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Treasure Galleons of 1715 Fleet

On July 24 the 1715 fleet set sail from Havana Harbor at sunrise, their hulls and sterncatles packed full of treasure. Unfortunately, on the sixth day of their voyage, luck ran out when a violent hurricane sank the eleven ships. The entire fleet was gone, three in deep water and the rest closer to shore up and down the wild and untamed eastern coast of Florida, from St. Augustine south to what is now Cape Canaveral. The stretch of the Florida coastline where the 1715 fleet met its end is known as the Treasure Coast because of the number of wrecks offshore, and the tendency for some of the scattered cargo to periodically wash ashore. The fleet lay untouched and unknown until 1955, when a building contractor named Kip Wagner took a walk along the beach of Sebastian, Florida. He stopped to look at some objects that had washed ashore and thought they were seashells, but quite unusual shells. He decided to scrape off the coating of one of the darkened objects and discovered that what he had were not seashells, but silver pieces of eight. Wagner did some research and realized he had found treasure from one of the sunken galleons of the ill-fated 1715 fleet.

The plate fleet of 1715 (this is because this fleet was carrying silver or plata in Spanish word) was one of the richest ever, owing to a unique set of circumstances. From 1701 until 1714 the War of the Spanish Succession had pitted Spain against other European powers – a state of war that extended to the high seas and made it dangerous for the fleet to attempt the crossing for fear of interception by an entire enemy fleet. For the previous two years the plate fleets had been kept in port, so that vast quantities of treasure had ‘backed up’ in the New World. The usual practice was for two treasure fleets to be sent to different parts of the Caribbean. The Nueva España flota would sail to Veracruz in Mexico (aka Nueva España), while the Tierra Firme flota would visit South American ports, of which Cartagena was the main stop. The two would load up and then rendezvous at Havana to sail back across the Atlantic in one armada, in good time to miss the hurricanes.

The 1715 fleet was supposed to be no different. Captain General Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza, in command of the Cartagena fleet, arrived in Havana on schedule, his ships groaning with an amazing fortune of Bolivian silver and gold coins, chests of Colombian emeralds and sacks of finely worked Peruvian jewellery. By mid-March he was ready to sail, but his superior, Captain General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla, was late. The Nueva España flota was still moored at Veracruz, awaiting tardy mule-train shipments from the Pacific coast, bearing the booty delivered by two years of Manila galleon traffic. In the meantime Ubilla lined his holds with staggering quantities of gold bullion and silver ingots and coins. Finally the mule-train arrived and disgorged its bounty of silk, spices, ivory, hardwoods, indigo dye and precious porcelain. Ubilla finally arrived in Havana in mid-May. To his dismay he was delayed still further. Every merchant in the New World had been waiting to ship cargo to Europe and the plate fleet represented their first chance for three years. All 11 ships in the combined fleet were stuffed to the gunwales with every bale and crate of merchandise possible. The Governor of Havana attempted to convince the two admirals to allow another ship – the Grifon, a French ship he had chartered himself – to join the convoy, a request that occasioned yet more wrangling before they assented.

The real delay, however, was caused by the remarkable saga of the queen’s dowry. King Philip V of Spain had recently lost his first wife, Marie Louise of Savoy, and his new bride, Isabella Farnese, Duchess of Parma, had reluctantly agreed to marry Philip before receiving a dowry, but refused to consummate the marriage until the full amount was delivered to her. So King Philip insisted that the plate fleet would not leave the Caribbean until the queen’s dowry – all eight chests of it – was loaded aboard and stored in Ubilla’s personal cabin.

Finally the great fleet weigh anchors and leave Havana on July 24. It was carrying over 14 million pesos in declared treasure (plus a substantial quantity of undeclared, smuggled loot – perhaps even more than the declared amount), worth, according to one estimate, £220 million ($418 million) in today’s money based on weight alone.

The plan was to strike north and ride the Gulf Current along Florida’s Atlantic coast until they reached the trade winds that would carry them across the Atlantic. At first they made good progress, but on 29 July they were becalmed and by the next morning the sea and sky took on an ominous cast. The sun struggled to break through a pervasive haze, while the sea rose in threatening swells despite the absence of any wind. The usual flocks of sea birds had vanished, and as the afternoon drew on the clouds gathered. Unbeknownst to the hapless sailors of the plate fleet, their northwards progress had shadowed the course of a huge cyclone brewing further out to sea. Now it changed course and swept westwards towards them – a full-blown hurricane, driving them towards the jagged reefs and shoals off the Florida coast.

