Nuestra Se?ora de Atocha
Nuestra Se?ora de Atocha ("Our Lady of Atocha") was the most famous of a fleet of Spanish ships that sunk in 1622 off the Florida Keys while carrying copper, silver, gold, tobacco, and indigo from Spanish ports at Cartagena, Colombia, Porto Bello in New Granada and Havana bound for Spain. The ship was named for the parish of Atocha in Madrid, Spain.
On September 4, 1622, the Atocha was driven by a severe hurricane onto the coral reefs near the Marquesas Cays, about twenty miles west of Key West. With her hull savagely ripped open, the vessel quickly sank, drowning every one aboard except for five survivors (three sailors and two slaves). The Atocha was heavy-laden with gold, silver and precious gems, bound for the treasuries of Spain.
Gold coin retrieved from the shipwreck
Impact of the Loss
After the surviving ships brought the news of the disaster back to Havana Spanish authorities dispatched another five ships to salvage the Atocha and the Santa Margarita, which had run aground near where the Atocha sank. The Atocha had sunk in approximately 50 feet of water, making it difficult for divers to retrieve any of the cargo or guns from the ship. A second hurricane in October of that year made attempts at salvage even more difficult by burying or scattering the wreckage of the ship still further.
The loss of the 1622 fleet had an immediate impact on Spain, forcing it to borrow more to finance its role in the Thirty Years' War and to sell several galleons to raise funds. While their efforts over the next ten years to salvage the Margarita were successful, the Spanish never relocated the Atocha.
Modern Recovery and Legal Battle
This cargo of the Atocha, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars by today's standards, lay lost beneath the sea for nearly 360 years. American treasure hunter Mel Fisher and a team of sub-contractors, funded by investors and others in a joint venture, searched the sea bed for the Atocha for over 20 years. The team discovered the wreck and associated silver, gold and emeralds in 1985. Fisher had earlier recovered the wrecked cargo of the Santa Margarita in 1980.
After the discovery the United States government claimed title to the wreck, and the State of Florida seized many of the items Fisher had retrieved from his earliest salvage expeditions. After eight years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Fisher.
The Cultures and Histories of the Americas
A Spanish Galleon Wrecks in 1622
During the centuries of Spanish exploration and colonization, treasure fleets made regular trips to the Americas to deliver merchandise and collect treasures and precious metals. In late summer merchant ships would join their protectors, the war galleons, in Havana to form the treasure fleet for the return to Spain. Often, however, ships were scattered because of bad weather, poor seamanship, or piracy. In early September 1622, Nuestra Se?ora de Atocha, a galleon carrying tons of Spanish treasure, was wrecked on the Florida coral reefs near the Dry Tortugas, leaving only five survivors. These items were recovered from the site of the wreck.
Gold Bullion from the 1622 Nuestra Se?ora de Atocha wreck - Jay I. Kislak Collection
From the discontinued journal "Treasure Quest Magazine"
Still Out There: Unaccounted for Shipwrecks
by Timothy R. Walton
The Spanish made elaborate plans to minimize losses from their treasure fleets by carefully planning their routes to take advantage of favorable winds and currents and by scheduling departures to avoid seasonal storms. But sometimes even their elaborate precautions failed and there were sizable losses, as there was when most of the 1605 Tierra Firme Flota (Terra Firma Fleet) was lost in the Caribbean.
Spanish authorities normally sent two fleets a year to their colonies in the Caribbean to transport supplies to the settlers and then pick up the production from the gold and silver mines. One fleet left Spain in the spring and went to Veracruz to pick up the treasure, mostly silver, from Mexico. The other fleet left in the late summer for Cartagena, a heavily fortified port on the mainland of South America, or Tierra Firme, as it was known at the time. In Cartagena the treasure fleets loaded a more varied cargo of gold and emeralds from what is now Columbia, as well as silver brought along the Pacific coast from Peru and then carried by mule train over the Isthmus of Panama to Porto Bello on the Caribbean coast.
After loading at Veracruz, Cartagena, and Porto Bello, the last stop in the Caribbean for the treasure fleets was Havana, another heavily fortified port, where galleons loaded supplies and made repairs before the long Atlantic crossing back to Spain.
In the early seventeenth century the Tierra Firme Flota was by far the most valuable of the two treasure fleets. The mines in Peru, especially those near Potosi, were the richest known, generating as much silver as all of the world's other mines combined. Production was at a level that would not be surpassed in the colonies until modern mining techniques were implemented in the eighteenth century, and as much as ten million pesos worth of treasure was being produced every year. The peso, or piece-of-eight, was a silver coin that was the standard way of measuring the size of treasure shipments.
The fleets that were to carry this fabulous treasure often spent the winter in the Caribbean and then left before the summer hurricane season. Pirates, and the navies of other countries, only rarely constituted a serious threat to the large and heavily armed treasure fleets. The danger that brought the most losses was the weather, especially the hurricanes of the Caribbean.
The seven galleons of the 1605 Terra Firma Fleet left Cartagena in January, confident that it was well past the hurricane season, and headed north toward Havana. As the fleet passed the Serranilla banks, halfway between Jamaica and Yucatan, a surprise storm struck. One ship was able to make it back to Cartagena, two pressed on and found shelter in Jamaica, but four galleons-carrying by some estimates about eight million pesos worth of gold, silver and emeralds-went down on the Serranilla Banks. All of the crew and passengers, some 1,300 people in all were lost.
As soon as word of the disaster reached Cartagena, the Spanish immediately launched a salvage expedition, as they usually did after the loss of treasure ships. Some was salvaged, but with no survivors to point the way to the exact location of all the wreck sites, it proved impossible to locate the bulk of the lost treasure.
Later in the seventeenth century there were rumors that local fish men found some of the wrecks and brought up more of the treasure, and there might have been other discreet recoveries of limited amounts in the first decades after the disaster before the growth of the coral reef covered the sites. Then, for centuries, knowledge of the location of the treasure was lost and there was no technology to find it.
Large amounts of treasure from the 1605 Tierra Firme fleet are still sprinkled over the Serranilla Banks. This treasure is in international waters, and so no government's permission is necessary to look for or recover it.* Although the wrecks are not in deep waters, finding the sites would be difficult because the wooden ships have long since disintegrated, and almost 400 years of coral growth has made it virtually impossible to locate visually the piles of ballast stones or other clues that usually mark Spanish wrecks. Instead, searchers would have to rely on magnetometers to locate anchors or other iron artifacts that would be associated with galleons. Because there were four wrecks, probably the treasure is widely scattered. Search and salvage would also be a challenge because of the dangerous reefs and volatile weather of the area.
Timothy R. Walton
THE AUTHOR: Tim Walton is a political analyst, naval veteran, author, and coin collector with a doctorate in history from the University of Virginia. These varied interests and experiences sparked his interest in telling the multifaceted story of The Spanish Treasure Fleets.
*NOTE: Although positioned in the open Caribbean Sea hundreds of miles from either one, the countries of Colombia and Honduras both lay claim to the Serranilla Banks and her sunken riches; this will one day be contested in an international court! As recently as March or April of this year, we have learned, at least one party from Colombia and one from the U.S. have claimed to have found the San Roque and Neustra Senora de Begona of the 1605 flota and have applied for salvage rights with the government of Colombia-ed.
Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society