300th Anniversary of Spanish Silver Fleet’s fatal encounter with a hurricane

Foundering ship (U.S. Park Service)

Foundering ship (U.S. Park Service)

Early on the morning of July 31, 1715, a Spanish treasure fleet was caught by a severe hurricane while exiting the Bahama Channel.  Eleven ships of the fleet were either sunk or foundered upon reefs along the Florida coast.

With end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1714, the Spanish Crown was in desperate need of funds.  No major shipment of goods from Spain’s New World colonies had been undertaken during the War, so a fleet of galleons was organized to visit various ports of call around the Spanish Main to gather both Royal and private treasure to be shipped to Cadiz.  Since the majority of the goods consisted of silver coins and bullion, the venture was dubbed the Spanish Plata (Silver) Fleet.  Due to numerous delays, the fleet of twelve ships didn’t leave Havana harbor until July 27, 1715, well into hurricane season.

The voyage began with fair weather, but once they turned north into the Bahama Channel the ships encountered contrary northeasterly winds.  As the winds strengthened, the fleet was forced to a crawl as it tacked into the wind in the narrow Channel.  A French ship, the Grifon, which was forced by security concerns to sail with the fleet, made good time and broke with the fleet to speed ahead to a rendezvous point off the Carolinas.  But the heavy-laden Spanish ships were left to lumber on, and they began to experience the signs of an on-coming hurricane.  But Captain General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla found himself trapped between the uninhabited, reef-strewn Florida shore to his west and the shallow, English pirate-strewn  Bahama Bank to his east and had no choice but to try to clear the Channel before the worst of the storm struck.

It was a race he lost and the hurricane overtook the fleet just as it emerged from the Channel.  Three ships were sunk in deep water, the other eight were driven onto the Florida coast from present-day Fort Pierce to Wabasso (north of Vero Beach) where they wrecked upon rocks and reefs.  Of the 2500 sailors and passengers, 1000 perished in the storm including Ubilla.  The rest struggled for survival on an inhospitable coast.  Two boats were salvaged from the wrecks and were sent for help, one to St. Augustine the other back to Havana.  Most of the survivors were rescued and salvage operations were begun almost immediately.  Meanwhile, the Grifon made Brest, France by September 2nd, unaware of the fate of the rest of the fleet.

Wreck sites and salvage camps locations

Wreck sites and salvage camps locations

Much of the treasure was recovered and shipped on to Spain.  But word of the disaster reached English ears, and privateer Henry Jennings carried out a daring raid on the Spanish salvage camps claiming what treasure they had stored for shipment home.  Eventually, the Spanish abandoned salvage operations and English opportunists occupied their camps to claim what was left in the wrecks.  When the pickings became slim, even the English left the site.

Recovered cannon (1715 Fleet Society)

Recovered cannon (1715 Fleet Society)

Memory of the wrecks eventually fell from common knowledge.  It wasn’t until the early 1940s that amateur archeologist Charles Higgs discovered evidence of the salvage camps in the dunes near the Sebastian Inlet.  Later work by the Florida Park Service associated the camps with the Silver Fleet wrecks.  A passing hurricane in 1955 washed away some of the dunes around the camps revealing many artifacts and silver coins.  This touched off renewed salvage efforts by local builder Kip Wagner and his Real 8 Company.  They eventually recovered thousands of coins and pieces of jewelery and a number of cannon.  The discovery led to the establishment of a state park and museum and to the area being dubbed The Treasure Coast.

References

“Two Archeological Sites in Brevard County, Florida” – The Higgs Site (Br 1) by Hale G. Smith, Florida Anthropological Society Publications, U. of Fla., Gainesville 1949.
“The Spanish Camp Site and the 1715 Plate Fleet Wreck” Marion Clayton Link, Tequesta magazine, vol. 26, 1966, pp.21-30

“Pieces of Eight, Recovering the Riches of a Lost Spanish Treasure Fleet”, by Kip Wagner as told to L.B. Taylor, Jr., E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. New York 1966.

“Florida’s Golden Galleons; The Search for the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet”, by Robert F. Burgess and Carl J. Clausen, Florida Classics Library, Port Salerno, Florida 1982.

“Gold, Galleons, and Archaeology”, by Robert F. Burgess and Carl J. Clausen, Florida Classics Library, Port Salerno, Florida 1976.

“Drowned Galleons Yield Spanish Gold”, by Kip Wagner, National Geographic Magazine, January 1965.