Plagued by diplomatic niceties, their Lordships did
nothing when they received Hamilton’s intelligence. The
war of the Spanish Succession was over and they
themselves had observed mourning for the Spanish Queen
who had died a few months before. Now King Philip was
planning to marry again and was busy soliciting wedding
presents for Elizabeth Farnesse, Duchess of Palma. It
would be the marriage settlement, their Lordships
concluded, that was coming from Havana: if this was the
best Hamilton’s costly spies could do then it was about
time his accounts had a through audit. A resolution was
passed to that effect.
All the same, Lord Hamilton’s espionage service was on
to something much bigger than a marriage settlement.
Spain’s annual tribute from the new World now amounted
to about 90 and 120 million (francs) a year. But because
of the war the Spanish Government had cancelled all
sailings from the Americas to Spain for two years. Now a
plan, seemingly safe from attack by buccaneers and
privateers, had been evolved. They would send two
separate fleets to the New World. These would load up at
separate ports -- Vera Cruz and Cartegena – and then
meet at Havana. From here they would sail for Spain in a
giant combined armada with a heavy naval escort, bearing
the accumulated wealth for the last three years.
The Cartegena Fleet, commanded by Captain General Don
Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza, arrived first in Havana,
heavily loaded with silver and gold coins from Santa Fe
de Bogota, chests filled with Colombian emeralds from
the Muzo mine, and gold jewelry from Peru. By mid March,
Echeverz was ready and waiting for the Vera Cruz Fleet,
commanded by his friend and superior, Captain General
Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla. Ubilla’s cargo was enough to
awe any commander. The holds of his ship were stuffed
with gold bullion and silver ingots. But he was stuck in
Vera Cruz, awaiting the arrival of pack-mule trains
overland from Acapulco, Spain’s outlet to the Pacific
and the markets of Manila and Canton. With each
successive week of delay the mint in Mexico City
delivered yet further consignments of coin and specie.
Eventually, however, the mule, with their silks,
ivories, and blue and white Kang Hs’I porcelain trailed
in, and Ubilla met up with Echeverz in Havana in the
first week of May 1715. They planned to replenish stores
and water and sail a few days after making rendezvous.
But because there had been no plate fleet for the last
three years, there was a mountain of cases awaiting
shipment in Havana. Every merchant set out to wield his
maximum weapons in influence and bribery with both the
two convoy captains and the pleasure loving and
imperious governor, the 90 year old Don Casa Torres.
The governor had a substantial personal stake in the
fleet, and since there was little or no room left, he
and some friends chartered a French cargo ship, the
Grifon, captained by Antoine Dare, a wily veteran of the
Caribbean to whom the finger points as being Hamilton’s
informant. Ubilla and Echeverz refused to accept Dare’s
vessel in their convoy and matters dragged on before
they finally yielded to the governor. But, the final
delay was caused by Philip of Spain himself.
He decided to marry the Duchess of Palma, and she agreed
to go through with the ceremony but declined to
consummate the marriage until she was decked with the
jewels of her choosing. Urgent word had been sent to the
new World, and these last minute deliveries held up the
golden armada yet again. When they arrived they proved
to be as sumptuous a wedding gift as any queen could
desire, even if they were also the death warrant of 10
ships and more than 700 of the men who sailed them.
Details of the jewelry are scrappy, but we know of odd
items; a heart built up of 130 matched pearls, an
emerald ring weighing 74 carats, a pair of earrings each
of 14-carat pearls, and a rosary of pure coral the size
of small marble. There were eight chests in all, and
they stowed in Ubilla’s personal cabin.
With the morning tide of Wednesday, July 24, after many
delays, the Plate Fleet hauled in their great cast iron
anchors catching the morning breeze and slipped slowly
past the El Morro Fortress which guarded the approaches
of Havana. Quickly the Gulf Stream gathered them into
its friendly embrace, and with the current and a fair
wind they were making almost six knots.
Leading the convoy was the Hampton Court. She had been
captured from the English during the war, and having
been refitted at Greenwich shortly before her loss, was
in excellent trim, rather easier in the water than the
Spanish ships and possessed of a reasonable turn of
speed. Ubilla, as senior flag officer, had chosen her as
his flagship. Just over 150 feet long. She carried 80
cannon and no bulky cargo – just treasure. Nevertheless,
her all-up weight topped 1,000 tons. Echeverz brought up
the rear in his massive war galleon, the Nuestra Senora
de Carmen y San Antonio. Ubilla and Echeverz had
therefore the front and the rear of the convoy in their
charge, and each of them being careful men, had their
personal storeship stationed next to them in the line.
Ubilla, according to his pilot, spent more time
signaling his one personal charge, the Nuestra Senora de
la Regla, than he did the rest of the fleet.
Ubilla, who was senior military officer, had overall
command. But, should there be a naval action, then
Echeverz in the rear would assume command of the battle.
For the voyage alone the senior freighter captain, Don
Antonio de Chevas, was made "Admiral of the Freighters."
His pilot and personal chaplain survived the voyage and
their eyewitness reports are the basis of the following
account of the tragedy.
By noon, on July 29, the fleet was almost becalmed. The
sea was running a heavy and strangely silent swell but
there was no wind. The clouds were the merest wisps of
cirrus way down on the starboard beam, and even the sea
birds, which usually swarmed around the ships a mere
twenty miles from shore, had vanished. The swell grew
stronger, cargo began to roll about, and de Chaves sent
men below to secure it. The night passed slowly, the
rolling of the ships creating distrust and apprehension
among all hands.
