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Hoping to shed light on the long-hidden secrets of treasure-laden Spanish galleons, Archaeologist Catherine M. Gaither discusses the background to a fascinating period in Spainīs history.


The Spanish Plate Fleet The mention of treasure-laden Spanish galleons brings to mind images of the great ships gliding effortlessly through dangerous waters, their sails billowing in the wind, and their towering sterncastles rising and falling with each wave. It creates a feeling of nostalgia for the romance and adventure it implies, a way of life lost to the past. Even the most impressive modern ships rarely impart the same sense of awe and wonder that the galleons awaken in the hearts of the most casual of observers. They are representative of a time when the world was still unexplored, and each voyage was one of discovery, filled with an odd mixture of danger and excitement. The questions naturally come to mind: What were these people like? What did they think and dream about? What were their likes and dislikes? What was it like for them? To answer these questions, archaeologists must analyze what these people left behind. Within the context of maritime history, this means examining the remains of the ships that never made it home, those that were lost to fierce storms or relentless enemies.

Spain rose to the status of the most powerful nation in Europe after the voyage of Columbus in 1492. The New World provided the wealth necessary to attain and maintain this position for over a century (Mathewson 1986). During this time, Spain established global trade routes with ports from Manila to Peru, and all over the West Indies (Throckmorton 1987). Such power did not come without a price, however, as the Spanish treasure fleets became the favorite targets of unfriendly nations and the privateers they spawned. Spain's hold over the West Indies became a bone of contention with other European nations, and the wars that ensued created a huge financial demand that depended on the flow of gold and silver coming from the New World. Armed galleons were sent to accompany every treasure fleet, but Spain could not hope to maintain control over this area for long. The financial demands were too much, and the loss of numerous fleets to storms and battles eventually took its toll. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 brought an end to the latest battle, the War of Spanish Succession, and to Spain's exclusive hold over the West Indies (Walton 1994).

This is where the story of one treasure fleet, the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet, really begins. Felipe V was recognized by the other European powers as the king of Spain under the conditions of the Treaty of Utrecht. While the treaty ended the formal hostilities, the passage from the New World to Spain was still treacherous, and warranted the cautions of combined fleets and armed galleon escorts (Walton 1994). At the time the treaty was signed, Spain was faced with numerous internal problems. Resistance to the new Bourbon regime that Felipe V represented culminated in the siege of Barcelona (1713-1714). When the city surrendered, it was in ruins as was the economy of the region of Catalonia (Payne 1973). Furthermore, during wartime, it had been impossible to continue the fleet system of transporting New World treasure back to Spain, and thus, huge backlogs had developed and were now desperately needed (Craig 1988). Spain's financial situation was surely motivation enough to necessitate the successful transport of treasure from the New World, but Felipe V may have had another reason as well.

Felipe V was plagued by mental instability which centered around two obsessions: sex and religion. When his first wife, Marie Louise of Savoy, died in 1714, he had to be torn from her deathbed as he continued to try to take pleasure from her, pleasure which he knew he could not have again for a long time without sinning. After her death, the chancelleries of Europe began the search for a new queen. Seven months later, Felipe V married Isabella Farnese of Parma. Isabella was a strongly motivated woman, and as Felipe's mental condition sent him into cycles of depression and seclusion, it was she who really ruled Spain (Bos 1996). Her domination was apparent from the start of their relationship as she refused to consummate their marriage before she had received a dowry of jewels (Essig 1996). It was a portion of this dowry that may have been coming from the New World aboard the ships of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet. This may have contributed to the sense of urgency with which the Crown was anticipating the successful arrival of a treasure fleet.

The 1715 fleet consisted of a combination of two fleets, the Galeones de Tierra Firme and the New Spain Flota. Florida Location MapThey combined forces in Havana, Cuba on July 24, and set sail for Spain on July 27, 1715. They sailed through the Florida Straits and up the east coast of Florida where they would have caught the tradewinds that would take them across the Atlantic and home, but they never made it that far. On July 31, 1715, the fleet was hit by a hurricane and driven into the reefs along the east coast of Florida between what is now Cape Canaveral and Fort Pierce. Eleven ships went down, and nearly half of the 2,500 lives on board were lost (Smith 1988). While the Spanish mounted salvage attempts almost immediately after the tragedy occurred, the area over which the wreckage was spread was too large for them to be entirely successful. (See Figure 1.1 for a map of the area where the fleet went down.) Some of the ships were salvaged, but the majority of the cargo was lost to the ocean, and it is there that it remained for more than 250 years.

