Shipwrecks and Treasure: the Spanish Quicksilver Galleons of 1724

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In colonial times the Spanish quicksilver galleons carried quicksilver, also known as mercury,from Spain to Central and South America for the refining of silver. In 1724 two galleons were caught in a hurricane and sunk of the coast of the Dominican Republ

The process of mercury amalgamation which combines silver with mercury to extract high grade sliver from low grade ores, was developed in Mexico by Bartolomé Medina. Also known as the ‘patio process’ it was used for the production of silver and gold and was first introduced to the Spanish colonies in the 1550’s. In the 16th century silver was more valuable than gold and it could be produced more quickly. Most of the mercury, also known as quicksilver, was mined at Almaden,Spain and then shipped by large quicksilver galleons to silver mines in Central and South America. The largest silver mine was at Potosí in Mexico.

In August 1724 two quicksilver galleons left the port of Cádiz. They were Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and the Conde de Tolosa. Their destination was Veracruz, Mexico via Havana and Aguadilla, Puerto Rico to resupply. The 18th century Spanish quicksilver galleons were about twice the size of the traditional treasure fleet galleons; they needed to be. The two galleons had a combined load of over 300 tons of quicksilver as well as other goods and over 100 bronze cannons destined for a fort in Mexico.

On August 24, the galleons were passing Mona Passage, near the Dominican Republic, when they were struck by a powerful hurricane. In an attempt to avoid the worst of the storm the vessels took shelter at Samana Bay, where they dropped their anchors. By morning their anchor lines had broken and the galleons had become separated. The Tolosa was swept onto a reef, capsizing, sinking and drowning most of her crew. The survivors which numbered less than 40 clung to the ships mainmast and rigging; they lived on supplies that floated to the surface in barrels. After a month they were rescued, however by that time only seven of the crew survived.

The survivors of the Guadalupe were more fortunate. The ship ran aground off the coast of the Dominican Republic and because of its heavy load the galleon stayed upright. The survivors which numbered more than 500 made it to shore. One group took a lifeboat and travelled to Cap Haitien over 250 miles away. The remaining survivors walked the 200 mile journey from Samana Bay to Santo Domingo, by following the coast and trekking through jungle. They were eventually spotted by fisherman who alerted authorities. Ships were sent to the wrecks and some of the Guadalupe’s cargo was salvaged. The Tolosa was in deeper water and so its salvage effort was abandoned.

 

Two 2 Escudos cobs from the quicksilver wrecks of 1724. Quicksilver has tarnished the coins.

In 1976 the shipwrecks of the Gaudalupe and the Tolosa were rediscovered and salvaged by Caribe Salvage SA, with permission and under the supervision of the Dominican Republic authorities. From 1976 until 1977 the wreck sites were excavated. The shipwreck of the Tolosa yielded the most important finds in terms of archeology as well as treasure. The hull of the ship contained large amounts of mercury, which lay pooled, because the mercury’s caskets had long since disintegrated. The mercury does not mix or float in sea water because mercury is heavier than water. Artifacts found included jewelry with diamonds and emeralds, silver flatware, glassware, ceramic and coins.

All images from flickr.com

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Charlene Collins
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