havana laden with treasure. General Juan Esteban de Ubilla commanded five of the treasure ships from the Nueva España Flota while General Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza oversaw six vessels from the Tierra Firme Flota. Captain Antonio Darié sailed aboard a French warship, the Grifón. The other two fleets had delayed his departure, so rather than keep close to the galleons and the vessels they escorted, Darié sailed ahead. That decision probably saved the ship and the lives of all those aboard, for a hurricane struck six days after they departed Cuba. Seven hundred people perished and more than fourteen million pesos’ worth of treasure sank with the ships.

Father Francisco de León y Cabrera described the storm the following month. The hurricane was so severe and turbulent that…[old sailors]…had never seen one like it. Such was the violence of the sea waves that they seemed like arrows even to those on land… It is calculated that more than six hundred other persons drowned or were missing from all the ships in these coasts and beaches, with the added misfortune that, after some of the ships and parts of the cargo of others had been washed ashore, the furious swaying to and fro of the sea waves would drag everything back into the ocean. (Gold, Galleons & Archaeology by Robert J. Burgess and Carl J. Clausen)

When the Nuestra Señora de la Regla (471 tons) struck, the shoals sheared away her lower portion. Ballast stones, cargo, guns, and more than eight thousand chests of treasure plummeted to the ocean floor. General Ubilla and over two hundred others died. One hundred perished aboard the Santo Cristo de San Román. When the surf shredded two tenders, thirty-six drowned while one hundred others rode to shore on the wreckage. The only vessel of the Nueva España Flota to survive was the Urca de Lima. Although damaged, she managed to find shelter near the mouth of a river. Her survival was short-lived, however, for a second storm sank her later that night.

Most of those aboard the Nuestra Señora de Carmen, General Echiverz’s flagship, survived because she sank in shallow water near the shore. His son, captain of the Nuestra del Rosario, lost his life.

Soon after news of the disaster reached Cuba, a Spaniard named Clemente, a veteran of salvage expeditions, led the divers who retrieved some of the lost treasure. They knew where the Regla sank and they soon located the Santo Cristo de San Román. (Pillaging the Empire by Kris E. Lane)

News of the lost treasure soon reached Port Royal. Captains Jennings and Wills, who claimed to be pirate hunters, set sail for the region and raided the Spanish salvagers’ encampment. They stole treasure worth over a thousand pesos. When Spain learned of the raid, they complained to the English government, which in turn arrested Jennings and Wills and put them aboard a ship bound for England to stand trial for piracy. No one knows what became of Wills, but Jennings escaped and eventually made his way to New Providence, a notorious haven for pirates in the Bahamas.

TreasureThe sea reclaimed the lost treasure fleet until 1948 when Kip Wagner came across Spanish coins on a Florida beach. A decade later he shifted his search for more treasure to encompass the sea, and over the next several years he and his alliance of amateur treasure hunters recovered many silver coins and wedge-shaped ingots. In 1963 Mel Fisher joined Wagner and by year’s end they had located seven of the wrecks and found treasure valued at five million dollars. The remains of what is believed to be the Urca de Lima became Florida’s first underwater archaeological preserve in 1989.

A Fateful Voyage: The Story of the 1715 Fleet, Pirates, and a Tercentary


© 2003-2004, 2016 Cindy Vallar
Article revised 2016

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