All American school children know the rhyme, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two.” They learn, by and by, that Columbus (who was probably not Spanish, even though he sailed under the flag of Spain) was not the first European to land in North America; that he never actually set foot in what is today the United States, that he was severely mistaken about the location of the New World, and that his voyages were largely motivated by greed. None of these facts, however, tends to take the sheen off the popular belief that Columbus discovered America, and that in some way his adventures were altruistic explorations that were really undertaken for the benefit of future generations—namely, us. And when we think of Spain’s role in the development of the western hemisphere, many of us think mainly about the Spanish colonization of Mexico and Central and South America.
The view from Spain in the 15th century, and for quite some time thereafter, was very different. Whatever else could be said about America, it was a gold mine—both figuratively and literally. Spain’s plan was to monopolize trade with the New World, making sure its gold, silver, and treasures of other kinds flowed back to Spain. This money financed, among other things, Spain’s efforts to expand its territory within Europe and around the world. So for nearly 200 years, heavily armed convoys of Spanish ships made regular, twice-annual voyages to deliver manufactured goods to the Americas and carry treasure (some of it from commerce, but much of it from taxes) back to Spain. Unsurprisingly, some of these ships never made it home, due to piracy, bad weather, or other misfortunes. But one particular loss is notable for its size, its location, and its historical significance: the ill-fated treasure fleet of 1715. [Article Continues…]