A Brief History of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet
(Revised & Augmented February 2012)
by John de Bry
Every year, two fleets traveled between Spain and the Americas; the Escuadrón de Tierra Firme from Spain to South America, and the Flota de Nueva España toward Veracruz. Sometimes, these two fleets would travel together all the way to the Caribbean. The return voyage was more dangerous. The galleons were fully loaded with precious cargoes of gold, silver, jewelry, tobacco, spices, indigo, cochineal etc.… The crews were tired and often plagued by health problems brought on by tropical diseases, malnutrition, and deplorable hygienic conditions on board. These conditions made ships even more vulnerable to attacks by pirates, but the greatest danger came from an uncontrollable element; the weather. The general weather conditions were more favorable during the summer months. The waters of the Atlantic Ocean were calmer, and the prevailing winds gentler. However, the very warm waters of the South Atlantic contributed to unstable weather, and the then unpredictable rapid development of violent and devastating tropical storms called hurricanes.
As a result of France’s Louis XIV policies of expansionism, Europe was ravaged by two major wars, between 1688 and 1715. These wars disrupted trade between the Americas and the Old Continent, and Spain, highly dependent on the riches of the New World to finance her own policies of expansionism in Europe, suffered greatly. The first of these wars, the War of the Grand Alliance, ended in 1697 with the Treaty of Ryswick, but in 1701 another broke out, this time over the succession of the Spanish crown. Charles II had died childless, but on his deathbed, had named as his heir Philip, the grandson of Louis XIV of France. Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor, who wanted to see his son, Archduke Charles, ascend the throne, did not kindly receive this decision. Leopold also wanted to prevent at all cost any close alliance between France and Spain. War broke out, with England and the Dutch on one side, and Spain, France, Portugal, Bavaria, and Savoy on the other.
The seas and oceans became the scene of naval battles and vicious encounters between merchant vessels and privateers. The sea routes between Spain and the Americas were no longer safe, and the vital flow of New World treasure was practically stopped. Things were going badly for young Philip V and his kingdom. In the year 1702 Spain received a tremendous blow when a large English naval force entered Vigo Bay, on the northwestern coast of Spain. An all-out battle ensued, with the English fleet sinking a large number of warships, capturing others, and seizing a large treasure. The English sank another Spanish treasure fleet in 1708, off Cartagena, Colombia, and in 1711 another one of Philip’s treasure fleets was destroyed by a hurricane off the coast of Cuba. The War of Succession came to a close in 1715 by a series of treaties known as the Peace of Utrecht. The treaty between England and France confirmed Philip V’s succession to the throne of Spain, while Philip renounced his rights to the French throne. England was given Newfoundland, the island of St. Christopher, and the Hudson Bay territory. Although the war had ended, the peace was an uneasy one, and much friction remained between the former foes.
At the end of this period of hostilities, Spain was in dire need of financial relief. At the King’s order, a fleet was dispatched to America in order to bring back urgently needed gold and silver, which had been accumulating during the war. The eleven ships making up the fleet assembled in Havana in the summer of 1715. The fleet was made up of the Escuadrón de Tierra Firme, which served the South American trade routes out of Cartagena, and of the Flota de Nueva España, which served the trade of Mexico and Manila Galleons, out of Veracruz on the southeastern coast of present-day Mexico. The Griffon, a French warship of the Fourth Rate (a 500-ton, 69-gun frigate built in Lorient in 1705) under the command of Captain Antoine d’Aire, on an official mission in Veracruz to collect 48,801 piatres (pieces of eight) from the Duke of Linares, Governor of Veracruz, money due by Royal Decree from the King of Spain to pay for the service of two ships, the Apollon and the Triton, was forced to sail with the Spanish combined fleet out of Havana. Now, every one was busy getting ready for the long and treacherous journey back to Spain. Additional cargo was being loaded. Inventories were taken; fresh water and victuals were placed aboard each ship. After a two-year delay, the mighty Plate Fleet was ready to sail home to Spain (the word “Plate” is derived from the Spanish “plata” for silver).
