The Spanish Treasure Fleets
the bureaucratic organization of Spanish empire in the New World, the
colonists could hardly eat, drink, buy, sell, be born, move about, or die
without paying taxes to the Church or to the State. Only Spaniards born in
Spain could hold public office. Indians, mestizos (offspring of Spaniards
and Indian), and even criollos (all white descendants of Spaiards) had
little or no political or social standing. Nor could any of the colonists
acquire, other than by smuggling, any of the wares of European civilization
except those sent from Spain in Spanish ships to designated colonial ports.
In short, Spain imposed a monopoly.
Beginning in 1561, and lasting until 1748 with few annual exceptions, the
Spanish government sent two merchant convoys each year to the New World.
They brought consumer goods and took home the wealth from the mines. These
convoys, known as treasure fleets, had to be escorted by Spanish warships or
were themselves warships, as protection against raiders of all types, not
only pirates but privateers of Holland, France, and especially England.
Often there was little distinction between a pirate ship and one operating
clandestinely or semi-officially on behalf of another European government,
for it was the aim particularly of the English to break the Spanish monopoly
and gain their own footholds in the New World.
The Spanish fleets assembled in Cadiz and Seville and made their way
across the Atlantic, one fleet to Veracruz in Mexico and the other to
Portobello in Panama, to unload European goods for the colonists. Then the
empty ships loaded their holds with New World gold, silver, gem stones, and
in later years silks and other exotica shipped from the Orient via the
Spanish-controlled Philippines to the Pacific coasts of Mexico and Panama,
thence by land to the storehouses in Veracruz and Portabello. For the voyage
back to Spain the divided fleet reassembled in Havana before riding the Gulf
Stream up the east coast of Florida and across the Atlantic. The whole
operation was supposedly timed for departure from Cuba before the advent of
the hurricane season in July.
Also in these convoys were the treasures from South America, all
previously brought to Caribbean assembly points from Callao (the port of
Lima, storehouse for the western South America) and Catagena (storehouse for
the New Granada or Colombia). These southern territories were also supplied
by the same Granada or Colombia). these southern territories were also
supplied by the same fleets from Spain, via Panama, although in later years
directly so to Cartagena, whose gigantic forts and city walls can still be
British attacks were frequent, both before and after 1588, the year of the
defeat of Spain's famous Invincible Armada off the coast of the British
Isles and the beginning of the end of Spanish primacy on the seas. Even
before 1588 the ships of Francis Drake plundered the Pacific as well as the
Caribbean ports of the Spanish colonies. Equally well known are the exploits
of Walter Raleigh, or in the next century those Henry Morgan and many other
freebooters, Dutch and French too. To know who ultimately prevailed, all it
takes is a glance at any current map of the Caribbean areas and a nation of
the geographical distribution of languages other than Spanish: Dutch in
Curacao; and French in Haiti and Martinique, not to mention farther down the
line the three different languages of the Guyanas, or to the south of them
the whole huge nation of Portuguese-speaking Brazil.
Brazil is a special case, neither whose history nor whose coinage have we
attempted to cover. for there are no Brazilian cobs. For 60 years, beginning
in 1580 when Philip II of Spain was also King of Portugal, Spain controlled
the Portuguese colony of Brazil, which consisted mainly of coastal towns
less ambitiously organized than those of Spanish America. Earlier and by
means to spheres of interest which in South America took the form of a
demarcation line, north to south, that designated Brazil to be Portuguese
territory. Unlike the Spanish part of the New World, Brazil developed very
slowly, at first because it was a penal colony, not unlike the later British
one in Australia, and an almost entirely coastal one without any large-scale
exploitation of mineral resources. So forbidding were the Amazon and the
vast jungles that only in twentieth century has Brazil begun to exploit and
populate this vast interior.
Spain, at the apogee of her power in the sixteenth century, was to remain
dominate only so long as the gold and silver continued to flow in from the
New World. It was a false prosperity like that of the accidental heir to a
fortune who, instead of investing wisely his newfound capital, indulges
himself in reckless spending until the wealth is finally gone. The precious
metals did not remain in Spain as national capital for the formation of a
permanent base of industry and prosperity. Instead the treasure flowed
Madrid for military ventures around Europe or for short-term enterprise
Take the case of Philip II who, like his predecessor and successors on the
Spanish throne, always got his quinto or royal fifth of all treasure
transported from America. National economic policy was always secondary to
the extermination of religious heretics. What for example, were the workers
to do after they had built his extravagant Escorial palace? Or how was
Spain, much of it rocky and infertile anyhow, to be reforested after the
same monarch ordered so much timber cut down for the building of his
Invincible Armada that turned out not to be invincible after all? In modern
economic terms, Spain lacked the resources and tax base to support its
military power by any means other than gold and silver from America.
Scarcely any treasure fleet arrived with wealth that was not already pledged
for the reduction of arrears on ever-increasing debts to the banking houses
of Europe. Spain was destined to diminish in power along with the inevitable
diminution of plunder of the New World.
During the almost three centuries that Spain managed to hold together her
interests in the New World, a fair amount of the colonies' mineral wealth
came to rest on the bottom of the oceans rather than in European treasuries.
Some of the gold and silver was lost to buccaneers, much of it to storms at
sea. This is not surprising when you consider the size of the Spanish
treasure ships, from bow to stem only about 150 feet 9the three "ships" of
Christopher Columbus less than 75 feet each), toys in comparison with the
mammoth ships of today, themselves not immune to the devastating force of a
The science of sea-salvage has developed rapidly in recent decades. New
diving techniques and sophisticated equipment for exploration in very deep
water now entice investors around the world to form companies for the
attempted salvage of known wrecks. Records of locations of shipwrecks are
being searched as never before. Governments are devising new laws to define
jurisdictions over marine territory and percentages of successful salvage to
be retained by the government.