In the 1960s, a man named Kip Wagner organized the Real Eight Corporation in the attempt to search for and recover the treasure of the 1715 Fleet. Since that time the area has been worked almost constantly by commercial salvors under contract with the State of Florida's Division of Historical Resources. Mel Fisher's organization, Salvors, Inc., has held a contract with the State of Florida for the last 13 years (Fisher 1996). It is through their efforts that six of the wrecks have been found, and hundreds of thousands of artifacts have been recovered. The artifacts recovered are thoroughly researched in the effort to learn more about the lives of the people who lived during this time period. Sometimes they yield insight into the daily lives of the common people, sometimes they demonstrate the excesses of wealth, and sometimes they illustrate the enormous faith that these people had in their religion. Each season, the artifacts provide valuable information, and this year was no exception.

The artifacts recovered this season have included some particularly interesting items that are somewhat unique for a number of reasons. Among these is a gold ring of rather simple design (See Figure 1.2). Fig. 1.2: 1996 RingIt was found on a wreck site which is theorized to be the wreck of either the almiranta (rear guard ship) or the capitana (lead ship) of the New Spain Flota. The inside of the ring contains an inscription that appears to consist of abbreviated Spanish words and a series of initials. What makes this even more interesting is that the inscription on this ring is very similar to the inscription on a ring found in 1989 on another 1715 wreck site (See Figure 1.3), the material from which also suggests it was either the capitana or the almiranta of the New Spain Flota (it has not yet been determined which of these two wrecks is the capitana and which is the almiranta, but both have materials suggesting they are one or the other). Fig 1.3: 1989 RingThe differences between the two inscriptions are minimal, and for all practical purposes, they appear to have the same basic meaning. Furthermore, the inscriptions on these rings match the inscription on a bracelet that was found by a beachcomber in the area of where the 1996 ring was found. Florida law stipulates that no one owns the beach and a "finders keepers" rule of artifacts applies to anything found. Therefore, the bracelet is not accessible for research, but a photograph has revealed virtually the same inscription. Both rings have elements that indicate the beginning of the inscription, and the divisions between the words. It is not known if this is true of the bracelet. The inscriptions read as follows:

1989 gold ring: Z+DIA+BIZ+S+ZB+Z+HGA+BFS++
1996 gold ring: Z+DIA+BIZ+SAB+Z+HG+F+BF
Bracelet - beach find: Z DIA BIZ SAB ZHG BFRS

The crosses are indicative of the design element that separates the abbreviated words, and the beginning and end of the inscription (See Figures 1.4 and 1.5 for photographs of a portion of these inscriptions).

Fig. 1.5: Ring - DIA Portion of Interior Inscription

Fig. 1.4: 1996 Ring - DIA Portion of Interior Inscription
Fig. 1.6: Illustration of 1996 Ring Depicting Full Inscription

Both rings are significantly larger in size than other rings that have been recovered from these wrecks. The smaller of the two has an 18 mm diameter. This may be indicative that they were men's rings. Both demonstrate what appear to be weld lines which suggest that sections were added to the original ring. Both rings have comparatively simplistic design elements and the smaller of the two has a part of the inscription (Z+HGA+BFS) on the outer portion of the ring (See Figures 1.6 and 1.7 for illustrations of the rings and their inscriptions).

The bracelet has the entire inscription on its interior aspect, and it has an animal's head (perhaps a snake or a marten) completing the circle of the bracelet. The eyes of the animal are fashioned with emeralds. In summary, these jewelry pieces have three things in common: expensive materials (gold and emeralds), simplistic designs, and similar inscriptions (differing only in what appears to be initials). The question now is, what does this reveal about the people to whom these items belonged? Were they relatives, perhaps brothers? Were they members of a religious order or some other organization? Were they a married couple forced by space limitations to be on two separate ships for the voyage home? The key to answering these questions may lie in the meaning of the inscription, and identifying the owners of this jewelry may lead to a positive identification of the names of the ships. But identifying the ships is not all that is important. Within this process of analyzing the past, it is also important to remember that these items belonged to real people whose lives we know little about, but whose deaths we are beginning to understand.

