16th century Portuguese and Spanish trade routes

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, tend 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.

Gold Plated

The War of the Spanish Succession had been raging in Europe since 1701, and for two years Spain had to postpone all treasure shipments from the New World for fear they’d be intercepted. This unusual delay meant that there was an extremely large stockpile of treasure waiting for transportation. And Spain needed it urgently: the war had severely depleted the country’s resources, and the nation’s new queen, Isabella Farnese, was also particularly keen on getting some jewels from America that had been promised as part of her dowry. So two fleets were sent to collect the treasure—five ships in one, headed for Veracruz, Mexico, and six in the other, headed for South America. The plan was, as usual, for the fleets to load up at their respective destinations and then rendezvous in Havana (assuming there would be greater safety in numbers). From there, the combined fleet was to set out before hurricane season began in July and sail north with the Gulf Stream along Florida’s east coast until they hit the trade winds that would carry them eastward for the long voyage across the Atlantic.

The ships were fully loaded with the immense stockpile of accumulated gold, silver, jewels, and rare Chinese porcelain plates. (It wasn’t these plates that led to the name “plate fleet,” by the way, but rather plata, the Spanish word for silver.) However, a long series of delays meant that the ships didn’t all reach Havana until late July. They were joined by a 12th ship from France and, under immense pressure to deliver their cargo as quickly as possible, set sail for Spain on July 24, 1715.

Just a few days into their journey, the ships encountered a massive hurricane that spread out the fleet and blew them toward shore. According to some reports, the French ship, which had sailed slightly farther to the east, escaped the storm. But in any case, all 11 Spanish ships were caught in the thick of it. Before the hurricane had passed, 10 of the 11 ships had sunk, most of them dashed against the reefs just offshore. The final ship managed to anchor safely, but sank the following day in another storm. At least 700 men (1,000 according to some sources—almost half the total crew) were killed.

Lost and Found Treasure

Over the next three years, the Spanish government sent numerous salvage vessels to recover what they could of the lost treasure; looters and pirates also flocked to the site. Conveniently, some of the ships had run aground or sunk in water so shallow that part of the hull was still visible above the waterline. Estimates as to what portion of the treasure was recovered range as high as 50%, but that’s likely a very optimistic figure: to this day, five of the ships have never been found, and only a portion of the cargo from those that were found could be recovered. By 1718, Spain gave up on any further salvage attempts, and the exact locations of the ships—which still contained many millions of dollars worth of treasure—were lost.

However, for over two centuries, gold coins and other artifacts from the lost ships occasionally washed up along a portion of the Florida shore that came to be known as Treasure Coast, and the lost plate fleet remained part of local lore. In 1928, the wreckage of one of the ships was discovered by a diver just 200 yards (about 180m) offshore. Then, in the 1960s, a contractor named Kip Wagner began to search for the other ships in earnest, and eventually succeeded in rediscovering several of them—and recovering a huge amount of gold and silver. Salvage efforts (under contract with the state of Florida) are ongoing, as is the search for the remaining ships. The story is also finding its way into pop culture—for example, the first season of the TV show Black Sails involves the 1715 plate fleet. In more ways than one, the treasure is even more valuable today than when it was lost.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 11, 2005.

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