SEA KEEPS DOOMED FLEET’S SECRETSBY JULIE TARASOVIC
ILLUSTRATION BY ANTHONY BRATINA
With all the latest technology in modern day maritime engineering, it’s difficult to imagine what it was like for crew and passengers sailing halfway around the world in 1715 onboard wooden ships bound for the New World. A combination of excitement, the unknown, and danger drove these people of the 18th century on a voyage of possibility and peril.
Two hundred and ninety two years later, we are still learning about the ill-fated Spanish Plate Fleet that sank off the east coast of Florida because of a horrific July hurricane. Nearly half of the 2,500 lives onboard the 11 ships were lost, as well as several hundred millions of dollars in treasure. Only one ship managed to escape that deadly morning, the French vessel Grifon, which the Spanish had forced to sail with the fleet to keep their movements secret. But even the survival of that ship is debated by historians. Pirates and buccaneers were prevalent in those days, tracking ships they knew were laden with treasures.
Spain sent two fleets annually to the New World, the Galeones de Tierra Firme and the New Spain Flota. The first sailed to Colombia where it picked up emeralds, gold and pearls and then to Peru for silver. The second fleet sailed to Veracruz, Mexico, for its silver, cochineal and indigo dyes as well as goods from the Orient. The two fleets met up in Havana, Cuba, and set sail for home across the Atlantic. The voyage was to be routine – sail up the Gulf Stream to Florida’s east coast – the longer route gave navigators landmarks to mark the voyage by -- and catch the trade winds halfway up that would take them to Spain. There, King Philip V was awaiting his treasure. After giving in to Philip’s proposal for marriage, Elizabeth Farnesse, duchess of Parma, would only consummate it when a large dowry of jewels from the New World arrived. The doomed flotilla is widely referred to as the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet, with plate being the Spanish word for silver.
Instead of catching the trade winds, the winds and sea from the hurricane drove the ships shoreward, breaking up on the reefs and crashing into shore anywhere from present-day Cape Canaveral to Jensen Beach. The wreck was to be the greatest find of sunken treasure since 1687, when William Phips discovered a million dollars in silver bars and coin from a galleon that went down in 1643 off the coast of Hispaniola.
The Tierra Firma, under the command of Captain-General Don Antonio de cheverz y Zubiz, consisted of six vessels. The New Spain Flota, under the command of Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla, consisted of five ships. The 12th in the flotilla, was the French ship Griffon.
George F. Burgess and Carl J. Clausen, in their book “Florida’s Golden Galleons,’’ described the ships as mostly low-profile warships, faster and better designed than the top-heavy galleons formerly used in the Indies trade. “Though galleons as a ship type were no longer in use, the romantic term had survived as a name for treasure ships,’’ they wrote.
The authors said the two flagships and the two ships known as almirantas, commanded by admirals, carried most of the treasure. “By virtue of their treasure and total armament of some 200 cannon, they would protect the convoy,’’ they wrote. “The remaining vessels were smaller, lighter-armed pataches (tenders), resfuerzos (supply ships) and naos (cargo vessels).
The search and recovery effort of treasure and artifacts from the 1715 Fleet has been constant since the 1960s when a man named Kip Wagner organized the Real 8 Company. He started finding odd pieces of silver while beachcombing and soon discovered that they were actual pieces of eight from the wrecked ships. He later teamed up with Mel Fisher’s organization, Salvors, Inc., in the salvage operation which has been under contract since 1983 with the State of Florida’s Division of Historical Resources. It is through their continued efforts that six of the wrecks and hundreds of thousands of artifacts have been recovered.
The artifacts and treasure found are thoroughly researched by scientists and archaeologists to try and learn more about the lives of the people who lived during that time period. Researching the shipwrecks gives us more knowledge about the early 18th century, provides valuable information into understanding our past, as well as affords experts more tools in identifying the names of each ship.
The treasure hunt continues to this day with more shipwrecks to be found and identified and, of course, lots more treasure to be discovered.
Map of Treasure Coast ShipwrecksIllustration by Anthony Bratina
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