Coins and jewelry recovered from the 1715 fleet

In the early morning of 31 July all 11 of the Spanish ships met their end. Ubilla’s flagship was the first to strike the reef. According to eyewitness accounts from survivors, it was picked up by a vast, 50-foot high wave and smashed onto the reef with such violence that the top half of the deck sheared off instantly. Soon the whole ship was smashed to splinters and the admiral and 223 of his crew were killed. The rest of the fleet soon followed, with the exception of the Grifon, whose captain had wisely sailed a more easterly course and left himself with enough weather room to ride out the storm. More than 700 men – possibly more than 1,000 – were drowned or smashed, and most of the precious cargo was scattered across the sea floor or plunged to the bottom amidst the wreckage. The only exception was the Urca de Lima, which was jammed fast against the bottom but survived relatively intact thanks to its sturdy hull. The survivors dragged themselves ashore and huddled together until the hurricane died down and the morning light revealed the full extent of the devastation. The wreckage and corpses littered 50 kilometres (30 miles) of Florida shoreline, between modern-day Fort Pierce and Sebastian Inlet.

In 1955 Kip Wagner was a local resident who had become interested in the tales of sunken treasure after finding coins on the beach near his home. He had first tried his hand at treasure hunting in 1949 but without success and then he formed the group of treasure hunters called the Real Eight Company. Among the members were his nephew Rex Stocker, and a group of divers who were officers and civilians stationed at nearby Patrick Air Force Base: Del Long, Colonel Dan Thompson, Lou Ullian, and Colonel Harry Cannon.

Around 1960, Wagner contacted Bob Marx. Who was living in Spain at the time and already had quite a reputation as a treasure hunter and marine archaeologist. Wagner asked Mrax to do research on the fleet at the Archive of the Indies in Seville, where the records of all treasure ships were kept. This was Marx’s first involvement with the 1715 fleet. He gathered a great deal of information on it and learned that there had been some survivors from the ships that were close to shore. Their firsthand accounts of the disaster helped the salvors find some of the wrecks. At this time, Marx only provided research on the 1715 fleet because he was pursuing other sunken ships.

Then, in 1963 Mel Fisher became involved when Wagner asked him to join, and Real Eight Company began operating as a full-time salvage company. Fisher also brought to the group Mo Molinar, an exceptional treasure hunter he had met in panama. By 1967, Bob Marx joined the crew to run four salvage boats for the company and three others for Mel Fisher. However, on 1972, Mel Fisher was pursuing the Atocha and Bob Marx, the Maravilla. The Real Eight Company experienced financial problems and they decided to sell to a group headed by former race car driver and Indianapolis winner Jim Rathman. Other members of the company, which became known as Circle Bar Salvage of Louisiana.

Marx remained involved with that group and then in 1981 he bought it from them. He then divided the wrecks with Mel Fisher, and the six wrecks that have been found are actively being salvaged by a number of subcontractors who are professional treasure hunters. John Brandon, one of the subcontractors, has been working on the 1715 fleet for more than 28 years and has recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold, silver and jewels. Harold Holden has also been successfully salvaging treasure from the 1715 fleet’s wrecks for many years. Among his finds have been a gold locket at the end of a 10-foot-long braided gold chain valued at $850,000 and a gold box or picture holder with filigree doors valued at $1.5 million. In 1987, Holden, Brandon and Molinar found eight hundred gold coins worth $2.5 million. Many of these unusual and valuable items are now kept in Mel Fisher’s museums.

Marx says that one of the wrecks near Frederick Douglas Beach has produced the most coins. He estimates that from the time the first coins were found by Kip Wagner in 1955 to the present, at least $100 million in treasure has been salvaged and some of the gold coins are worth more each year.

Lost Histories: “Exploring the World’s Most Famous Mysteries” by Joel Levy;
The Hunt for Amazing Treasures by Sondra Farrell Bazrod;

Pic Sources:
The Hunt for Amazing Treasures by Sondra Farrell Bazrod page 150

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