The Lost Ships of the Spanish Treasure Fleet Disaster of 1622
In 1622 Spain was embroiled in the Thirty Years War against the French and Dutch. The Spanish crown eagerly awaited its biannual convoys of ships (flotas) to arrive from the new world. The ships brought valuable treasure, much of which was used to pay back foreign money lenders, which were based at the administrative capital of Seville. The flotas system started in 1530 and continued until around 1735. Almost every year it provided a steady income for the Spanish crown and ultimately made Spain a superpower. However, in the years 1554, 1622, 1628, 1715 and 1733 maritime disasters prevented the fleets from reaching Spain. Many ships were lost at sea, mostly due to hurricanes off the east coast of Florida.
In August 1622, two Spanish treasure fleets rendezvoused at Havana. They were the Tierra Firme fleet, which had stopped at Cartagena Colombia and Porto Bello to load pearls, gold, silver and emeralds. And the New Spain fleet which had sailed from the port of Vera Cruz in Mexico. Its cargo contained gold, silver and goods such as silk and porcelain from the Orient. Because of the threat from the Dutch fleet and because the Tierra Firme fleet had more heavily armed galleons, most of the valuable cargo from the New Spain fleet was transferred to the Tierra Firme fleet.
The New Spain fleet left Havana first and headed to the east coast of Florida where it would catch the trade winds back to Spain. The Tierra Firme fleet left Havana six weeks behind schedule, late in the hurricane season. It comprised of 28 vessels including galleons and nao’s or merchant vessels. The flagship or capitana was Nuestra Senora de La Candelaria and Nuestra Senora de Atocha was the almiranta or the last ship in the convoy, which guarded the convoy's rear.
As the ships were passing the Florida Keys the convoy became separated by the high seas and hurricane winds. 20 of the vessels made it to deeper water and managed to ride out the storm. However, eight vessels from the back of the convoy were forced onto shallow reefs and destroyed or capsized and sunk.
The galleons that carried the most valuable cargo were the Atocha and the Santa Margarita. The Spanish crown sent Gapser de Vargas and two years later Francisco Munez Milian to salvage the wrecks. The wreck of the Santa Margarita was discovered and partly salvaged although the Spanish salvage teams did not find the Atocha. Eventually the wreck of the Atocha, was discovered in the Marquesas Keys by Mel Fisher and his salvage crew in 1969.
Three other shipwrecks of the 1622 fleet were discovered in the near by Dry Tortugas. At Loggerhead Reef lay the remains of Nuestra Senora del Rosario. Although the galleon was salvaged by Gasper de Vargas in 1622 she was rediscovered in 1971. Artifacts were spread over a large area that included cannons and swivel guns and silver 8 Reale coins.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Nuestra Senora de Los Reyes was a Portuguese built, 117 ton merchant and slave ship. It is thought that a wreck in Dry Tortugas National Park is Los Reyes, but it has not been positively confirmed. There was also a ballast pile discovered near Loggerhead Reef that is thought to be the remains of a patache or Spanish support ship.
Despite these impressive discoveries, three ships of the 1622 treasure fleet remain undiscovered. However there are many unidentified shipwrecks off the coast of Florida, so it is possible that the wrecks sites have already been discovered and further excavation is needed.
The undiscovered shipwrecks are as follows;
Nuestra Senora del Rosario: this was a merchant ship. Its location is unknown.
Nuestra Senora del Consolacion: records suggest that the Consolacion capsized close to where the Atoche sank in the Marquesas Keys, although the wreck has never been discovered.
Nuestra Senora de la Merced: In 1990 Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology was exploring off the Tortugas for the Spanish treasure galleon La Merced. After two years of searching near the Dry Tortugas the company publically announced it had discovered the wreck of the Merced in 1,500 feet of water. Artifacts recovered from the wreck site included jewelry, silver coins, gold bars and pearls.
However, after the S.E.C began to investigate Seahawk for claims of insider trading, the company claimed that the Spanish galleon they had found was not the Merced. And because Seahawk has allowed very few independent experts to view the artifacts we cannot say for sure whether the “Tortugas Wreck”, as it is known, is the galleon Nuestra Senora da la Merced.
All images from flickr.com with creative commons licence.