The next morning - it was Wednesday and they had been a
week at sea -a cheerless one. The sun never seemed to
rise at all, "but stay throughout that day as though
behind a muslin cloud". By noon the ships of the armada
were called to close station; visibility had become so
bad that Ubilla signaled that each ship’s poop lantern
was to be lit to guide each other. In the afternoon it
grew quite dark, the wind came again, first from the
southeast, then moving round slowly until at nightfall
it was gusting out of the east-north-east at up to 70
knots. The waves rose savagely, the water crashing down
on decks, carrying away deck cargo, spars, and cordage.
"It was so violent," the chaplain recalled, "that the
water flew in the air like arrows, doing injury to those
it hit, and seamen who had ventured much said they had
never seen the like before."
By nightfall, the wind, not the captains, was in full
command – it was gusting now to over 100 knots. Ubilla
lost his mizzenmast, and the fleet was wildly scattered,
and the noise was deafening. But above the screaming
winds was another more awesome and frightening sound,
the breakers on the reefs which line the Florida coast.
On all the Spanish ships men prayed as they wrestled to
try to cut lifeboats free from the debris lettering the
decks. All were now resigned to shipwreck, and the
priests piping "Hail Mary’s" made little or no
impression on either their flocks or the elements.
All this time the wily Antoine Dare in the "Grifon" was
playing a hunch. He hadn’t liked the official course in
the first place, and wanting a little more weather room,
had craftily steered a course half a point more
easterly. As it turned out, he had just enough room to
ride it out, and when the summer dawn broke just after
3:00 a.m., his was the only ship left afloat.
First to hit the deadly reefs was Ubilla’s flagship, the
Hampton Court. Dismasted, her rudder carried away, she
could make no even the vestige of a fight. She struck at
2:30 on the morning of July 31. The reef ripped the
bottom right out of her; then her superstructure parted
from her hull, and the poop and aftdeck were cast up on
a fifty foot wave. She was tossed around for a few
seconds – just long enough for Ubilla and 223 of his
crew to be washed off and pounded to death on the rocks.
Then the poop, once so splendid a sight at the Greenwich
dock that Van de Velde felt compelled to sketch it, was
spewed up high and dry on the beach.
The storeships were all caught on the rocks. Echeverz’s
war galleon broke up, drowning him and 124 of his crew.
His son, who commanded his storeship , met a similar
fate. The lighter ships capsized and sank in the surf,
though two were luckier than the rest. The deck of one
of the two Navios – huge, 100 cannon floating gun
platforms – detached itself from the hull and floated
most of the crew onto the beach, while a chartered ship,
"La Holandesa", was cast bodily up on the dunes over a
hundred yards from the waters edge.
The survivors clambered up on to the beaches, but for
two more hours the hurricane screamed around them,
sucking many of the weaker back into the water. When
daylight came, the wind had ceased, and the survivors
began to take stock of themselves and their position.
More than 700 men were missing, wreckage and bodies were
scattered for almost 30 miles along the bleak
uninhabited coast. A wild search for food and loot was
beginning. The senior surviving officer, a freighter
captain named Franco Salmon, ordered one of the damaged
lifeboats to be repaired and sent off with the Chaplain
and the young pilot who escaped the wreck of Chevas’
freighter. They landed at Fort Augustin, 120 miles to
the north three days later. The Spanish attempted to
salvage the treasure for the next four years, however in
1719, they abandoned their salvage operation. The
hazards of shark, barracuda, buccaneer and Indians were
too much for them. Their records say that possibly 30
percent of the inventoried value was recovered, but
there is also no question that these inventories had
been cooked up in the first place in order to cheat the
Spanish Revenue. Sixty years later, the English
cartographer Bernard Romans commissioned to compile a
map and "Natural History" of east and west Florida. This
was published in 1775. The frontispiece map indicates
the precise spot of the wreck of the flagship and
halfway down page 273 is the following passage; "The
people employed in the course of our survey whilst
walking on the strand after strong eastern gales have
repeatedly found pistareens and double pistareens
(pieces of eight) which kinds of money probably yet
remaining in the wrecks are sometimes washed up by the
surf and hard winds."
Seven hundred lives and more than 14 million pesos in
registered treasure were lost in one of the worst
maritime disasters of all time.
More than 250 years later, Mel Fisher & Kip Wagner
teamed up, put together a salvage crew and began to work
on these wrecks. They successfully located at least two
of these wrecks and Mel’s team continued to work them
through 1970. When Mel left this area in 1970 to look
for the Atocha full time in the Florida Keys, various
salvagers worked these wrecks sporadically until 1983.
In 1983, Mel brought part of his team back to the 1715
Fleet area and renewed salvage efforts, making a 20%
"donation" to the State of Florida each year for its
museums. Recoveries have continually been made, however,
the elusive Queen’s jewels as well as over a million
pesos of registered cargo, and surely a large amount of
unregistered contraband have continued to elude us. In
1990, Mel opened a conservation laboratory in Sebastian
Florida and in 1992 a permanent museum in the same
location. Mel’s daughter Taffi Fisher Abt has been
directing the operations on the 1715 Fleet since then,
utilizing the skills of a few of our dedicated captains
such as John Brandon and Greg Bounds as well as many
subcontractors. Kane Fisher, who found the motherload of
the Atocha, also worked on the 1715 Fleet.