The Lost Ships of the Spanish Treasure Fleet Disaster of 1715
In 1715 Spain had just emerged from the War of Succession and King Philipe V of France had become Spain’s first Bourbon King. The war had been costly due to the loss of ships loaded with treasure from Central and South America. In particular, the battle of Vigo Bay against the British and Dutch had caused the loss of 17 vessels. Although the Treaty of Utrecht had ended hostilities Spain was in financial dire straits and desperately needed a shipment of treasure to help pay its mounting depts.
As a consequence on July 24, 1715, a fleet of 12 ships left Havana, headed for the Azores and Spain via Florida’s east coast. The convoy, often referred to as the Plate Fleet consisted of five ships from the Nueva España fleet, which had loaded its treasure cargo, in Vera Cruz Mexico. Six ships were from the Tierra Firme fleet, later known as Los Galeones. They had stopped at the ports of Cartagena and Nombre de Dios where they loaded gold bars, silver ingots, pearls and emeralds. The Manila fleet brought goods from the South Seas such as porcelain, silk and spices to Panama, where it was carried overland by mules to rendezvous with the Los Galeones fleet at Portobello and on to Havana. As was often the case merchant ships of other nations would join the combined fleet for the transatlantic crossing and benefit from the protection of the heavily armed galleons. In this instance, ship number 12 was the Grifon, a French merchant vessel. As well as gold escudos coins, silver, copper and jewelry, the cargo of the combined fleet included such commodities as tobacco, indigo and drugs. In today’s money the shipment would be worth an estimated $200 million.
A two Escudos cob, said to be from a 1715 Spanish shipwreck.
On the 31 July the fleet was approaching Cape Canaveral when it was struck by winds of 30 knots plus and high seas. The fleet was in danger of being pushed onto the reef so Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla, aboard the fleets flagship Nuestra Señora de la Regala ordered evasive action. Never the less by morning a powerful hurricane had capsized, grounded or destroyed every ship of the fleet, save the Grifon which had ridden out the storm in deeper water. 750 men had lost their lives and the wreckage of Spanish ships was spread 20 miles along Florida’s coast. Less than a month later Havana got word of the disaster and sent ships to rescue the survivors and salvage the shipwrecks.
8 Reale, hand made in Mexico, silver cobb coins from the 1715 fleet.
Of the eleven vessels from the 1715 fleet, seven ships have been rediscovered and salvaged since the 1940’s. They include the frigate, Urca de Lima and the 54 cannon galleon Santo Cristo. The four remaining vessels that remain undiscovered are as follows;
San Miguel: the San Miguel was a 22 cannon frigate which had a crew of 62. The wreck of the San Miguel has never been identified and there a number of theory’s as to its whereabouts. One of which is that the frigate excaped the hurrican but was badly damaged and eventually sunk off Amelia Island.
Nuestra Señora de Concepción: this was a Spanish galleon of the Nueva España fleet reported to have sunk on 07/30/1715. Its remains have not yet been identified.
El Ciervo: El Ciervo was a merchant ship that was part of the Los Galleons fleet. It was headed by the flagship and joined by San Miguel and La Concepción, plus one other small merchant vessel. Its priciple cargo was brazil wood and tobacco.
La Holandesa: this was a Dutch built merchant vessel. It was formerly known as Nuestra Señora del Carmen. The ships name was changed to Nuestra Señora de La Popa by the ships captain Antonio de Echevera. The vessel is said to have grounded during the hurricane. If this is the case it is likely that the vessel was completely salvaged by the Spanish, including its hull, and no trace remains.