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Shipwrecks and Treasure: The Nuestra Senora De La Concepcion of 1638

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The Nuestra Señora de Concepción was a Manila galleon that was shipwreck of the coast of Saipan in 1638. A salvage operation in 1987 revealed that it carried a valuable cargo which gave archeologists priceless information.

By the 1570’s Spain had established a base at the port of Manila in the Philippines. Mexican Silver was desirable in the East and the Spanish had a seemingly endless supply. The silver was traded for spices, silks, porcelain, ivory, medicine, jewels and cotton which had been brought from all corners of the orient and the spice islands. When the ships reached Mexico, the valuable cargo was carried overland by mule to the ports of Vera Cruz and Acapulco. From there the New Spain fleet would deliver the cargos to Spain and other parts of Europe. The vessels that sailed to the orient were known as the Manila galleons. They were up to three times larger than the Atlantic galleons, such as the Atocha ,and they were built in the Philippines of high quality, local hard wood timbers such as teak.

The journey from Mexico to Manila was a treacherous 9,000 mile, six month long trip. And the return journey took even longer because the galleons had to head north east, almost to a latitude of 38 degrees north before turning south in order to catch the trade winds. As the Atlantic treasure fleets had to avoid hurricanes so the Manila galleons had to deal with typhoons. A heavily laden galleon had two choices when faced with a typhoon. It could either take shelter near one of the mid-Pacific islands such as the Marianas or head for open water; try to run with the storm and believe in the power of prayer.

Such was the case on September 20, 1638, when The Nuestra Señora De Concepción, a 1,500 ton heavily armed Spanish galleon, which had left Manila bound for Acapulco, was caught in a typhoon and driven onto a reef near Saipan at Aguingan Point. The Concepción’s escort ship, the Ambrosia had become separated and lost her way during the storm.

A subsequent enquiry in Manila blamed, in part, the incompetence of the ships captain Juan Francisco Hurtado de Corcuera. Corcuera’s poor navigational decisions were challenged by the ships experienced first officer. The ensuing power struggle between the Concepción’s commanders caused a mutiny and indecision as to the ships coarse. These factures coupled with bad weather resulted in the galleon being dismasted and shipwrecked.

Most of the Concepción’s crew and passengers died in the disaster. The remaining survivors made camp on the island of Saipan only to eventually be attacked and killed by natives, who were understandably suspicious of the Spanish. Six other survivors traveled by boat to Guam and from there by ship back to Manila where they alerted authorities. By this time one year had passed and by the time the Spanish returned to salvage the wreck, the galleon had been plundered by locals.

Saipan's south west coast.

In the 1980’s the site of the shipwreck was rediscovered and in 1987 a salvage operation began. The salvage was a commercial venture led by William M. Mathers and Pacific Sea Resources. Most importantly the treasure hunters were joined by a team of archaeologists, thereby ensuring that the shipwrecks artifacts were precisely recorded and a large pool of information was obtained. Some of the artifacts recovered included elaborate 22.5 carat gold jewelry with precious stones, made in the Philippines. Gold chains that were yards in length. Storage jars, cannon balls and a large amount of Ming Dynasty blue and white porcelain. The collection can be seen at a museum in the Northern Mariana Islands.

All images with creative commons licence from flickr.com and commons.wikimedia. 

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Tanya Wallace
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Posted on Jul 8, 2010
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Peter Bilton

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