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Can Spanish Fleet Treasures Lost At Sea Be Found ?

Spanish galleon - Treasure fleet

In the sixteenth century, the exploitation of New World mines caused a considerable influx of precious metals into Europe. However, many Spanish galleons disappeared during the crossing of the ocean. Who will find the conquistadors sunken ships and their invaluable treasures lost at sea ?

Very organized expeditions

To combat the insecurity that reigns on the seas, the Casa de Contratacion, responsible for regulating maritime traffic between Cadiz and the Americas, comes to organize an annual convoy of galleons, nicknamed flota de plata (the silver fleet, because this metal actually constitutes the bulk of cargo), in order to transport the products of the metropolis and bring back the wealth extracted from the Indians or from the mines exploited in America. Leaving in spring, it separates in two beyond Santo Domingo. The fleet from New Spain (Mexico) goes to Cuba, and that from the Mainland (South America) to Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of present-day Colombia. In Callao, on the Peruvian Pacific coast, as soon as we learn of the arrival of the galleons in Cartagena, a convoy goes up to the Isthmus of Panama to unload its precious cargoes which then transit on the back of a mule to the Caribbean coast. The mainland fleet then joins that of New Spain in Havana, and the convoy leaves to be back at the end of the year in Cadiz.

Entire convoys lost at sea

If the system of travel by convoys is effective in combating pirates or English, French or Dutch attacks, the losses are however considerable when an entire fleet is taken in terrible tropical storms. When it leaves, the fleet includes between 30 and 40 galleons, merchant ships and “armed” ships. These large ships are accompanied by a dozen lighter boats, intended for the transport of the post office and goods without great value. Throughout the voyage, the convoy is subject to the law of the slowest ship, and the slightest damage to one of the boats delays all the others. In addition, an error of assessment by the head of the convoy, especially in the Caribbean, can have disastrous consequences.

This was the case in 1641. That year, the Spanish general in charge of the mission shipped all the gold and silver on only two galleons in poor condition; one sinks off Santo Domingo after having escaped a cyclone which already sank eight other ships of the same expedition to the bottom of the ocean; the second continues on its way, but it sinks in sight of the Spanish coasts ...

A coveted, battered, decimated fleet

From the middle of the 16th century, each fleet suffered its share of disasters. The year 1567 is one of the worst. A hurricane hits the convoy off the West Indies: the majority of the galleons are sunk or projected on the coast of the island of Dominica. This one not being colonized but inhabited by cannibals, the Spanish survivors end up devoured!

The ports built by the Europeans offer themselves only a precarious protection, since seven ships are destroyed by the storm in that of Nombre de Dios, in present Panama, in 1563 (five others are then shredded on the reefs of the Bay of Campeche) and fifteen in that of Veracruz, in 1590.

When the battered fleets end up crossing the Atlantic, their ordeal is not over ... So, 16 ships sank in the Azores in 1591 and, in 1702, 19 galleons were attacked by an Anglo-Dutch force and attempted scuttling in the Vigo Bay (in Spain) where they took refuge. Finally, the ships separated from their convoy by a storm become the prey of the corsairs and pirates who are waiting for them near the coast of Spain, on the way back: some are taken almost in front of Cadiz.

Invaluable treasures lost at sea

During the first 12 years, the Casa keeps statistics: out of 391 ships that have left, only 269 have returned. The losses therefore amounted to more than 30% in the 16th century. And this situation does not improve much in the following hundred years. It is estimated, however, that from 1503 to 1660, 181 tons of gold and 17,000 tons of silver were transported from America to Spain. And even taking into account that the galleons did not transport only stones and precious metals, that a part of the losses is due to pirates and corsairs and that certain cargoes could have been recovered by the Spanish on stranded ships, fabulous treasures remain to be found in the ocean ...

The Casa de Contratacion

Founded in 1503 in Seville, the Casa de Contratacion is an authoritarian body that oversees all ship movements between Spain and America. At the start, boats are not allowed to travel alone and must group together by destination. To ensure freight going, the Casa forbade the new colonies from manufacturing goods, which creates a smuggling of European products dominated by the English.

This situation is further aggravated when the Casa decides to allow travel for security reasons only for one convoy per year. The consequences of this measure are not quite as expected: the galleons, whose cargo has been increased to meet the needs of the metropolis and the colony, become, in fact, all the more vulnerable!

The Casa also deals with the recruitment of settlers, as well as establishing and collecting customs taxes. If the Casa de Contratacion did considerable work in the establishment of Spanish colonization, it nevertheless largely contributed to the economic underdevelopment of the American colonies.