It was a Tuesday morning just before noon, June 7, 1692. Balmy sea breezes wafted over the lazy pirate haven of Port Royal, Jamaica. 500 ships were anchored in the harbor. Buccaneers from Sir Henry Morgan's fleet were hefting tankards of rum, and brawling in the taverns.
Suddenly the walls of the tavern began to tremble. Mortar and timbers fell as giant cracks split the straining foundations. Then the vibrations ceased. Townspeople went nervously into the streets to survey the damage.
Within seconds, another tremor rumbled through the bowels of the earth. Buildings, some 3 and 4 stories tall, collapsed, burying their occupants in tons of debris. Terror gripped the residents and visitors of the flourishing port city who ran screaming in all directions.
Then, with hardly a few seconds lapse, the third and most devastating earthquake rocked the city mercilessly. A giant wall of water climbed from the sea, submerging the town in a devastating tsunami. On its retreat, ninety percent of Port Royal slid into the harbor, carrying with it the remains of 1800 buildings and over 1000 souls. Another thousand died later from the epidemic which descended upon the hapless survivors.
It would seem as though Providence had judged the decadence of the lusty port, dealing it a fatal blow. A fortune in riches went to the bottom of that port when the turgid waters swept back into the sea.
Now, some three centuries later, modern soldiers of fortune attempt to salvage the treasure which lies submerged and buried off the coast of Jamaica. Some of the salvors are interested in history, some in archaeology, and certainly, some in the wealth.
While many of us are familiar with modern salvage techniques and their sophisticated trappings (suction hoses, jetting pumps, magnetometers and metal detectors, depth finders, etc.), treasure salvage has a long history.
The early Greeks recovered many cargos, at least partially using diving bells. The largest bell was forged by the Spanish in 1677, measuring 13 feet high and 9 feet in diameter. It was used to salvage wrecks off the Spanish port of Cadaques.
The tragedy of shipwrecks is not confined to early history, however. Each year some 2200 documented vessels worldwide are ravaged by the seas. Prior to 1870, more than 10,000 ships had been lost in the western hemisphere alone. Ninety-five percent of them lie in shallows less than 50 feet deep.
Best known of the treasure ships were those which comprised the Plata Flota, the Spanish silver fleet that travelled the ocean waters in the spring and fall of each year. The mercenary cargo ships took advantage of the trade winds and the Gulf stream to expedite their arrivals and departures.
Unaware of the weather systems which produced the winds, they frequently fell victim to the squalls and tropical storms which are born in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Plata Flota ceased in 1739 when the War of Jenkin's Ear ended the protection of the treasure boats by Spanish gunboats from privateers and British warships cruising the West Indies. Even so, in 1800 more than 2500 non-Spanish trading ships carried merchandise and slaves into the ports of the Caribbean.
The legacies of buried and sunken treasures abound; and while much wealth still waits to be recovered, many are no more than legend. To prove this point, one of the best-known salvage divers in the business recounted his experience.
Bob Marx has spent decades in research, trying to cull the myths out of approximately 100 wreck sites described in books, charts, and maps which he collected. After two years diving unsuccessfully on many of these listed wrecks, he decided to verify the accounts in original European and American archives.
He discovered that 74 of the original 100 never existed at all, but 18 had actually sunk irrecoverably in the high seas. They were not where modern writers had conveniently placed them. Four others were in shallow water, but hundreds of miles from where they were popularly described. That left four authenticated wreck sites, two of which have been found by Marx. Considered a maverick by some, Bob Marx has some definite opinions about treasure diving. While the Florida keys and the island of Bermuda are the most productive waters in the western hemisphere for salvage, "Great numbers of Florida and Caribbean wrecks have no archaeological value." Marx opined. "There are purists who say that everything should remain on the bottom unless brought up by an archaeologist."
True, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the entire field of treasure salvage, with the state of Florida high on the list. Much of the problem began some years back when the late Kip Wagner of Treasure Salvors, Inc., and Mel Fisher ofReal Eight, Inc., began massive recovery attempts Florida's East Coast and the keys.
Artifacts brought up from these wreck sites have been significant, both archaeologically and monetarily. They range from some 12,000 silver and gold coins reportedly recovered by Dick McAllister from the l7l5 wreck of the Patache, to tons of precious metal coins and bullion brought aboard from the 1622 Atocha and the Margerita off Key West.
The experience of the condemned residents of Port Royal was experienced repeatedly by the vulnerable crews of the Plata Flota. One such instance is that of the fleet of l7l5.
It was a beautiful morning, July 24th as sunrise marked the departure of l2 ships from Havana Harbor, destined for Spain. Comprising the flotilla were l2 ships, 5 from the Mexican flota, 6 from the South American flota, and one French vessel, the "Grifon."
