A Mixed Armada

Approached darkening skies

The year is 1715 and new tactics for moving wealth are being employed to evade pirates lurking around the Caribbean now more than ever. Previously, Spanish ships making port in the area would run on a regular basis moving sums of gold, silver, gems, and supplies. Pirate attacks put a halt to the voyages for nearly three years before the Spanish decided these accumulated riches needed to be transported. A plan was put in place, to have several ships fill their holds at ports in Vera Cruz and Cartegena, then have those fleets meet in Havana with a well-armed escort. The armada combined two fleets, one commanded by Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla and the other by Don Antonio de Echeverz. Along for the voyage, Capitaine Antoine Dare commanding a French merchant ship.

Around seven days after departure, the armada approached darkening skies swirling along the outskirts of a strong hurricane. Gusting winds managed to split the group apart, sweeping ships back toward land. At first the winds were a blessing, blowing the boats away from the hurricane instead of directly into it. However, coral reefs hiding below swelling tides closer to shore hooked up the fleet and they would sail no more. Fortunately for the crew many lives were spared considering more severe possible outcomes. To an unfortunate dismay of the Spanish crown, though, an economy impacting wealth rests on the sea floor instead of in empire coffers.

Salvaging was a long, grueling process, and estimates state only about half of the bounty is eventually recovered. Free-diving the wrecks put workers in a vulnerable position and their visible activity acted as a flashing beacon to pirate opportunists passing by. As word traveled around, pirate pressure escalated. Spain would battle both swelling seas and savvy pirates over a three to four year period to an eventual breaking point; fending off looting scavengers became routine for a while until more notorious pirates made their presence known. A privateer to become Spanish nemesis, Henry Jennings, put his pirate skills to the test and made off with three hundred and fifty-thousand pesos in his first recorded act of piracy. Salvage operations were forced to retreat due to this confrontation. Eventually pirate activity around the sunken treasure heightened to the point Spain was forced to leave the site, leaving behind a significant amount gold on the sea floor. A conservative estimate values treasure of the entire fleet at right around seven million pieces of eight, or approximately one hundred and twelve million on today's market.

A ship with black sails
A ship with black sails

More than half of the mixed armada vessels have been located since the Spanish decided to abandon recovery efforts. The Nuestra Senora de la Regla, Santo Cristo de San Roman, Nuestra Senora del Carmen, Nuestra Señora de La Popa, Nuestra Senora del Rosario, Urca de Lima, Senora de las Nieves, and the French Grifon have been accounted for. Ships still missing from the armada include the Maria Galante, El Senor San Miguel, El Cievro, and Nuestra Senora de la Concepción. Of these remaining wrecks yet to be found are two speedy carrack vessels that would be more likely utilized for carrying plundered treasures from the new world. In a run-in with pirates or privateers, a carrack stood a better chance of escaping before heavily damaged by cannon fire.

One lost carrack is the El Senor San Miguel, a twenty-two cannon rescue ship that mysteriously vanished during the hurricane with no surviving crew. Researchers suggest El Senor San Miguel was loaded mostly with tobacco when it went down. However, the ship made port in Havana over the winter of 1714 and spring of 1715 awaiting the arrival of the second fleet from Vera Cruz. During this time, the cargo hold may have been reconfigured to include additional goods before leaving for Spain. Perhaps it is possible this was an intended strategy for further protection, by masking the location of riches within a fleet of ships, and the Miguel loaded with plunder secretively. Part of the fleet treasure was recovered in the 1960's by Kip Wagner after he found a Spanish peso de ocho, or piece of eight, washed up on a Sebastian Inlet Florida beach. Naturally the discovery motivated Wagner, and a mass of new treasure hunters to look for more. After Kip found more silver dollars in the area, an all-out recovery effort began, eventually uncovering seven lost ships along with a significant amount of treasure.

Thanks to Kip it is estimated nearly eighty percent of the armada fleet treasure is now back on dry land, and in museums for public display. Recovering the gold hasn't deterred undersea explorers however. Future discovery of four remaining ships could be very lucrative, especially considering Spain's urgency to have this wealth transported in dire economical times. Recent finds uncovered two carrack ships which exhibit characteristics strongly resembling other wrecks from the 1715 fleet. The twist, however, it appears they may have been disguised as transporting commodities and mixed cargo while secretly protecting valuable assets. It's definitely a plausible concept considering the Spanish accumulated three years of riches prior to disembarking, including several last minute stores. Alternatively, the evidence may point to hidden stashes mixed with cargo belonging to ship captains and crew members who routinely attempted to covertly smuggle goods from Spanish government. In either case, smuggled treasure, or intentionally hidden wealth at request of the government, the theory indicates more than twenty percent of the fleet's spoils still resides somewhere beneath the waves.