300 years ago
A hurricane destroyed a fleet of 11 ships laden with riches, killing hundreds and spilling much of the precious cargo along our shores — the rest is Treasure Coast history
BY RICK CRARY
In a single night more than 300 years ago, Spain’s entire fleet of treasure ships suddenly went down, scattering untold millions of dollars worth of silver and gold along our shores. After treasure hunters regularly began to bring up great caches of lost riches in the early 1960s, our region was dubbed the Treasure Coast. But the glitter of that shimmering nickname is only a half-told tale. The storm scattered people, too.
The drama of the 1715 treasure fleet disaster should have become as legendary as the sinking of the Titanic. But the people involved were all twice-doomed. First, they were caught up in one of the worst maritime catastrophes in history, and then their epic struggle was so overlooked it sank into oblivion. Swallowed by water, buried by sand, all traces of that dreadful event were wiped from the world’s collective consciousness. For nearly 2 1/2 centuries, no one even remembered where the great disaster occurred. It was not until treasure hunters caught gold fever that archeologists and historians began to piece together clues and an outline of lost history reappeared.
On July 31, 1715, nearly 2,500 men, women and children huddled together in the suffocating holds of 11 towering wooden ships during a terrifying night. The passengers had been rolling and tossing in the sea’s increasing fury since the day before. A microcosm of Spanish culture of that era was traveling on those ships, including merchants, mariners, public officials, servants and royalty. There was even an art collector among them, and a former governor of Florida.
These were people who had ruled the world. After all, God gave the Americas to Spain, or so Pope Alexander VI had decreed two centuries before. Ever since the early 1500s, heavily armed fleets of treasure ships had been transporting the silver of the Incas, the gold of the Aztecs and the glimmering treasures of the Mayans back across the ocean to Europe. Spain became addicted to its New World riches. The king and his favored subjects used them to buy luxuries made in manufacturing nations like Holland, England, France and the German principalities. All of Europe shared in the elation, and wars were spawned to siphon off more profits. Even in peacetime, Spain’s treasure ships needed to band together to fend off attacks her enemies made through state-sponsored privateers or pirates.
There were actually two flotillas of treasure ships making that ill-fated voyage in the summer of 1715. One squadron, commanded by Capt. Gen. Don Antonio de Echeverz, had picked up precious freight in South America. The other group, led by Capt. Gen. Juan Esteban de Ubilla, loaded up with treasure in Mexico. The primary cargo was silver, which is why the combined convoy is often referred to as the Plate Fleet (Flota de la Plata). Plata means silver in Spanish. But there was plenty of gold, too, and vanilla, chocolate, sassafras and other sumptuous luxuries for the folks back home.
The ships even carried crates of costly porcelain that had been shipped from China across the Pacific, then carried over the deserts of Mexico on the backs of burros. After considerable delays, the two flotilla commanders finally made a rendezvous in Havana, where they filled up every remaining nook and cranny of their ships with passengers.
Even without the bad weather, it would have been an uncomfortable journey from Havana back to Spain. In the dank pantries below deck, provisions molded and grew stale quickly. Drinking water typically spoiled as weeks went by, especially when rats drowned in it. By the end of a transatlantic voyage, people usually had to hold their noses to swallow. Obviously, you needed a strong immune system just to make it through the meals. But a handful of upper-class passengers could expect their supply of wine, brandy, and fresh meat to last through the trip. Animals were kept on board to slaughter for first-class dinners. The livestock added to the ripe smell in the cramped compartments most passengers had to share. But favorites of the king could book a small room up top with a window, where it was much easier to breathe.
The pageantry of coming and going was wonderfully colorful and exciting. Cheering crowds and firing cannon celebrated the grand departure of the Plate Fleet as it sailed out of Havana’s harbor. It was such a beautiful day when those 11 Spanish ships left together in full sail with banners flying. There was, as yet, no hint on the horizon that this would be the voyage of the damned. Oh, and there was one more ship tagging along. The Grifón. It was French. France and Spain had become allies again, so the Grifón was allowed to sail under the protection of the many dozens of big Spanish guns lined up along multiple decks in each vessel.
Perhaps the highest-ranking nobleman on board those ships was Don Pedro de Colarte y Douvers. Although born in Flanders to a Flemish navigator, Colarte had worked his way up in influential Spanish circles, becoming one of the leading traders in the New World. He did very well for himself during the long, uneasy reign of the prior inbred king, Charles the Bewitched. Charles was a deformed and gruesome regent, who believed some wicked demon had cast a spell on him. He burned many alleged witches in an effort to cure his unfortunate birth defects. Colarte, as one of the paranoid king’s favored businessmen, had been elevated to the regal class in the 1690s. He was now known as the marquis of Pedroso. Rich and royal, the marquis was also a renowned art collector. One of his magnificent Murillo paintings, The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities, hangs in London’s National Gallery today.