In October of 1981 divers of a Yorkshire, England, salvage company brought
up about four hundred Russian gold bars worth $81,000,000 (at the time) from
the British cruiser Edinburgh, scuttled in May, 1942, after torpedoes from
German submarines and destroyers had rendered her helpless north of
Murmansk. Still more bars were recovered from this ship in 1986, the
proceeds parceled on a percentage basis among the salvors, Great Britain,
and the Soviet Union, as the gold was originally Russian payment to the U.S.
for war materials.
Even the Titanic has been located and explored, but most worldwide salvage
operations have been concentradted on the treasure-laden wrecks of centuries
past. Whatever the nationality of the older sunken ship, it was usually
carrying world-trade coins, including cobs. Here are some of the wrecks and
fleets whose cargoes have found their way into either the promotional or
numismatic marketplace in recent years; only ships that have yielded cobs
1554, "1554 fleet" (Spanish), several of the ships sunk off Padre Island,
Texas. Mostly Mexican coinage of Carlos-Juana, some of which still appears
on beaches of Padre Island.
1585, Santiago (Portuguese), sunk between Mozambique and Madagascar. Many
silver cobs of both Spain and Spanish America, some rare.
1622, Atocha and Santa Margarita (both Spanish), sunk in a hurricane
southwest of Key West, Florida. The much-publicized salvage operations of
Mel Fisher and his Treasure Salvors company produced vast amounts of Spanish
American silver cobs, most of which had suffered greatly from the long
immersion and then harsh cleaning process. Highly promoted. The salvage
included a representative group of the earliest Colombian silver cobs, some
dispersed privately, others offered at the Christie's New York auction of
June, 1988. See account of the Margarita salvage in February 1982 National
Geographics, preceded by an early account (before the main treasure was
found) of the Atocha salvage in the June 1976 National Geographic.
Circa 1628, "Lucayan Beach treasure," Grand Bahama Island. The name of this
ship or ships is unknown. Most have been Mexican of the assayer D period.
1641, Concepcion (Spanish), sunk off the northern coast of what is now the
Dominican Republic. About 60,000 mostly Mexican silver cobs. Highly
promoted. A number of rare Colombian cobs, including more from the Cartagena
mint than had been found on any other shipwreck, was offered at auction by
Henry Christensen, Inc., in 1982. The site is still being worked from time
1656, Maravillas (Spanish), sunk in the Bahamas. Mostly Mexican and Potosi
silver cobs, modestly promoted. This area, Little Bahama Bank, not far from
Florida, is still being worked occasionally, as the main treasure may not
yet have been found. Other locations in the Bahamas have yielded cobs too,
apparently the names of the ships are unknown.
1659(?), San Francisco y San Antonio (?), sunk close to shore off Jupiter
Inlet, east coast of Florida. Salvage of what appear to be numerous Spanish
American silver cobs has begun, but it is still too early to be sure that
the wreck site represents a major discovery.
1682, Joanna (British), sunk off Cape Agulhas, tip of South Africa.
Quantities of Spanish American silver cobs, most of them 4 and 8 reales of
1707, Association (British), sunk near the Isles of Scilly, south west coast
of England. Quantities of Spanish American cobs, especially those of Lima
1708, San Jose (Spanish), sunk by the British off Cartagena, Colombia. The
wreck was located by commercial salvors in 1981 at a depth of over 750 feet,
very deep and very costly for salvage, although the main problem has been
indecision on the part of the Colombian government in the award of a
contract. This is potentially the richest single-ship recovery of them all,
as revealed by the manifest of the ship. This vessel was the largest of a
twelve-ship convoy, the only significant fleet to sail to the New World
during the War of Spanish Succession (a civil war in Spain, part of a
generalwar in Europe), when the seas were dangerous for normal
treasure-fleet operations, and also Spanish ships were needed elsewhere. The
San Jose is reprted to have been transporting 30 million gold and silver
cobs, 116 chests of emeralds, and the personal wealth of the Viceroy of
Peru. Even if the figures are exaggerated, or not all the treasures can be
located, it is a ship whose salvage is eagerly awaited.
1711, Feversham (British), sunk off Nova Scotia, Canada. The entire corpus
of material, mainly Spanish American silver cobs and Massachusetts Bay
Colony shillings, not a large salvage by comparison with the cargoes of
Spanish treasure ships, was auctioned by Christie's in New York, 1989.
1715, "1715 Fleet" or "Plate Fleet" (Spanish), eleven ships sunk in a
hurricane off the east coast of Florida and scattered many miles apart in an
area from south of Melbourne to south of Fort Pierce. Vast quantities of
Spanish American gold and silver cobs, more gold than found in any other
shipwrecks before or since. Promoted originally by the Real Eight Company,
offered at auction by Henry Christensen (1964), Parke-Bernet Galleries
(1967), the Schulman Coin and Mint (1972 and 1974), and Bowers and Ruddy
Galleries (1977), and recorded pictorially (excellent photos of coins and
the entire early operation) in January 1965 National Geographic. These
salvage operations were not only among the first, from the early 1960s, but
have been of the greatest numismatic importance of them all, and are ongoing
even today, for only six of the ships have been found. For these reasons, an
account of the destruction and salvage of the 1715 fleet will follow.
For additional information see: "The Practical Book
Of Cobs," by Daniel Sedwick and Frank Sedwick, Library of Congress Catalog Card