OF THE ATOCHA
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When Christopher Columbus first set foot on an island
which he thought was a part of the Indies, and hurried back to Spain to report the
discovery, he sparked a land rush of unparalleled proportions. In less than a century,
Spanish conquistadors and priests, driven by ambition, patriotism and religious fever, had
conquered ancient civilizations, located gold and silver mines of untold wealth, and
established important colonies throughout much of the Western Hemisphere. Thus was begun
an era of power, conquest and piracy, all financed by the silver, gold and jewels which
came to be known as the "Treasure of the Indies."
important, though, were the deposits of gold, silver, emeralds and other precious
commodities discovered in the New World. The mountain above Potosi soon proved to be the
richest silver mine in history, producing 60 million pounds of gold and silver in just 50
years. Emeralds poured from the Muzo and other districts in Columbia, pearls from
Venezuela. More gold came from Mexico, and still other riches arrived enroute to Spain
from the Philippines.
To handle this enormous volume of treasure, several different fleets annually sailed the various oceans to gather the riches of these far-flung lands. The Manila Fleet off-loaded fine china, silk and porcelain at Acapulco for shipment across to Veracruz on the Gulf coast. Gold and silver from Mexico City was also sent to Veracruz, where the New Spain Fleet called to transport all the accumulated treasure to Havana. Also to Cuba came the Honduras Fleet carrying indigo and other agricultural products.
South Seas Fleet, bearing enormous quantities of gold and silver from Potosi and Lima,
unloaded is cargo at Panama City. From there the riches were carried across the Isthmus to
Portobello. Finally the Tierre Firme Fleet, which in 1622 included the
Nuestra Senora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita, returned from Spain. First
stopping in Cartagena for gold and emeralds, this convoy called at Portobello for the
treasure of the South Seas Fleet before continuing on to Cuba.
All the various treasure fleets came together at Havana, usually in July, then combined into one great Tierra Firme Fleet for the arduous journey to Spain. The cargo ships were provided with heavily armed escort vessel, while two additional galleons, known as the capitana and the almiranta, commanded the fleet The capitana guided the convoy while the almiranta covered the fleet's rear. The Atocha was the almiranta of the 1622 fleet, positioned where her fast speed and 20 bronze cannons could adequately shepherd the clumsy merchant ships.
The security of the bullion-laden Tierra Firm Fleet was of major importance. Not only did independent pirate ships lay in wait for the rich galleons, but England had also begun a fierce campaign to divert as much of the Spanish wealth as possible. Privately owned warships, operating under the authority of the English government, were often successful in capturing these fabulously rich ships. Britain's meteoric rise to power in the 17th century was part financed by these raids, and it was to defend against pirates and English privateers that such ships as the Atocha were constructed.
Built in 1620 in a Havana shipyard, the Atocha was specifically designed as a guard galleon for the treasure fleets. Her modern accommodations and the security of her armament made her the choice of nobility, government officials and wealthy merchants. As these passengers came aboard for the return voyage to Spain, the ship became severely overcrowded. With the addition of the passengers' own gold, silver, jewels and personal belongings, the total value of treasure aboard the Atocha reached an astounding level.
| The Santa
Margarita was also a new ship, purchased in 1621 in Cadiz. While she was carrying
fewer well-to-do passengers than the Atocha, and thus less personal treasure, her
cargo did contain substantial quantities of gold and silver bullion.
Due to numerous delays, the 28 ships of the 1622 Tierra Firme Fleet finally left Havana harbor for Spain on September 4, more than a month behind schedule. Heading north to catch the eastbound Gulf Stream current, the convoy unwittingly sailed into the season's first major hurricane.
|By Tuesday, September 6, running before the unrelenting pounding of gale-force winds, five ships of the fleet were swept toward the Florida Keys. One by one they were grounded and wrecked, including the gallant Atocha, the private galleon Nuestra Senora del Rosario, the Santa Margarita, a Portuguese slaver and a small ship serving as the fleet's tender.|
|Three seamen and two black slaves were the only survivors of the ill-fated Atocha. When rescued by a launch from the merchant ship Santa Cruz, they related the last hours of the galleon. With her foremast gone and the sails tattered, the high stern castle caught the wind and sped the doomed ship backwards through the towering seas. Suddenly lifted high on a wave, the Atocha smashed violently down onto a reef, ripping great holes in her hull.||
| Most of
those aboard were below decks, with the hatches securely fastened, taking shelter from the
storm. Unable to escape in time, 260 crew and passengers were carried to their deaths when
the ship quickly sank. Only five men who had lashed themselves to the rigging were saved.
The Santa Margarita was more fortunate. Dismasted and drifting out of control, she grounded on a sandbar just three miles from where the Atocha sank. Before the ship broke up, 68 of the Santa Margarita's crew and passengers were rescued.
| The remaining ships of the Tierra
Firme Fleet returned to Havana to report the terrible loss. Quickly a decision was
made not to send the remaining ships to Spain that year, but instead to concentrate in
salvaging as much as possible from the two sunken galleons. Much of the cargo from the Santa
Margarita was brought up during an intensive recovery operation lasting more than
four years. Hundreds of silver ingots, eight bronze cannons, 64,000 silver coins, and
other valuable items were recovered from the wreck site, but try as they might, the
Spanish salvors could not locate the remains of the Atocha.
Through the centuries the wreck of this famous galleon was reported as being off the "last Key of Matecumbe." Today's Matacumbe Key is halfway up the Florida Keys, far from where the Atocha actually sank, and searches for her in that area ended in vain. Finally Mel Fisher's research consultant, Eugene Lyon, found evidence that the ship had actually sunk near the Marquesas Keys, some 20 miles west of Key West.
A cross-section of the
"Atocha's" hull shows how coin chests and silver ingots were stored in the
bottom center of the hold for stability. Piles of ballast stones are visible to either
side of the silver, with olive jars and additional cargo piled atop the stones.
|For more than a decade intensive search operations were conducted, costing millions of dollars. During this time Fisher also suffered a personal loss when his son and daughter-in-law perished in the sinking of their recovery vessel. Finally, in the early 1970's treasure from the Santa Margarita was discovered, with further research and exploration finally pinpointing the Atocha site.|
|To date, items valued at hundreds of millions of dollars have been recovered. The pieces in this sale, belong to numerous private parties, represent some of the results of several years of salvage operations on the Atocha. Included in this "Treasure of the Indies" are tons of silver and gold ingots from Potosi, emeralds from Columbia, copper from Cuba, and numerous rare artifacts from a little-known era of Spanish history. Lost for centuries, this immense trove is finally being dispersed throughout the world, thanks to the labor and dreams of premier treasure hunter Mel Fisher.||
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