The Squadron of Tierra Firme was under the command of Captain General Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza, and consisted of six vessels. The Captain-General was in direct command of the capitana, the flagship, a captured English ship formerly named the Hampton Court, laden with a great number of chests of silver coins, gold coins, gold bars, gold dust, and jewelry, as well as tropical organic products. The flagship of the admiral, the almiranta, was equally richly laden. The Nuestra Señora de la Concepción carried gold coins and gold bars, as well as a number of chests of silver coins. The frigate San Miguel, the El Ciervo, and a patache, a smaller merchant vessel, completed the squadron.
The five ships of the New Spain Flota were under the general command of Captain General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla. Juan Estebán de Ubilla was himself on the capitana, which carried some thirteen hundred chests containing 3,000,000 silver coins. There were also gold coins, gold bars, silver bars, and jewelry, as well as emeralds, pearls, and precious Kangxi Chinese export porcelain which had been brought to Mexico by the Manila Galleons. The almiranta carried nearly a thousand chests of silver coins, each individual chest containing some 3,000 coins. The refuerzo carried eighty-one chests of silver coins and over fifty chests of worked silver. Another ship, a patache, carried some 44,000 pieces of eight. One frigate helped complete the flotilla. The French warship Griffon, commanded by Captain Antoine d’Aire, was forced to sail with the fleet; the Spaniards, although allied with the French, mistrusted them and feared that word of the fleet’s departure would leak out, thus compromising the safety of the richly laden galleons. In his 1975 book, “The Funnel of Gold”, historian Mendel Peterson estimated the value of the registered cargo of the combined fleet at 7,000,000 pieces of eight. Captain Antoine d’Aire reported that the fleet’s entire cargo was estimated at 15 million silver piastres (pieces of eight).
The fleet had suffered many delays, and had been sitting idle for nearly two years. Pressure had been mounting for the fleet to sail. The Spanish crown was in dire need of money; so were merchants, unable to make their exotic goods available for sale on the European market. Under this tremendous pressure, Ubilla made the decision to start the long and perilous voyage back to the Old World, even though the hurricane season had long begun. This decision would prove to be fatal, for unknown to the Spaniards a tremendous and exceptionally powerful hurricane was brewing to the southeast of Cuba. The great treasure fleet of 1715 sailed from Havana harbor in the early morning of July 24th, a beautiful and calm day, with a gentle breeze to help the ships find the Florida current which ran north and up the Straits of Florida (the Gulf Stream). Slowly and smoothly the ships of Ubilla’s fleet gently followed the East coast of Florida, staying far enough away from
the shore to take advantage of the Gulf Stream, staying clear of the treacherous shoals and reef formations which fringed the Florida coast. For the first five days the voyage was uneventful with the weather remaining good and giving no indication whatsoever of the rapidly approaching killer storm. But on July 29th, long swells started to appear, coming from the southeast. The atmosphere became heavy with moisture with the sun shining brightly through the haze. A gentle breeze still blew and the sea was smooth, but the swells started to make the ship gently dip and roll. Experienced navigators, pilots, and old hands started to be concerned. They knew that these were the early signs of an impending tropical storm.
The storm was traveling north, almost due east of the convoy, but still many miles away. The storm had reached alarming intensity with winds at the center of the storm now reaching one hundred miles per hour. By nightfall the hurricane had made a drastic change in course, suddenly veering directly to the west. On the morning of July 30th, along the east coast of Florida, just south of Cape Canaveral, winds had begun to pick up and by midday had increased to well over 20 knots and the sea was rapidly building up. By late afternoon winds had increased to over thirty knots and the waves were reaching twenty feet. Ubilla’s fleet was relentlessly driven closer and closer to shore. The Captain General gave the order that all ships head into the wind in order to stay well clear of the reef and shoals, but the attempt was marginally successful. The velocity of the wind kept increasing, and by midnight, the ships were barely under control. Around 4 a.m. on July 31st, the hurricane struck the doomed ships with all its might, driving one ship after another on the deadly jagged reefs. The ships broke up like wooden toys. Ubilla’s capitana disintegrated, crushed on the reef like matchsticks. Almost all aboard were killed, including Ubilla. The entire fleet was lost, and of the some twenty five hundred persons aboard various ships, over one thousand perished. The only ship to survive the storm was the French warship Griffon, Captain Antoine d’Aire having chosen to head towards the northeast and into the storm; arriving in Brest on the coast of Brittany on August 31st, 1715, d’Aire was unaware of the fact that all the Spanish ships had perished.
