Shipwrecks and Treasure: the Portuguese Galleon Sacramento

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In the 1970’s the discovery of some 17th century cannons in Salvador, Brazil prompted an archeological investigation and the subsequent discovery of a Portuguese galleon. The vessel was the former flagship of the Portuguese colonial fleet convoy from

In the early 16th century Portugal considered Brazil less important, in terms of trade, than its colonies in India. This changed when Brazil’s plantations began to produce sugar, cacao, cotton and tobacco. Portugal needed the money raised from taxes from the sale of these goods in order to fund its war against the Dutch. The Dutch East India Company had been Portugal’s, Brazil Company main rival in the Americas.

The Dutch had even captured one of Brazils ports, Sao Salvador de Bahia in 1624. The war between Portugal and Holland began in 1580 and lasted through out most of the seventeenth century. It was mostly fought over Portugal’s colonial territories. The Dutch also exploited the fact that Spain did little to protect Portugal, which it considered little more than a Spanish province. Ultimately Portugal mostly succeeded in defending its South American territories but lost out in the far east.

Despite many years of conflict and the threat to it shipping, it wasn’t until 1649 that Portugal introduced a fleet convoy system. The Brazil Company had 36 warships constructed which escorted up to 100 ships in two convoys. The cost of the warships was met by taxes on merchant ships, which joined the convoy, and the sale of merchandise. As the Portuguese crown and the Brazil Company prospered, large and better galleons were built. They were usually built in the colonies because brazil wood was superior to European timber as it was impervious to shipworms . On the down side building ships in the colonies was more expensive because it utilized labor from the plantations, which resulted in a fall of production.

The Galleon Santissima Sacramento ( blessed sacrament): In the 1970’s a few cannons were discovered, in a junk yard in Salvador Brazil, by a Brazilian naval officer. The founders marks on the cannons were dated before 1653 and the owners were the Brazil Company. After the cannon’s origin had been traced to an offshore shipwreck, an archaeological investigation began which was a joint venture between state government and the Ministry of the Navy. Upon its rediscovery, at over 100 feet deep, the wreck site was divided into sections. More canons and artillery of English and Dutch origin was discovered. There were silver coins dated 1650-1656 from the reign of Don Joao IV. One of the most important discovery’s were ceramics with the da Silver Family coat of arms and the name of the galleon; Santissima Sacramento. Archaeologists found official Portuguese seals and the seals of London businessmen. This meant that the ships cargo had included textiles. There was also a large amount of ordinance and thousands of musket balls packed in olive jars.

Sao Salvador harbor 1631.

Records showed that the 60-gun Galleon Sacramento had begun her journey from Lisbon to Bahia in 1668 as the flagship or capitania of a fifty vessel strong convoy. The ships crew, including soldiers numbered 800 and there were 200 passengers. Those onboard the galleon had the coast of Brazil in their sights, when a few miles outside of the Bay of All Saints, Bahia, a fierce storm desended on the ship, making its entrance to the harbor treacherous. The ship was caught by a shoal which capsized the vessel. Only seventy survived.

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Peter Bilton
Posted on Aug 3, 2010
Teresa Farmer
Posted on Aug 2, 2010