The Wreck of the 1733 Spanish Treasure Fleet

In Florida everyone and their dog is a treasure hunter, having either tried it or seriously considered it. Some, even without planning, are just dumb-lucky enough to find treasure washed up by one of Florida’s legendary storms. Tourists plan their vacations around treasure hunting, and once in a great while that effort pays off. One family walked away with over a million in Spanish gold which was likely from the wrecked 1715 fleet. Occasional finds of gold coins, silver ingots and Chinese porcelain, along with cannons, swords and other weapons are regular fare on the evening news all along the Florida coast from the Keys to Port St. Lucie.

Spanish Treasure Fleet
Cornelis Verbeeck (circa 1590–after 1637) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Two of the biggest treasure wrecks happened in 1715 and again in 1733, both the result of hurricanes blowing in from the Caribbean and catching homeward bound fleets loaded to the brim with silver, gold and treasure. Treasure fleets were routine traffic in the waters around Florida, as nearly every year from the 16th through the mid-18th centuries Spain would send an armada of ships to a swampy coastal Mexican town, then called Vera Cruz.

Twice a year the otherwise sleepy Mexican fishing village would come to life with activity, once when the fleet arrived and again when it set sail for Spain. These ships would bring mercury, necessary for the extraction (some would say looting) of precious metals from the mines, along with wine, spice and iron tools from Europe and the East. Those same ships would ultimately leave laden with fortunes in silver ingots, gold coins, pearls, jewels and other treasures.

There are some places on Earth where the weather is consistently out to kill you—and Florida is definitely one. Even in the absence of a hurricane boaters can suddenly find themselves awash in thirty-foot seas when storms pop up literally out of nowhere. The hostile nature of Florida weather and the reality of hurricane season, which runs from June through November, were certainly known to Lieutenant General Don Rodrigo de Torres y Morales, commander of the ill-fated 1733 treasure armada. For reasons unknown he set sail for Spain on the 25th of May, 1733, right at the beginning of hurricane season.

The first leg of the journey, to Havana, was uneventful. Havana was Sin City for Spanish sailors of the time and the fleet didn’t set sail for home until the 13th of July. By the night of the 14th, the armada was already getting into the teeth of a storm. But the problem with those big, fat sailing ships is they didn’t have any means to make way against the wind. When winds reach hurricane stage crews couldn’t even put any sail up and were basically at the mercy of the wind and waves. By the night of the 15th the captain had put up colors instructing the other ships to try and make it back to Havana, but it was already too late. By 10:30 that night all but one of the ships had lost their masts and rigging and were blasted into the rocky reefs, another deadly feature of treacherous Florida waters.

The Spanish began salvage of the ships and treasure within a few days. Most were found in relatively shallow waters and three ships were refloated with little difficulty. Over the next year and a half the Spanish recovered approximately $12 million of the original $20 million in treasure.

But while most of the ships were found relatively quickly, an elusive few are missing to this day. Over the years there have been finds and salvage operations, including one treasure hunter who had to fight off claim jumpers with spearguns and shark bang sticks, like a scene out of a James Bond movie.

Somewhere near the treacherous reefs and shores around Key Largo a fortune in Spanish silver and gold still awaits a lucky diver. Every so often a storm will uncover a silver goblet or piece of gold jewelry for the fortunate beach walker. Just be careful if you go out on the water. If you don’t respect Florida weather, it can kill you.