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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The Urca de Lima and the Shipwreck Disaster of 1715

In 1700, Charles II of Spain died childless and named Philip—the grand nephew of his first wife, Marie Louise of Orleans, and the grandson of Louis XIV of France—as his heir. The Dutch and the English saw this combining of power as threatening and launched the War of the Spanish Succession. The routes between Spain and the Americas were not safe, and the flow of treasure virtually stopped. As the war neared its end in 1713, Spain was on the verge of bankruptcy. King Philip V already had ordered a fleet to sail to the Americas decreeing that as much treasure as possible must be brought back.

On September 16, 1712 the New Spain fleet sailed from Spain under the command of Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla. The eight ships reached Veracruz on December 3. The plan was to winter there, conduct the trade fair in the spring, and load up goods for the return trip to Spain via Havana. However, a series of events including damage to ships from storms and problems receiving and loading cargo prevented the fleet from leaving Veracruz for more than two years. On May 4, 1715, the fleet finally sailed for Havana. By this time, however, the fleet consisted of only four ships because the others were destroyed during a storm while at port. The four ships included the Capitana, the Almiranta, the Urca de Lima (a resfuerzo), and the Nuestra Senora de las Nieves (a patache). The total amount of registered treasure aboard the ships was more than six million pesos. General cargo included indigo, vanilla, chocolate, copper, Chinese porcelain, and brazilwood.

The Tierra Firme fleet, commanded by Captain-General Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza, had left Spain on July 9, 1713, for Cartagena, Colombia. Cargo included hundreds of tons of English manufactured goods. In November, the fleet of six ships headed for Portobelo to pick up more goods before returning to Cartagena for the spring and summer. The fleet sailed for Havana on September 7, 1714 carrying gold, silver, tobacco, brazilwood, hides, and chocolate. After reaching Cuba a few weeks later, the crew spent the winter and spring waiting for the flota to arrive from Veracruz.

The two fleets finally came together in Havana in the summer of 1715. By this time, the Spanish Crown was in desperate need of money, and merchants were impatient to sell their New World goods on the European market. Despite the fact that hurricane season was underway, the combined convoy left Havana on July 24 carrying 14 million pesos' worth of treasure and cargo. The convoy included five ships of the New Spain flota (Ubilla had added one small ship in Havana), six of the Tierra Firme, and one French merchant ship named Grifon. Spain had detained the Grifon in Havana so it could not reveal the convoy's departure date to privateers.

After leaving Havana, the convoy enjoyed calm weather as it made its way up the Bahama Channel. On the night of July 30, however, a violent hurricane struck the ships off the east coast of Florida and drove them onto the shallow reefs and hard rock bottom. In a matter of hours, the storm destroyed 11 of the ships. The Grifon was the only ship to escape. Miguel de Lima, owner of the Urca de Lima, described the wreck of his ship:

The sun disappeared and the wind increased in velocity coming from the east and east northeast. The seas became very giant in size, the wind continued blowing us toward shore, pushing us into shallow water. It soon happened that we were unable to use any sail at all…and we were at the mercy of the wind and water, always driven closer to shore. Having then lost all of our masts, all of the ships were wrecked on the shore, and with the exception of mine, broke to pieces.1

More than 1,000 people died in the storm, including Ubilla. About 1500 people survived and made it to shore by swimming or floating on pieces of wreckage. Upon reaching land, however, many died from exposure, thirst, and hunger. Further complicating matters, wreckage and people were scattered for almost 30 miles along the uninhabited coast. Fortunately, the Urca de Lima had grounded in shallow water and remained somewhat intact. Supplies and food were recovered from her hold and helped sustain many survivors.

A few launches (small boats carried onboard the warships) survived the disaster, and survivors managed to send one to Havana for aid. One month later, relief boats from Havana and St. Augustine, Florida, arrived with supplies and salvage equipment to recover sunken chests of coins and goods. The Urca de Lima was the first of the wrecked ships to be salvaged by the Spanish. All the cargo that could be recovered was removed from the hull, and the wreck was burned to the waterline to hide it from English pirates.

By the end of the year officials claimed to have recovered all of the Crown's treasure and much of the treasure belonging to individuals (totaling 5 million pesos). The Spanish completed salvage efforts by July 1716. It was not until the end of August—four years after the original fleet left Spain—that the recovered treasure finally arrived in Spain. More than half of the total treasure was still missing and would remain so for the next two hundred years.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Why was Spain anxious for the 1715 fleet to return?

2. Create a timeline for the 1715 fleet from the time it originally left Spain until the fleet wrecked off the coast of Florida. Why did the fleet's journey take so long?

3. How much treasure did the convoy carry?

4. Why do you think the fleet set sail during hurricane season? What happened to the combined fleet as they sailed for Spain?

5. How much treasure was salvaged by the Spanish?

Reading 2 was compiled from Robert F. Burgess and Carl J. Clausen, Florida's Golden Galleons: The Search for the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet (Port Salerno, Florida: Florida Classics Library, 1982); Robert F. Marx, The Search for Sunken Treasure: Exploring the World's Great Shipwrecks (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1993); Robert F. Marx, Shipwrecks in the Americas (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1987); Della Scott-Ireton and Barbara Mattick, "Urca de Lima" (St. Lucie County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001; Roger C. Smith, "Treasure Ships of the Spanish Main: The Iberian-American Maritime Empires," In Ships and Shipwrecks of the Americas, edited by George F. Bass; and Timothy R. Walton, The Spanish Treasure Fleets (Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, Inc., 1994).

1 As quoted in Della Scott-Ireton and Barbara Mattick, "Urca de Lima" (St. Lucie County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001, Section 8, page 2.

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