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On the Trail of the 1733 Galleon Fleet

The below article was written by our close friend and fellow treasure hunter John Mattera. If you get the chance read the book that he is in along with Diver / Treasure Hunter John Chatterton "Pirate Hunters" written by Robert Kurson. After reading Johns article I wanted to share this with the world because as a treasure hunter this is how we all feel. Now enjoy

"On the Trail of the 1733 Galleon Fleet"

Marc Littleton Divemaster / Treasure Hunter.

Pirate Hunters

In a time when the depths of the ocean were still a mystery to all but a few, before we knew of the damaging effect the very air we breathe could have on long submerged artifacts, two words were whispered in the Florida Keys. Two words that have shaken man’s knees since just after the dawn of civilization ...

Treasure Found!

Back when Mendel Peterson, the undisputed father of underwater archeology, was just out of high school and Sir Robert Marx was still an apprentice juvenile delinquent one step ahead of the law, underwater exploration remained a fantasy for most. All-but-forgotten pioneers like Art McKee explored the remains of lost galleons, one of the first men to walk among the timbers recovering innumerable artifacts that astounded the world. Unfortunately, in the dark ages of marine salvage, it was a “learn as you go” program and ignorance was the order of the day. Evidence of misdeeds-gone-by can be seen withering away in front of restaurants all the way up and down the US 1 corridor between Key Largo and Marathon. There can be little doubt when one is travelling down the narrow causeway from one Key to the next that you have landed in a shipwreck-rich environment. It was Bob Weller who first called this stretch “Galleon Alley.” Once-mighty cannons crumbling away on the side of the road, great anchors of ships long forgotten, disintegrating under the hot Florida sun, holding nothing more than rust stains in place on the pavement below. Somber testimony to what we had not known about artifact preservation. It is a sad testimony of a bygone era, one that has tainted my chosen profession until this day. The conscientious among us in the field of underwater exploration practice the science of commercial archeology. It falls somewhere between the world of tenured armchair adventurers and the old-time treasure hunters of days past. The world of academia protests, challenging the commercial enterprise, but having no real remedy for the problem at hand. The academic community is a culture onto itself. But even as a collective group they do not possess the financial wherewithal to recover and preserve artifacts to any extent that will make a difference save for their own publishing desires. While treasure hunting, which has had a long and glorious history but little in the way of conscience, as our rusting monuments along US 1 testify, is also not the answer. As the excesses and ignorance of our past have tainted the business of undersea exploration. The hucksters and charlatans that plagued the industry since before the height of the Spanish Empire up to and continuing today haven’t helped the situation. Treasure Trove hunting had almost always been licensed and taxed by the ruling powers, and was at one time considered a noble profession. Its roots can be traced back to the very beginning of the Roman Empire, as armies marched and conquered, kingdoms were overturned, and fortunes looted. As there were not very many banks along the Appian Way, it was common practice to secrete treasure in various locations. Due to the nature of the business of pillaging and conquering, many a vanquisher met his end all too soon thereby leaving untold treasures left un-recovered. This started a boom business throughout England and Europe, which was practiced for centuries. Enter the Spanish Empire, actually not yet an empire, more a fledgling monarchy only recently independent from 781 years of Muslim rule. What made it an empire, or for that matter ensured its very survival, was treasure itself. Not the business of treasure troving; more the business of treasure taking, doing so at the point of a sword or the end of an arabesque. Moving hordes of ill-gotten gains across the great oceans spurred the modern treasure hunting we know today, as many of the great treasure-laden vessels of the Spanish Empire met their tragic end long before the safety of the harbor of Cadiz. While I don’t profess to know when the desire to recover sunken treasure seeped into mainstream thinking, we do know Leonardo DiVinci was an early designer of underwater machines to recover treasure lost by the Romans.

Even before that, Alexander the Great used primitive diving bells to recover lost treasure. The first well-documented successful treasure story of a semi-modern era started with one of my heroes, William Phipps in 1688, and the successful recovery of over 100 tons of silver from the Nuestra Senora de la pura y limpia Concepcion. Phipps proved that vast fortunes could be recovered from the ocean depths, thereby making himself and his partners rich beyond belief.

This is where I come in, I love history, I’m not opposed to turning a profit, and I have a pair of swim fins. While this may be an oversimplification, it is accurate. So myself, and my partner John Chatterton, along with a group of able-bodied pirates, practice the art and science of “Commercial Archeology.”

We recover what is conservable and bring history alive, digging it from the sand and chipping it from under the coral as we go.

Commercial archeology is a solid answer to the many problems pertaining to disappearing ships of historical significance. Without a doubt it remains one of the least understood business concepts in today’s quest for underwater answers. Commercial archeology is the conscious exploration and recovery of long-unclaimed remnants of our past. The practice of responsible commercial salvage is the only viable way we can uncover the trail of the people who have gone before us with any degree of success.

Artifacts that, if left alone in situ, would be of benefit to no one and would continue to succumb to time and the elements of the ocean.

Properly undertaken, artifacts are recovered and preserved; some are donated or loaned to schools and museums, others are auctioned to pay for the recovery process and fill collections both public and private. Providing someone without the means of salvaging an item on their own the opportunity to possess a cherished objet d'art. Working with governments, states and museums to responsibly document and recover artifacts and in many cases recognizing that certain areas or shipwrecks should be left in situ and not disturbed. Artifacts that cannot be preserved properly should remain where they are found.

One such place that is open to exploration but closed to salvage is “Galleon Alley” or officially known as the “Upper Keys Marine Sanctuary,” a stretch of coastline littered with 11 known shipwrecks from the heyday of Spanish rule.

For me this area only meant one thing: “Fellow students of marine exploration, school is now in session!”

On Friday the 13th of July in the year of our lord 1733, the New Spain fleet under the command of Lieutenant-General Rodrigo de Torres y Morales left Havana harbor en-route to Spain loaded with 12,286,253 pesos of registered specie. Given the notoriety of the day, he should have better planned his departure. As a short day later Torres was faced with the onset of the storm of his life –bad timing! He ordered the ships in his fleet to beat sail back to Havana. Unfortunately most of the accompanying captains did not get the memo or could not comply in time; by the evening of the 15th most of his ships, including the Almirante and the Capitana, were driven up onto or over the stretch reefs