With a little imagination, it is possible to recreate what it must have been like for these people as the hurricane hit the fleet. Storms are common in the Atlantic, and so there may not have been much concern as the weather began to deteriorate. As the wind grew stronger and the waves began to crash over the deck of the ship, however, their fear would have grown, beginning at first with small trickles of concern punctuated by nervous laughter, and finally building to a crescendo of terror as the ocean tossed the mighty galleons about like a child's toy. At last, realizing the desperate nature of their situation, they would have come to the upper decks in an effort to avoid being trapped below when the ships went down. The only possessions to cross their minds were those that represented their faith in the God they hoped would spare them. Clinging to their rosaries and crucifixes, and any part of the ship stable enough to support them, they waited their turn to receive last rites. As the storm grew in intensity, the once proud fleet would have resembled a procession of ghost ships, with their tattered sails and broken masts. Finally, after hours of being beaten about, tossed to and fro despite the desperate attempts to secure the ships, these once prized possessions of man succumbed to the overwhelming force of nature. They broke apart on the reefs, spilling their valuable cargo into the all-consuming depths of the ocean. Those who had not already been swept overboard, were themselves cast into an unforgiving environment. Those who died were, perhaps, the lucky ones. What awaited those who survived was months of suffering in a world filled with stifling heat, disease-carrying insects, and hostile natives, a world where food and water were not readily available nor easily obtained.
Sinking Galleon Illustration The remnants of their lives bring to mind this tragic ordeal, but they also open a doorway into the past. A shipwreck is somewhat different from most other archaeological sites. The archaeologist is not looking at what was left behind or discarded (as is often the case with abandoned cities, homes etc.). Like Pompeii, a shipwreck is a moment of time frozen for the future. The excavation of such a site can reveal a great deal about the lives of the people involved. It often reveals items or behaviors not recorded by written history, or in some instances, contradict written history. Furthermore, it allows us to do more than merely understand our past and how it has shaped our present, and possibly, our future; it allows us to sympathize with our past, to touch it and feel it. Herein lies the real treasure of these Spanish galleons.

"The 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet: Picking up the Pieces of a 281-Year-Old Disaster."
Copyright ©1996 by Catherine M. Gaither, All Rights Reserved.

Illustrations by Lynda Matthews
Copyright © 1996, All Rights Reserved.

Photographs by Bill Moore
Copyright © 1996, All Rights Reserved.

Design & Production: Tuspain.com


Bos, Joan N.W. "Mad Monarchs of Spain" on the Internet, 1996.

Craig, Alan K. "Gold Coins of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet: A Numismatic Study of the State of Florida Collection" in Florida Archaeology. No. 4. Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research: Florida, 1988.

Essig, H.M. Archaeology Student. Personal Communication, 1996.

Fisher, Taffi. Director, Mel Fisher Museum. Sebastian, Florida. Personal Communication, 1996.

Mathewson, Duncan R. III. Treasure of the Atocha. E.P. Dutton: New York, 1986.

Payne, Stanley G. A History of Spain and Portugal. vols. 1, 2. U. of Wisconsin P.: Wisconsin, 1973.

Smith, Roger C. "Treasure Ships of the Spanish Main: The Iberian-American Maritime Empires" in Ships and Shipwrecks of the Americas. ed. George F. Bass. Thames and Hudson: New York, 1988.

Throckmorton, Peter. The Sea Remembers. Mitchell Beazley: London, 1987.

Walton, Timothy R. The Spanish Treasure Fleets. Pineapple Press: Florida, 1994.

"The 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet: Picking up the Pieces of a 281-Year-Old Disaster." Copyright ©1996 by Catherine M. Gaither, all rights reserved.

Catherine M. Ghaither is a contract archaeologist currently working on historic shipwreck sites in Florida. She has also researched prehistoric Native American sites in Colorado and Pre-Columbian sites in Peru. She is a graduate of the Metropolitan State College in Denver, Colorado with a BA in anthropology and will be undertaking post-graduate studies in biological anthropology in 1997.

Related Web Sites

http://www.melfisher.com Mel Fisher Site

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