When Charles the Bewitched died childless, the world’s attention became focused on whom would become the rightful king of Spain. The balance of power in Europe and North America depended upon the answer. Many died in what was called the War of Spanish Succession. The conflict impeded the regular flow of treasure back to Spain for more than a decade, until a peaceful settlement was finally reached. That’s why the 1715 Plate Fleet was overloaded with extra silver and gold, much of which was being smuggled to avoid the royal tax.
During the recent war, the British had attempted to seize St. Augustine, but Florida’s brave governor, José de Zuñiga y la Cerda, successfully fended off the siege from inside the walls of Castillo de San Marcos. Zuñiga and the entire local population crowded into that small fortress and outlasted a long attempt to starve them out. That selfsame governor was sailing with the Plate Fleet, too. Zuñiga, who was 61, had since been promoted to the office of Gov. of Cartagena, the port city where South American treasure had been collected. He must have been born under a fortunate star, because once more he would look upon disaster from a place of safety. For some reason, he had chosen to sail back to Europe on the French ship, and the French commander was the only officer in the whole flotilla who was at liberty to think for himself.
They might all have been OK, if Capt. Gen. Echeverz had kept up the pace, but his six lumbering ships continuously fell behind as they sailed up Florida’s coast. Capt. Gen. Ubilla slowed down repeatedly to let the laggards in the other squadron catch up. As a result, the fleet lingered a day too long in a region they should have hurried through. In the eyes of Spaniards, southern Florida was the Terror Coast. Passengers would likely have told ghost stories about the place, where savage natives were known in centuries past to have sacrificed castaways to their bloodthirsty gods. Few shipwreck survivors had lived to tell the tale of their visit. Perhaps the Spanish should have avoided sailing past the danger zone altogether, but they couldn’t resist using the Gulf Stream as their water highway home. The current gave their bulky vessels a desirable boost.
Several days into the journey, the ships began to encounter a telltale roll on the otherwise pleasant sea. They rocked from side to side as they plodded northward. Cirrus clouds stretched out across the sky in the ominous shape of mares’ tales. These were signs that mariners recognized as harbingers of nasty weather. A powerful disturbance was approaching from the east. As the hours passed, the ocean swells grew larger and fringes of white caps appeared.
Miguel de Lima, a wealthy ship owner, was sailing his boat, the Urca, in Capt. Gen. Ubilla’s squadron. He first noticed the wind beginning to blow stronger as Ubilla’s boats sat waiting once again for Echeverz’s heavily laden vessels to catch up. They were near the treacherous region their destiny would one day give a name: the Treasure Coast. Ubilla should have lost no time in sailing northward beyond the reach of danger, but he was determined to keep the entire fleet together. In retrospect, he might have saved his own ships if he had left the stragglers behind, but he wouldn’t live to second-guess himself. Ubilla’s squadron waited for lumbering Echeverz as the winds grew ever stronger.
When the ships regrouped, Ubilla ordered cannon shots fired to gain everyone’s attention. He signaled his orders with flags. All vessels were commanded to face the wind and sail into the storm to reach for deeper waters. The fleet’s leader was afraid to maintain his northbound course, because that would have meant tacking dangerously close to Florida’s offshore reefs. Besides, he and his crews had weathered storms before.
One ship disobeyed and pulled away from the pack in time. It was the Grifón. Its commander, a man named D’aire, made full use of the wind and darted up the coast. It must have been poignant in later years for Gov. Zuñiga to remember sailing away to safety as he looked back upon those 11 mighty ships in all their glory. He would have been among the last to witness those majestic floating fortresses gathering together to attack the storm as dark clouds brought the night on early.
“The sun disappeared and the winds increased and increased in velocity coming from the east and east-northeast,” ship owner Miguel de Lima wrote seven weeks later in a report dated Oct. 19, 1715. “The seas became very great in size. The wind continued blowing us toward shore, pushing us into shallow water. Then the wind changed to a furious hurricane and the seas became of such great size, with huge waves.”
The pitching and rolling continued relentlessly into the early morning hours of the 31st, and the ships were pushed miles apart from one another. As the storm became more damning, priests took confessions of seasick passengers who feared dying with unforgiven sins. All the while, ocean-hardened mariners on deck fought to press toward deeper waters. But the sails ripped, the masts snapped, and the rudders broke away. Mounting waves washed many seamen overboard before the battle with nature was lost.
