Shipwrecks: Urca De Lima and the Spanish Treasure Fleet of 1715
In the 16th century the Spanish crown relied heavily on its treasure fleets and the flotas system in order to fund conflicts with Spain’s rivals the Dutch and fight religious wars. From around 1550 to 1735 the Spanish treasure fleets sailed biannually from the port of Seville to south and central America, where goods where delivered and cargos of treasure and produce loaded for the return journey to Spain. After stopping at Havana, Cuba the convoys had to sail north up the east coast of Florida in order to catch the trade winds back to Spain via the Azores.
In 1715 a convoy of eleven ships, including escort ships left Cuba loaded with goods and treasure such as gold bars, silver ingots, and large amounts of silver, eight real coins. Forty miles south of Cape Canaveral the convoy was hit by a hurricane that wrecked ten of the eleven ships, including the Urca De Lima. The remaining Spanish ship rescued survivors, of which there were 1,500, and put them ashore whilst it returned to Cuba to organize a salvage mission. The Spanish set up salvage camps along the beach and managed to recover part of the treasure. However the English privateer Henry Jennings ( of New Providence Island) heard of the disaster and sent 300 pirates to ambush the Spanish salvers. They stole 350,000 pesos and returned to Port Royal, Jamaica, attacking and plundering another Spanish galleon en route.
The remainder of the treasure, of which there was an estimated $10 million, lay untouched off the coast of Florida for the next 220 years. In the 1940’s a construction worker named Kip Wagner took up beach combing as a hobby and discovered hundreds of Spanish coins. None of the coins were dated after 1715, and evidence suggested they were from the 1715 fleet. A friend of Wagner’s, Dr Kelso began to investigate local history and the legend of the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet. His research led him to the Dutch born- English cartographer Bernard Romans. Romans is best known for his work; A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida. Romans book contains maps and charts that detail the location of shipwrecks off Florida’s coasts that were known of during the time of British rule. In particular, page 273 of Romans book described the location of two shipwrecks, the Spanish Admiral, which had been the ship at the head of the convoy, and a Dutch built ship, located at the mouth of the San Sebastian river. Wagner and Kelso also obtained reliable information from the General Archives of the Indies, which detailed the Spanish salvage operation and how much treasure had not been recovered.
Spanish eight real coins recovered from the galleon Urca De Lima.
By 1960 Wagner believed he could find the wrecks of the lost 1715 fleet and so after convincing others to donate their time and money he arranged the salvage operation. Wagner’s salvage team was called The Real Eight Company and he was joined by Mel Fisher and his crew who brought their expertise and revolutionary salvage techniques. Wagner and his team spent many fruitless weeks searching the ocean aboard Wagner’s 40 foot ex- US Navy launch. However, eventually they were rewarded with over $4 million in artifacts from the 1715 Spanish fleet. This included an eleven foot gold chain which sold for $50,000. Also hundreds of silver coins and gold.
The Urca De Lima was the most significant shipwreck of the 1715 fleet because it was the first to be discovered back in the 1920’s. Heavy salvaging of the wreck site continued until the 1980’s, after which no salvage permits have been issued by the State of Florida . The remains of the Urca De Lima are now part of a underwater archaeological preserve. The preserve is located 200 yards offshore near Pepper Beach Park, Fort Pierce. It is also interesting to note that the name given to the region of eastern Florida know as the Treasure Coast was derived from the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet.
All images from commons.wilkimedia.com