The manifest listed a cargo valued at 6-1/2 million pesos of treasure and an additional 2 million pesos in trade goods. The War of Spanish Succession had led the Spain to the verge of bankruptcy, and the remaining coffers had been spent on elaborate Catholic masses throughout the country to assure the safe arrival of the flota.
As the convoy made its way up the east coast of Florida, the blue skies grew dark. Winds began to grow and the rains poured down heavily. On July 30, 1715 the full fury of a hurricane pounded at the defenseless boats. Some sank in the deeper water while others attempted to find safe harbor, but were pounded to pieces on reefs.
By the time the storm had subsided, all 12 vessels were wrecked between Ft. Pierce and Sebastian Inlet. Over 1000 of the crew perished in the storm. Of the remaining 1500 survivors, many died slow, agonizing deaths from exposure, thirst and hunger before help could arrive from Havana and the mission at St. Augustine.
Frantic salvage efforts began immediately to save the Spanish Empire from virtually assured extinction. By the end of the year most of the treasure and cargo had been salvaged, about 5 million pesos. But it is well known that ships carried far more wealth in private contraband than was listed on the official manifests. Enormous riches still lay on the bottom.
The exact location of the 1715 silver fleet remained unknown to modern salvors until 1948 when the late Kip Wagner, a local building contractor, found some coins lying in the sand on the beach. With a borrowed World War II mine detector, he discovered 40 more coins.
During the next dozens years, Wagner worked the beach steadily while doing serious research into official archives. Eventually Wagner met Mel Fisher, and their mutual recovery of millions of dollars worth of treasure has been well documented.
To many, the idea of treasure hunting inspires a romantic vision of gold coins and jewels spilled across the sands, sunlight gleaming from their shimmering surfaces. Realistically, salvage is hard, heartbreaking work. Many would-be salvors have gone broke, and ruined their marriages and their health, determined to find their El Dorado.
In most cases, the aphorism, “It takes money to make money,” holds true. Only a heavily-financed, well-organized, adequately-researched venture has a chance of success. One of these, Seaquest International, Inc. insists on doing the job right. Their insistence paid off with the discovery of one of the richest treasure ships in history.
Nuestra Senora de la Limpa y Pura Concepcion (Our Lady of the Good and Pure Conception) was a magnificent, high-sided vessel. With a 650-ton capacity and a length of140 feet, the Concepcion projected 36 bronze cannons. Nearly 500 passengers were aboard as she left Havana Harbor that September morning in 1641.
A cargo of delicate Chinese porcelain and eastern silks was dwarfed by the heavy burden of tons of minted silver and gold. Added to this were untold quantities of personal wealth brought aboard by the nobility of church and state, as well as contraband jewels and precious metals, a common practice in those times.
Weakened by a bout with a tropical storm, and hanging low in the water with its burden of passengers and riches, the Concepcion was ripe for a rendezvous with fate.
On a warm fall evening in l64l, she struck a coral reef dead on. Leaning to the side, she then struck two more. Frantically, the crew began to jettison cargo in a futile attempt to lighten her draught. Heavy ocean swells snapped her anchor lines. Hastily-contrived anchors made from cannons proved no match for the fury of the sea and the rapacious appetite of the coral reef.
As ballast stone spilled from her ruptured hull, the Concepcion began to succumb to the depths. Gently her stern slipped beneath the surface, passengers screaming, clutching to anything within reach. Crudely-fashioned rafts clutched by doomed passengers were dispatched in different directions, many falling victim to the winds and seas, others to sharks. Of the original 500 passengers, only 190 survived to recount their grisly experience. Numerous salvage parties attempted to locate the wreck, all without success.
Some years later, a salty New Englander by the name of William Phips dreamed of the wealth reputed to be awaiting recovery, and he organized his own salvage crew. The individuals selected by Phips have been described summarily as the crustiest dregs ever to pollute the sea, but they were hearty.
After considerable brawling, boozing, and mayhem at sea, they finally happened upon the location of the Concepcion. Whether successful by blind luck or keen judgment, no one will ever know. By the time the Phips expedition had finished their official count, they had brought aboard 32 tons of treasure, and yet much more was left behind.
Burt Webber was an adventurer. An early introduction to scuba diving, coupled with a chance meeting with Art McKee, discoverer of the Capitana which sank in the 1735 silver fleet, guided Webber's destiny. Treasure hunting would become his obsession which, on more than one occasion, would lead him near death.
In spite of years of disappointment, disenchanted financial backers and despondency, Webber never gave up his dream. He had heard of the Concepcion, and convinced that he could find it, he secured the backing of a well-equipped financial investment team, Seaquest International, Inc. of Chicago.
