(Tuesday Talk - on a Friday :-)
On 24th July 1715 twelve heavily laden galleons set sail from the New World (Mexico) heading home to Spain after many months of delay. They never made it.
The Flota de Nueva España (the New Spanish Fleet) had initially sailed to Veracruz in Mexico carrying mercury which was an essential substance for refining silver cobs. The intention was to return to Spain, rendezvousing in Havana, Cuba, with a second fleet, the Esquadron de Terra Firme which sailed from Spain to South America and back again. The returning ships would be carrying Peruvian and Colombian treasure from Panama and Cartagena. The entire fleet was a floating treasure chest of magnificent proportion: chests of silver and gold coin, gold bars, gold dust, jewellery, tobacco, spices, indigo and cochineal as well as emeralds, pearls and Chinese porcelain. It is possible that the combined value of the registered cargo (not including any contraband that was also more than likely to have been aboard) nears something like a modern equivalent of about £1,500,000,000.
The Squadron of Tierra Firma was under the command of Captain-General Don Antonio de Escheverz y Zubiza, and the New Spain Fleet by Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla. The flagships were both called Capitana, one being a captured English ship formerly named the Hampton Court. Other known ships (although some names have been disputed) were the Almiranta, the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, Urca de Lima, San Miguel, the El Ciervo, the Refuerzo. and a smaller merchant vessel. Sailing with them, a French ship Griffon, under the command of Captain Antoine Dar.
All of them were overloaded, top-heavy, and clumsy – and had delayed too long. More delays occurred in Havana, and the convoy of twelve ships did not weigh anchor until well into the known hurricane season. The route was the usual tried and tested one up the Bahama Channel: follow the Florida coast making use of the Gulf Stream, which eventually veers across the Atlantic not far from where the fleet was lost.
Seven days after departing from Havana in the evening of July 30th, a hurricane blew in, wrecking the fleet along the Florida coast, with the single exception of the Griffon which sailed on unscathed. Over one thousand people lost their lives, including Ubilla and his officers.
Some of the ships sank in deep water, some broke up in the shallows. The more fortunate ran aground close to the beach. About 1,500 reached the safety of shore by swimming or floating on wreckage. The survivors improvised makeshift camps while a party was dispatched to fetch aid from St. Augustine, but many of those who had scrabbled ashore succumbed to exposure, thirst, shock and hunger before help could arrive. When the terrible news reached Havana, salvage ships were dispatched. Probably not for the immediate benefit of those wretched survivors, but out of concern for the lost cargo.
The first task was to initiate a salvage operation. Much of the treasure was recovered from the holds of the ships which had run aground in the shallows. The salvage encampment grew and a storehouse was erected among the dunes behind the beach bordering unexplored jungle.
Various wars and skirmish between Spain, Holland, France and England – in different combinations with different allies and enemies – had ground to a halt. In the Caribbean, Port Royal, Tortuga and Nassau, and along the North American coast of the Colonies, men sat idle, with no money to spend in the brothels and taverns, with nothing to do. In the harbours, ships lay at anchor slowly rotting.
Word spread of the disaster off the Florida coast, and many of those bored men suddenly had the same idea: get a boat, get rich quick. Like moths to a flame they surged to the shallows in the hope of picking up a fortune – literally.
And then, in 1716, Henry Jennings appeared on the scene.
He figured that scrabbling around in the shallows, risking sharks or drowning, was a silly game. He had the better idea of letting the Spanish do the work, then taking between one-hundred-and-fifty to three-hundred men to raid the warehouse at the salvage camp. He returned to Jamaica carrying an estimated 350,000 pesos (a lot of money!) En route he attacked another Spanish ship, amassing more loot, and met up with "Black Sam" Bellamy, committing more acts of piracy together against French ships.
Jennings was declared a pirate and fled to New Providence in the Bahamas. In Nassau he became the unofficial mayor of the expanding pirate colony, taking the King’s amnesty declared by the newly appointed Governor of the Bahamas, Woodes Rogers, and eventually retired to Bermuda as a wealthy plantation owner.
It is the sinking of the Spanish Fleet and Jennings’ daring-do along the Florida coast that inspired my initial idea for Sea Witch. ‘What if’ I thought, ‘it wasn’t Henry Jennings’ idea to raid that warehouse? What if my pirate, Jesamiah Acorne was the brain behind the scheme?’ The idea took flight and became a central part of the first Sea Witch Voyage. You can read an excerpt here:
As for the treasure ships, the Spanish continued salvaging what they could until 1719, then gave up. It is possible that around £300,000,000 still remains on the sea floor, the occasional haul being found by professional marine archaeologists and treasure-hunter, or by lucky holiday-makers.
images: Stock Images via courtesy Cathy Helms www.avalongraphics.org