For those who had miraculously survived, the ordeal was just beginning. They were stranded in an inhospitable land, infested with disease-carrying mosquitoes, rattle snakes, wild animals, and hostile Indians, far from any settlement, without food, fresh water, or badly needed medical supplies. When daylight came on that dreadful morning of July 31st, 1715, the full extent of the disaster could then be seen. The beaches of la Florida were littered with wreckage and bodies, and the survivors of this human tragedy were trying to comprehend what had happened to them. They were attempting to find their actual location. As the ships had wrecked at different locations, and were separated by sometimes several miles, it was impossible for the survivors to fully assess the extent of the disaster. Stranded in this inhospitable land without food, water, or medical supplies, many were dying each day, adding to the already devastating number of casualties. Admiral don Francisco Salmon undertook to immediately survey the extent of the damage. After deducing that all ships had been wrecked, he decided, on August 6th, to send Nicolas de India, Ubilla’s pilot, and 18 men, in a launch toward the island of Cuba, to give the alert, and to send a personal message to the governor, Vicente de Raja. It took ten days for the small boat to reach Havana. The alert had been given.
Within a few days several ships were leaving Havana harbor, loaded with emergency supplies, salvage equipment, government officials and soldiers, on their way to the east coast of Florida. Salvage was to begin as soon as the relief expedition reached the survivors camps. Success came early as salvage sloops dragged the ocean floor for wreckage and quickly brought up chests of coins, as well as jewelry and gold. The Havana salvage flotilla was soon joined by Florida ships sent from St. Augustine to help in the recovery effort. By early September such was the success of the salvage team that Admiral Salmon wrote the governor asking him to send 25 soldiers and ammunition to guard the King’s treasure as well as private properties that had been salvaged from the various shipwrecks.
By the time the weather and sea conditions had become unsuitable for continuing salvage, in late October of the same year, over 5,000,000 pieces of eight had been recovered along with gold and jewelry, and a great part of the King’s treasure. Although salvage was essentially completed, efforts continued well into 1718. News of the disaster had swept the Americas and Europe much like the news of the Market crash would some 220 years later, and privateers, pirates and looters converged toward Palmar de Ays (near present day Sebastian, Florida) like ravenous vultures. Early in January 1716, pirate Henry Jennings aboard his well armed sloop, the 40-ton Barsheba, and John Wills aboard his 35-ton Eagle, both having been commissioned by governor Hamilton of Jamaica, attacked the Spanish salvage camp at Palmar de Ays, and detained the defenders (no casualties were reported) while looting the camp. They made off with some 120,000 pieces of eight and other valuables, as well as two bronze cannon and two large iron guns. When the Spaniards abandoned the salvage camp in 1718, great treasure still remained on the ocean floor. Some of the wreck sites were clearly marked by portions of the ships structures which could be observed protruding above water at low tide. For years after the official completion of the salvage operation, merchant ships sailing these waters would “fish” for treasure.
Little by little the sites faded from memory and the great 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet would eventually be forgotten and left undisturbed for nearly 250 years. In 1960 the modern age of treasure salvage was ushered in by Real Eight Corporation. Their recoveries from the 1715 fleet are legendary and are told in Kip Wagner’s Pieces of Eight. Years later other companies would continue to recover what seems to be a never ending trail of treasure from these shipwrecks.
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,
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.