- Historic Sites
The saga of Kip Wagner, the first modern American to grow rich from ancient Spanish treasure
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
Part of what the treasure seekers learned was that at the time of the storm off Sebastian, flotillas like the wrecked one were an old story. For more than two hundred years, at the cost of nobody knows how much death and cruelty, these ships had sailed from the New World to the Old, laden down with treasure. None of this was a secret from the other nations of Europe, which for a long time had been trying, often with success, to do battle with the leaders of the fleets in order to take famous galleons as prizes. Sir Walter Raleigh’s whole life and success were built around his feats of piracy, as were those of other desperadoes of the time. In reaction, the armadas were built stronger each year. “The Bureau of Trade and the Council of the Indies laid down strict rules for fleet admirals to follow,” wrote Wagner, speaking, of course, of official Spanish bodies. “Treasure-bearing cargo ships were to cross the Atlantic in convoys of six to ten, each escorted by heavier galleons and lighter, utility vessels, which served as scouts for the fleets.”By the middle of the sixteenth century the arrangements had settled into a pattern: two armadas were to go every year to the Indies. They were called the Nueva España and the Tierra Firma flotillas. On the trip west they carried supplies for the colonies; clothing, provisions (including wines), glassware, ironware, and mining equipment; coming back they were loaded, as we know, with treasure. They were merchant vessels and their escorts, armed warships. For the voyage home they combined in Havana, then sailed through the Florida Straits and along the New Bahamas Channel, turning to the east between St. Augustine and Cape Hatteras. It was a dangerous voyage, but the best that could be worked out. Usually the commanders tried to set out in June, before the storms got a good start.
Each armada was led by the capitana, a large fighting galleon, heavily armed, which carried treasure but no other cargo. Behind the fleet came a second armed galleon called the almirante —in other words, the captain and the admiral. Both ships carried lots of cannon. Each capitana carried the general, that is, the commanding officer of the fleet, and on each almirante was, as seems fitting, an admiral. He assumed command of the armada in case of pirate attacks. If it seems strange that a general should have accompanied each fleet, well, that was Spanish custom. They had no naval captains: generals took their place.
Of course, out of all the wealth that the ships carried, the Spanish kings and courts claimed their royal fifth, which was as much a grievance to the merchants as the income tax is to us today. The 1715 armada, as it happens, was unusually heavily laden with treasure, since there had been no regular sailings for the previous thirteen years due to the War of the Spanish Succession. Unfortunately, both sections of the combined fleet were unusually slow in getting started, and even after they met there was more delay in Havana. A French ship, El Grifón, had received permission to sail with the flota—ships often did this in the interests of safety from pirates—and it, too, was responsible for more waiting. In fact, it was July 14, long after the safest season, before the armada at last got under way past El Morro. At least it was a beautiful day, with no hint of trouble in the offing, but that is the way with Caribbean weather—it can change very quickly.
The ships, with two thousand men aboard, were a handsome sight —“more eye-catching, however, than practical,” to quote Kip Wagner, because Spanish ships were much less manageable and more difficult to maneuver than their lighter, sleeker English opposite numbers. Still, it was a lovely sight as they sailed across the Florida Straits and then among the Florida Keys.
The first signs of bad weather came on Monday, July 29, when seasoned sailors looked with misgivings at a haze in the sky. Parallel to the fleet, but several hundred miles to the east, a hurricane was boiling up, and on Monday evening it changed direction and headed west, as if deliberately to intercept the flota. Tuesday morning the weather around the ships was ominous even to the greenest sailor—dead calm interspersed with sudden winds, and wisps of clouds that in the course of time became heavy. By Tuesday afternoon it was so dark that the ship’s lanterns were lit. The waves had grown large, and the sailors were battening down the hatches.
It was too late to seek shelter in any cove, as Wagner said, reliving the storm. The fleet was still near Cape Canaveral, and the leading generals knew that the coastline as far as Canaveral was full of natural shipwrecking hazards: shoals and reefs. They had to meet the storm head on.
They went, then, through the progressive stages of the hurricane—squalls repeating with mounting fury, and wind and rain battering the ships through the early half of the night, until 2:00 A.M., when the full hurricane was unleashed. Winds of one hundred miles per hour cracked masts and tore loose the secured sails, ripping them into ribbons. Seamen were swept from the decks to be lost in the swirling seas. Each captain tried desperately to maneuver his ship, but the galleons were driven, slowly and inexorably, toward the shore. When they struck at last, some men were thrown straight into the boiling sea; others tried for a while to paddle. There were shattered beams falling everywhere. One by one the ships were hurled to destruction. Not all the men were lost, though both generals were.