By Sir Robert Marx
In 1700 Charles II of Spain died, leaving no children or any obvious heirs, and in his will he nominated the grandson of Louis XIV of France to succeed him as Philip V. The English, Dutch, and Austrians looked upon this extension of Bourbon power as a highly dangerous threat to their countries and so joined forces to wage a destructive and costly war against Spain and France – the War of Spanish Succession – which continued until 1713. Although France lost, in the peace treaty the major European powers did agree to accept Philip V as long as the crowns of France and Spain were never joined.
During the coarse of the war the Dutch and English concentrated a great deal of their efforts on disrupting communications between Spain and her American colonies, thus depriving her of the treasures of the New World which she so badly needed to meet the costs of war. In 1702 a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet totally destroyed a convoy of returning Spanish treasure ships and their French warship escorts in Vigo Bay off the coast of Spain. Following this disaster the Spaniards suspended the annual sailings of their treasure fleets to the Indies and made only three other attempts to bring back treasure to the mother country; two of these attempts failed. The English destroyed one fleet off Cartagena in 1708 and a storm wrecked another off the north coast of Cuba in 1711.
So little treasure had reached Spain during the war that the Spanish Crown was on the verge of Bankruptcy. As the war drew to a close, Phillip V ordered that “as much treasure as possible must be brought back from the Indies without any regard for the costs or the dangers involved.” He was so anxious for the safe arrival of the returning treasure ships that he expended the last monies and jewels in his coffers for masses to be said in churches throughout his realm.
At sunrise on July 24, 1715, a convoy consisting of twelve ships set sail from Havana Harbor for the long voyage back to Spain. It was composed of the five ships of the New Spain Flota (fleet), commanded by Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla; six ships of the Squadron of Tierra Firme, commanded by Captain-General Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza; and a French ship, the Grifon, under the command of Captain Antonio Daire.
Echeverz’s squadron had sailed from Spain directly to Cartagena, Columbia, carrying assorted merchandise for sale at Cartagena, Porto Bello in Panama, and Havana. Upon arriving in Cartagena, Echeverz sent word to the viceroy of Peru to deliver, as usual, the treasure of Peru and Chile to Panama City; from there mules generally transported it over land to Porto Bello where a fair was held. The treasure would then be loaded abourd the ships of the Squadron of Tierra Firme and carried back to Spain. Echeverz also notified the viceroy of New Granada in Bogata to send his stored-up treasure, and the governor of the island of Margarita to send pearls. Due to the fact that an English fleet under the command of Admiral Wager had destroyed the last Tierra Firme Squadron near Cartagena in 1708, the viceroy of Peru did not comply with Echeverz’s request; instead, he had his treasure transported overland to Buenos Aires, thence by ship to Spain. For some unknown reason, both the viceroy of New Grenada and the governor of Margarita Island also ignored the Captain-Generals orders. So, instead of the large amount of treasure he expected from South America, Echeverz received so little it was hardly worth the effort. The only treasure he netted was from the Governor of Cartagena, his royal officials, and some private individual. Three of his ships, the Capitana, Almiranta, and Nuestra Senora de Concepcion carried both treasure and normal cargo from the colonies which would be sold in Europe. The ship El Ciervo only carried 96 tons of brazilwood. On Echeverz’s other two ships no known cargo or treasure was loaded in Cartagena or Porto Bello, but as with all other ships in this squadron it is believed they took on a large cargo of tobacco in Havana.
Ubilla’s flota consisted of eight ships when it sailed from Spain to Veracruz, but four were lost during a bad storm while in port, and when he sailed for Havana he had only four ships. In Havana he added a small frigate to his flota.
Like the ships in Echeverz’s squadron, Ubilla’s Capitana, Almiranta and Refuerzo carried both treasure and normal cargo. His patache, a much smaller vessel than the other three, had no royal treasure on board, but did carry 44,000 pesos of silver specie in twelve chests and in some loose sacks of leather. The ship’s general cargo included a type of incense. Documents do not include weather the small frigate Ubilla bought in Havana shipped any cargo or treasure, but it is unlikely she carried valuables.
The total of the registered treasure carried on four ships of Ubilla’s flota – excluding the silverware, jewelry, and a small number of gold coins – was 6,388,020 pesos.
After the convoy left Havana it made its way up the Bahama Channel. During the night of July 30 it was struck by a fierce hurricane that wrecked all the ships upon the coast of Florida, with the single exception of the Grifon which miraculously escaped. Over a thousand people lost their lives, including Ubilla and his principle officers. About 1,500 persons reached shore by swimming or floating on pieces of wreckage, but some of them perished from exposure, thirst, and hunger before aid could reach them from Havana and St. Augustine.
Salvage efforts on the wrecks began immediately and by the end of December the officials in charge of the operation reported they had already recovered all the King’s treasure and the major part of that belonging to private individuals, totaling 5,200,000 pesos. The following spring they recovered an additional small amount, so that by July the Spaniards called a halt to their salvage efforts. When the Spaniards stopped their salvage work, a total of 1,244,900 pesos of registered treasure remained. Add an estimated 19% contraband, and we believe 2,200,000 pesos remain. Using a conservative sale price of $250 per coin, we feel over 550 million dollars of treasure remains to be recovered. Gold, which in terms of weight was sixteen times more valuable than silver, was the most common item smuggled back to Spain, and since there were almost no gold coins registered aboard the ships, those recovered in recent years from the wrecks must have been contraband. This is substantiated by the fact that most of the gold disks recovered lacked the required markings of registered gold bars. It is more than likely that a substantial amount was being smuggled in this convoy.
No further mention of the wrecks was recorded until around the beginning of the nineteenth century when a surveyor reported discovering several hundred gold and silver coins on the beach near the Ft. Pierce inlet. Then once again the flota ships slipped into obscurity until recent times.