The Still-hidden Treasure of the Flor de Mar
image: Afonso de Albuquerque, the flashy dresser whose bad call resulted in a massive sea tragedy
When it comes to lost treasure, South Florida and the Caribbean tend to get most of the attention. There was a lot of treasure looted from the New World countries; Central America, South America, and Cuba and more, with much of that treasure was loaded onto ships and sent home. But the currents are tricky in the tropics and storms can pop up out of a literally clear blue sky. Still today stories of boats being lost and people vanishing forever are nearly a weekly staple of the news during the summer months. Then there are the stories of pirates who roamed the same waters until the early 1800s. Who doesn’t like a good pirate story?
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What gets less attention is that nearly a hundred years before the Spanish set up shop in the Caribbean, the Spanish and Portuguese were extensively raiding, looting and trading around the better-known worlds of the Mediterranean, Africa and India. Somewhere, off the western shores of Malaysia near the coast of Sumatra, a vast treasure in gold and jewels rests quietly on the bottom of the ocean where it’s lain since 1511, on the day the Portuguese ship Flor de Mar went down in a storm.
The Flor de Mar was a small ship even by standards that would be common a hundred years later. Yet at 400 tons it was one of the largest of a class of ships called a “carrack” in English or a “nau” in Portuguese. The Flor de Mar was, in fact, a close relative of the ships that carried Columbus. Back in the day nautical engineering was still coming along and, if someone wanted a bigger ship, engineers just scaled up the designs they already knew. Modern engineers will tell you that can lead to designs that are unstable and the Flor de Mar, with her three masts and square sails, handled like a cow when she was fully loaded. In fairness those ships were only designed for a service life of four years so, by the time she went down in 1511, the Flor de Mar had served more than twice her normal service life.
The ship was plagued by problems from her very first voyage. During a spice run in 1503 the Flor de Mar sprang a leak and was forced to stop at Mozambique Island for months of repairs before carrying her load of spice back to Portugal. In 1505 the ship would return for another load of spice, again start leaking, and be forced to spend nearly another year in repairs while the cargo was sent home on other ships. Starting in 1507 the Flor de Mar became part of a flotilla of raiding ships that saw extensive fighting over the next four years, including the conquest of Goa in 1510 and the conquest of Malacca in 1511.
Despite the fact that the ship had actually only made one leaky cargo run in its entire career, Afonso de Albuquerque picked the Flor de Mar to haul a load of treasure looted from Malacca, a city that was a hub of commerce and loaded with riches, back to Portugal. Known more for his strategic prowess than naval skill, Albuquerque packed the aging Flor de Mar to the rails with priceless treasures from the King of Siam and accompanied it on its leaky way home. The treasure was rumored to contain 60 tons of gold and 200 chests of jewels which included diamonds the size of a man’s fist.
Ignoring the advice of his ship captains, Afonso de Albuquerque set off in December, 1511, down the tricky Malacca Strait in a ship that maneuvered like a cow when fully loaded. Caught in a violent storm shortly after leaving port, the ship was dragged into a shoal, broke up and sank in the stormy waters north of Sumatra. Amazingly, de Albuquerque made it off the ship alive by making off in a lifeboat with some of the ship’s officers. More seaworthy than the Flor de Mar, the lifeboat made it ashore safely sans the treasure.
Unfortunately for Afonso de Albuquerque his detractors in the Portuguese court moved against him, convincing the king to appoint his arch rival in his place. The news so upset de Albuquerque that he died aboard ship on the way home in December of 1515.
The treasure of the Flor de Mar is still down there, although its recovery will be wrapped up in litigation about who has claim to the fortune. Treasure hunter Robert Marx, who’s called the Flor de Mar “the richest vessel ever lost at sea” has reportedly spent nearly $20 million trying to find the treasure, but no word yet that any of it, in the form of fabulous treasure, has been recovered to date.