A convoy of Spanish ships is late starting for home from Havana, Cuba, gets caught in a hurricane off the shores of Florida and wrecked. If the story sounds familiar it’s because we previously told you the tale the wreck of the 1733 Spanish treasure fleet. What tends to get forgotten, both by treasure hunters and history, is that there was another Spanish fleet wrecked, under eerily similar circumstances, less than twenty years before that. Yet the tragic 1715 disaster left its own vast treasure on the bottom of the ocean, with only a fraction ever found.
In 1700, Charles II of Spain died childless and named a distant relative of his first wife and the grandson of Louis XIV of France as his heir. The prospect of France and Spain united by marriage terrified the rest of the world, specifically the Dutch and English, and that kicked off the War of the Spanish Succession. Pirates and privateers gleefully raided Spanish shipping lanes and by 1711 the flow of treasure looted from the New World had virtually stopped. Spain desperately needed money, and that meant squeezing Central and South America for cowhides, vanilla, chocolate, spices, precious gems and, of course, chests of gold and silver.
As the war wound down by 1712, Spain was on the verge of bankruptcy. King Philip V ordered a fleet to sail to the Americas to bring back a haul of treasure. By mid-September the fleet sailed for South America under the command of Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla. The plan was to get there, load up on treasure quickly and race back home, but the plan started to fall apart almost immediately. Some of the ships were damaged by storms and there were problems getting cargo to the ports. In the slow-motion ballet of time when great wooden ships sailed the seas, it ended up being nearly two years before the fleet was ready to return.
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Keep in mind that shipments back to Spain had been curtailed for years because of the war and in the meantime a lot of treasure was building up in Spanish settlements. The fleet dropped off its cargo of mercury, used in the mining of silver ingots called cobs, and eventually made its way back to Havana. Once there Ubilla decided to wait up for other ships coming in from Cartagena, before heading back to Spain.
Captain-General Ubilla had forgotten that Florida is one of the few places where even the weather wants to kill you. To this day, even with weather radar and satellites, the Florida Straits are some of the most treacherous waters on the planet. To this day, almost weekly there are stories of capsized boats and lost fishermen.
Had Ubilla just headed for home, this story might have ended quite differently. Instead he waited for the other ships and the entire fleet sailed for home in July of 1715, one month into what every Floridian knows is hurricane season. On July 24th the convoy of a dozen ships sailed out of Havana carrying an estimated 14 million pesos in treasure. Six days later the hurricane caught up with them off the shores of Central Florida, brutally wrecking eleven of the twelve ships. Some sank in deep water; others were washed up on the unfriendly beaches.
The Spanish managed to salvage somewhere between a third and half of the treasure, including what was aboard the ship the Urca de Lima, which grounded in shallow water. Over the years treasure hunters and beach walkers have turned up gold and silver coins, jewelry, gems and odd bits of the treasure. Due to the similarities between the 1715 and 1733 treasure fleet wrecks, it’s not always clear which fleet the found treasure belongs. The only clue is that anything dated after 1715 must have originated from the 1733 fleet, but any treasure or artifact dated from 1715 or before could have potentially come from either one.
Most of the wrecks in shallow water have been found and much of the treasure salvaged. But there were still several ships that sank in deeper water that have not been located and the shifting sands and silt of the ocean bottom still cover a lot of gold and silver treasure. The locals know to walk with your head down by the ocean because you never what the storms and currents will uncover on a Florida beach.