Now encouraged more than ever, Webber outfitted himself with the best equipment money could buy, side-scanning SONAR, cesium magnetometer, two-way radio gear--everything he needed. His crew was hand picked, the best in the business, and Webber was ready to go.
A freak discovery gave Webber and his crew a distinct advantage. Early research at the Spanish archives had missed a key clue to the whereabouts of the Concepcion, but a later review stood out like a beacon. The description of the wreck site during the original hearings matched perfectly a suspect area known as Silver Shoals, just off the northern coast of the Dominican Republic.
Arrangements were made with the Dominican government for a share in the prospective wealth in return for protection. An armed gunboat stood by as the excited crew started to sweep the area for signals on their equipment, but the day went by without a trace of the Concepcion.
But on the second day, a diver retrieved a small, dark gray disc. It was a silver coin. Surfacing excitedly, the diver plunged the coin into a small dish of muriatic acid to dissolve the years of sulfide crust. Minutes later, the mint marks began to emerge, revealing that it was made in Mexico City, just like the cargo of the Concepcion.
Immediately the diving team was back in the water. Working along the edge of a small, submarine canyon, a cavity was discovered by the magnetometer. A strong reading indicated metal inside.
Pushing aside bits of debris, the divers watched in awe as a cascade of silver discs fell to the sandy bottom! More stacks of coins were discovered by the thousands! The wreck of the Concepcion, hidden for 338 years, had been found. Apparently, only about one eighth of the treasure had been salvaged earlier by Phips with hundreds of millions of dollars worth still on the reef.
Men like Burt Webber illustrate that persistence pays, especially when accompanied by adequate preparation.
There’s more waiting to be found
Our imaginations run rampant when we hear names like Gasparilla, Billy Bowlegs, Jean Lafitte, and Blackbeard. Our minds' eyes conjure visions of square-rigged sails billowing in the sea breeze, a taunting skull and cross-bones flapping above the mainmast, and a surly band of cutthroats brandishing cutlasses, waiting to board a hapless merchantman.
In fact Florida, well into the nineteenth century, did indeed provide safe harbor for brigands. With merchant vessels often separated many miles from the other members of their convoy, they fell easy prey to the nefarious seafarers.
One of the most persistent legends is that of the treasure at the bottom of Charlotte Harbor, south of Boca Grande Pass. Numerous shipwrecks have been reported dotting the jade waters here, one of which is reputed to be that of Jose Gaspar (“Gasparilla”), the notorious renegade who singlehandedly declared war against Spain.
For nearly thirty years, this colorful pirate and his band of condemned criminals whom he had freed from jail terrorized the Spanish crown. His ruthless vendetta was directed specifically at the Queen, who had previously had Gaspar's wife, infant son, and mother murdered.
American naval vessels never bothered Gaspar just so long as he was pirating Spanish vessels, but then Gaspar decided to try his luck with an American boat. News of this treachery reached the Capitol, and the U.S. Navy set sail to eradicate Gaspar and his crew.
As the Gaspar’s treasure-laden pirate gunboat sailed out of Boca Grande Pass one sunny morning late in l82l, the crew observed an American merchantman sailing by. Too tempting to resist, the pirate crew headed their vessel directly toward the merchant ship.
But as Gaspar's ship drew up to the seemingly-vulnerable vessel, the buccaneers recoiled in horror as the "solid" sides of the merchantman dropped away, revealing a flank of cannons. It was a United States Man O' War!
A deafening roar of exploding cannonade ripped the Spanish pirate vessel to pieces. She lurched to the side, drawing tons of water, and began to sink. Gaspar, sensing imminent defeat, wrapped himself in anchor chain and lurched overboard. The pirate’s mighty flagship, the Dona Rosalia, the scourge of the Caribbean for three decades, slid silently out of sight.
The air grew eerily silent as the acrid smoke of gunpowder gradually wafted over the horizon. Flotsam and corpses floated below the victor's gunwales. And on the bottom of Charlotte Harbor, tens of millions of dollars worth of gold, silver and jewels lay unrecovered to this day.
Popular legends grow around the pirates of yore. One myth persists that some of Gaspar’s treasure still lies buried on shore, about 500 feet from the beach. More specifically, a one-meter cube of gold bullion secreted low enough to evade the shifting beach dunes.
The Florida illusion is so indelible that it is nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction surrounding the legendary pirates. Because the state has had flags of five different nations flying over its soil, virtually every part of Florida has inspired haunting stories of Spanish missions, military forts, renegade caches, and pirate treasure.
The likelihood of anyone uncovering a true trove of treasure is painfully small, but it does happen. Perhaps you will be one of the few fortunate ones on whom Dame Fortune smiles, and the dream of a chest of gold escudas, silver reales and precious emeralds will come true!