In a last-ditch effort to stop the ships from reaching the crushing shallows, the sailors dropped big anchors to claw against the sucking currents. The anchors would not hold. High up in the stern of one of those tall ships, the marquis of Pedroso must have been bouncing off the walls of his private cabin as the hurricane tossed his rudderless ship like a toy. Crowds below rose and fell with each sloshing, mountainous wave. In the blackness of the night their terror must have seemed a thousand times greater than if they had reached the dawn.
One by one the wooden fortresses crunched against jagged reefs as waves thundered like waterfalls pounding down from on high. The sounds of the massive hulls splitting must have echoed horribly through the holds as blasts of saltwater rushed in to swallow people praying in the dark. Boats broke apart, spilling people and treasure into the violent sea. Those who managed to find the surface to gasp for air would be pushed underwater again and again. In the darkness they could not have seen the shore or judged how long they had to fight against the waves.
Adm. Don Francisco Salmón, second in command of the fleet, was on a ship that broke into three pieces, but it was so close to shore that the bow and stern swept up to the beach. Most of the people inside those two fractured sections simply tumbled out into the landward fringe of the breakers, while those in the middle contended with the undertow that pulled them away from shore. Luckier still, Miguel de Lima’s boat missed the reefs altogether and crashed into a shallow river inlet. Nearly everyone on his ship was spared. But the other nine ships went under much farther from shore.
A TERRIBLE TOLL
The number of casualties was staggering. According to first reports reaching a Boston newspaper several months later, 786 people drowned. Later computations set the death toll as high as a thousand. The Marquis of Pedroso and Capt. Gen. Ubilla were among the dead. The grim light of dawn disclosed bodies rolling in the surf and washing up for more than 40 miles along the beaches from Stuart up to Sebastian and beyond.
By the time the hot sun rose, most survivors had made it onto the desolate barrier islands. Some had been too battered to continue breathing very long. Only a few of those still clinging to flotsam at sea would find their way to the shore within the coming days. But getting to the beach was only the first stage in a long struggle to survive. The region was far removed from the civilized world, and the dog days of August were just about to begin.
“The heat of the sun was insufferable,” Miguel de Lima wrote, “and the number of mosquitoes was probably greater than the plague of Egypt.”
The stunned castaways congregated in several encampments on the beaches of what would one day become Indian River, St. Lucie, and Martin counties. There were as many as 1,500. Adm. Salmón took charge of the settlement from his headquarters at the largest encampment, which was two miles south of present-day Sebastian Inlet. Wells were dug behind the dunes, where they found water that was fit enough to drink. Miguel de Lima was able to remove provisions from his battered boat before it sank altogether. The biscuits and other foods he rationed out helped many castaways survive for the 31 days it took for the first relief ships to arrive with additional supplies. As for the hundreds of dead, they were given makeshift graves in the sand.
Fortunately, two small lifeboats with sails remained intact, and Adm. Salmón used them to send messengers to Havana and St. Augustine to ask the governors of Cuba and Florida for assistance. The most prominent castaways were allowed to sail away to civilization with Salmón’s messengers. A few larcenous opportunists stole as much treasure as they could carry and walked 120 miles to St. Augustine, where they were arrested. The rest of the passengers sweltered and swatted bugs for a month, before the first rescue sloops arrived from Havana. Some had to wait much longer. Even after the rescue, the ordeal would continue for many.
“I have suffered such great losses from this disaster that I lack the funds to get back to my home or even to maintain myself in Havana,” Miguel de Lima lamented. “However, I am happy that I still have my life and health.”
Adm. Salmón’s encampment near Sebastian Inlet continued to serve as headquarters for Spain’s salvage operations for several years. With the help of hired Native American divers, around half of the lost treasure was recovered and shipped back to Spain. But some of the treasure was lost all over again when several hundred pirates attacked the salvage encampment in 1716. The Spaniards found life in the area much too hostile and unpromising to consider a permanent settlement.
After salvage operations ended, the encampment below Sebastian Inlet was abandoned to be covered by the sands of time ― literally. The dunes along the coast remained untouched for hundreds of years, but now most of them have been claimed by housing subdivisions and condominiums of recent origin. A small stretch of seascape in the vicinity of Adm. Salmón’s encampment has never been developed, however. It is part of Sebastian Inlet State Park, a perfect place to take a seaside stroll and witness what eternity has erased. Could there be a clearer illustration of the words of King Solomon? “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.”
MONUMENT TO TRAGEDY
At the southernmost end of the state park you’ll discover a hidden treasure: the McLarty Treasure Museum. If you blink you will miss it driving by, and even most longtime residents of the Treasure Coast probably don’t realize it is there. The museum has been open since 1971. Inside, you will find many artifacts of the 1715 Plate Fleet disaster on display: ship’s tackle, weaponry, pottery, porcelain and dozens of pieces of eight. They are relics that still wash up in hurricanes from time to time. At the Mel Fisher Museum a few miles away in downtown Sebastian, you can also see plenty of gold ― and touch it, too.
