How Spain managed to dominate the region with so few soldiers and such an enormous supply-line is still under debate. A relative handful of Spanish Conquistadores captured most of the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America, defeating the Aztec and Incan empires and establishing themselves at the top of an existing hierarchy of native communities.
Many of the expeditions were funded and led by Spanish nobles. Essentially, they got licenses from the Spanish Crown to establish colonies, went in with soldiers, horses, war dogs and guns, and carved out their own small empires. The goal behind all this was money. Hernando Cortez, whose military abilities made him Governor of Mexico, was the richest man in Spain by 1547.
The Spanish took all the existing gold artifacts from their empire, and set natives and slaves mining for more. Modern production of gold is measured in troy ounces. Spanish exports in the 1500’s and 1600’s were measured in tons.
Their inland expeditions continued wherever the rumor of treasure led, and in addition to their many gold mines, they captured the city of Potosi in Bolivia, which sits on a mountain popularly believed to be made entirely of silver. To this day, when a Spaniard speaks of being rich, he may use the phrase which means “worth a Potosi.” By 1545, the city had 200,000 inhabitants, most of them working in the mines.
The amount of money coming out of the New World stretches the imagination. Gold was said to fall like rain. The silver of Potosi equaled all the European silver in the history of civilization.
Of course, this money attracted predators. As early as 1522 a French naval officer named Jean Fleury captured two Spanish treasure ships. By 1572, Sir Francis Drake was attacking the Spanish colonies on the Isthmus of Panama. Drake’s later circumnavigation of the globe was designed to capture Spanish silver near its source on the western coast. Abraham Blauvelt, the Dutch corsair, was raiding Spanish Jamaica in 1644.
Spain did not help matters by using its newfound wealth to start a series of essentially useless wars. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was essentially a territorial scramble with religious overtones as Protestantism rose in Germany and the Netherlands and Spain and France defended their Catholic faith. Most of the countries in Europe became involved, and the resulting chaos drove thousands of lower class Europeans to flee to the New World.
Spain had not used its newfound wealth to build industry or infrastructure. It had purchased goods from countries like England and France, building up those economies while separating itself from any source of wealth besides the riches of its colonies.
The countries fighting Spain needed to build up naval power quickly, so they licensed privateers to flesh out their forces. Men like Henry Morgan and Benjamin Hornigold were excellent fighters and loyal to their countries, but hard to control. Faced with the lure of such incredible wealth, many of them slipped the leash and went on unauthorized raiding missions, some reaching the level of actual piracy.
The Spanish were, by this time, sending out treasure ships only in heavily escorted convoys, sometimes of as many as 100 ships.
In 1700 the King of Spain died, leaving no heirs, and in his will nominated the grandson of Louis XIV of France to succeed him. The English, Dutch, and Austrians then joined forces to wage war against Spain and France – the War of Spanish Succession – which continued until 1713.
The English and Dutch did everything possible to disrupt the flow of treasure to Spain from the New World, and though they did not succeed in capturing Spanish treasure ships, in 1702 they managed to sink the entire treasure convoy. The next convoy, in 1708, was destroyed by the English alone, and the one in 1711 was sunk by a storm.
The Spanish Crown, entirely dependent on plunder to run its economy, was nearly bankrupt. Phillip V ordered that “as much treasure as possible must be brought back from the Indies without any regard for the costs or the dangers involved.” He was so anxious, that he spent the last money in the treasury to buy Catholic masses to for the safe arrival of the ships.
At sunrise on July 24, 1715, a convoy of twelve ships set sail from Havana Harbor, commanded by Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla.
Echeverz’s squadron had sailed from Spain to Columbia, carrying merchandise for sale in the colonies. When he arrived, Echeverz sent word to set in motion the mule trains that would deliver the treasure of Peru and Chile to Panama City, and from there to the port city of Porto Bello. The treasure would then be loaded aboard the ships and carried back to Spain. The viceroy of New Granada in Bogata was told to send his stored-up treasure, and the governor of Margarita to was ordered to send pearls.
The viceroy of Peru sent his treasure directly overland to Buenos Aires, then by ship to Spain, intending to avoid English privateers. Both the viceroy of New Grenada and the governor of Margarita Island also ignored the Captain-Generals orders. So, instead of the large amount of treasure he expected from South America, Echeverz received so little it was hardly worth the effort.
He and his fellow captains loaded the rest of their vessels with the most valuable cargo available, including tobacco and logwood. In the evening of July 30, 1715, eleven of the twelve ships of this fleet were lost in a hurricane near present day Vero Beach, Florida.
The Spanish immediately sent forces to recover as much gold as possible, but news of the millions of pesos worth of gold lying in the surf, honest salvage for anyone able to claim it, drew fortune hunters from all over the world. Men like Sam Bellamy and Henry Jennings began their pirating careers attempting to loot the wrecks.
To the Spanish all these men were no more than thieves. Though the traditions of international law said that the products of a wreck, washed up on an uninhabited coast, belonged to anyone who claimed them, the Spanish believed that their gold, washed up on a shore claimed by them, remained their property. More importantly, they had more military in the area, and were able to retain much of the salvage.
But techniques of the time did not allow diving into more than about 15 feet of water, and for nearly 300 years the only sign of the treasure was the occasional coin that washed up on a Florida beach. But with modern diving methods, the area is being excavated. A company called 1715 Fleet – Queen’s Jewels LLC is using private contractors to dive over the site.
In 2010 a woman named Bonnie Shubert pulled up a golden bird worth an estimated $885,000. Though the state of Florida claims 20% of all finds, and the salvage company, which has surveyed the area and sent in the private contractors, splits finds 50/50, it’s still the find of a lifetime.
Coins from the wreck are selling for $250, and an estimated 550 million dollars remains to be recovered.