Musing upon museum collections of maritime relics and treasure, we can begin to piece together the story that is as big as the Titanic. Of course it must have gold, silver and lots of jewels. But there will be broken hearts in distant harbors ― lost dreams, lost hopes, lost graves and a vanishing empire, too. We will have struggles with courage and cowardice, good and evil, but the triumph of the human spirit will prevail, that unstoppable will to keep on going and help one another survives no matter what life throws in our way. In the end, we will discover our story is more than silver, more than gold, more than an endless striving to reach the future ― this stirring drama of the Treasure Coast ― and it came out of a storm.
Treasures from 1715 fleet still retrieved off coast
BY JERRY SHAW
The Schmitt family, through its Booty Salvage company, has retrieved treasures from sunken vessels off the Treasure Coast for 15 years, but a recent find is truly magnificent.
The piece of 300-year-old gold Eric Schmitt found this spring is part of another religious artifact discovered off the coast 25 years ago.
“We found it at the beginning of June off Fort Pierce in about 15 feet of water a thousand feet off the beach,” says Schmitt, who first saw the golden glint of something while searching off the family’s 44-foot twin-engine trawler, the Aarrr Booty.
It turns out the relic, about an ounce of high-carat gold that fits in the hand, is one piece of a pyx, or container, used for Catholic Communion and made for church officials.
“We thought we had the entire thing, but it turns out the piece we found was supposed to be part of another piece, which was a religious object,” Schmitt says. “It was meant to go to the Vatican at the time.”
Schmitt found the piece bent and retrieved it from the sand, stones and shells. It fits perfectly into an ornate frame discovered in 1989 by another Treasure Coast hunter. The frame had a space meant for the piece found by Schmitt.
But more treasure was brought up during the Schmitts’ latest expedition. They also found five 22-carat gold rings from the same 1715 wreckage of the Spanish fleet.
“That piece (the religious relic) could be worth hundreds of thousands and the five gold rings could be worth $100,000 to $250,000,” Schmitt said.
The other piece of the artifact is owned privately after being displayed for years at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West. If it is sold, it could mean that the Schmitts split the money with 1715 Fleet — Queens Jewels, a company that has rights to items found at the wreckage site. Booty Salvage is a subcontractor.
The recent discoveries rank right up there with gold pieces estimated to be worth $500,000 found by Booty Salvage off the coast of Fort Pierce last year.
Group formed to commemorate 1715 disaster
BY JERRY SHAW
Six years ago, a small group formed a society to help commemorate the 300th anniversary of the tragic loss of the Spanish Plate Fleet off our to Treasure Coast 300 years ago this July 31.
The 1715 Fleet Society began in 2008 as a way to plan the historical event.
“With the anniversary coming up, we thought it would be a good idea to get started early,” says Ben Costello, a director of the organization. “We formed it and developed a mission statement, which is basically to promote public awareness and education about this anniversary.”
The result of their efforts has been the establishment of a website, 1715fleetsociety.com, that provides resources and explanations about the sinking.
The group, also led by directors Bernie Richards and Phil Flemming, has contacted authors, historians, explorers and educators with knowledge of the disaster to gather information as well as to seek input for the website coming events surrounding the occasion July 26-Aug. 2.
“This is a commemoration, not a celebration,” Costello points out. “It’s a tragedy that’s being commemorated.”
The 1715 Fleet Society has been a tight-knit group of experts but plans to open membership in November to more people who wish to contribute to the organization with information, articles or documents on the tragedy.
The loss of the 11 vessels in the fleet is significant in world history, but often a neglected event in Spanish colonial history, Costello notes.
A two-day symposium is planned for July 28-29 at the Vero Beach Museum of Art to include speakers on new developments in analysis and investigation of the 1715 fleet and people involved in recovery efforts.
A banquet is scheduled for July 30 in the Tiffany Room at Capt. Hiram’s Resort in Sebastian. That date marks the 300th anniversary of the end of the calm before the storm. The seas started out calm that day, but soon became eerie. Within a few hours, the sky darkened with black, ominous clouds. Hurricane force winds began picking up. Before another day had gone by, only one ship remained afloat.
The organization is in the process of upgrading its website, which was launched in May 2011, and received a best-of-the-month award the following June from Numisma, a Spanish numismatic organization.
On the July 31 anniversary, the Indian River County Main Library in Vero Beach will hold a program and exhibits.
Costello says future events will continue after the anniversary with plans to commemorate the 1622 shipwreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha, which sank off the Florida Keys.