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When pirates scoured the Treasure Coast

“I am a free Prince and I have as much authority to make war on the whole World as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea and an army of 100,000 men in the field.” — Black Sam Bellamy, 1717

The Nuestra Señora del Carmen y San Antonio, originally HMS Hampton Court, is shown in this painting days after the hurricane of 1715. It grounded on the east coast of Florida and was the only one from the Spanish treasure fleet to beach relatively intact.

BY ALLEN BALOGH

One man. One crew. One ship can take on the entire British Empire without a hiccough or regret. However grandiose Bellamy’s assertion may sound today, it was not without sincerity.

Engaging as their legends are, the true story of the pirates of the Treasure Coast was even more captivating; it is a long-lost tale of tyranny and resistance, a maritime revolt on the seas. The foundation of the British Empire was shaken by these rogues.

At its center was the Pirate Republic of Nassau, Bahamas, a den of 2,000 thieves awaiting catastrophes and ships to prey on. At their zenith they succeeded in severing Britain, France and Spain from their New World empires, cutting off trade routes, stifling the supply of slaves to the sugar plantations of America and the West Indies and disrupting the flow of business between continents.

There was no GPS, no iPhone, no weather radar service out of Miami, only a compass and a sextant to determine the angle of a glaring sun or twinkling stars and the horizon in front of them. And one must appreciate the tenacity in sailing to a location where X marked the spot. What gutsy, insane men these were just hanging on to the sides of their ships. These remarkable navigators sailed thousands of miles over the open ocean through unknown territories.

MAGNIFICENT 1715 FLEET In the eighteenth century, the nation-states of Spain, England and France had insatiable appetites for New World riches. The New World spanned South America through the Caribbean and into northern Florida. Geographically, it was known as the Spanish Main. After loading their New World riches, the Spanish galleons would meet in Havana, Cuba, before sailing for Europe. The threat of pirate attack was real, so there was safety in numbers. The fleet sailed from Havana through the Bahamian channel and eventually along the coast of Florida. As a matter of course, and fortunate for historians, the king and queen’s cargo was detailed on the ship’s manifests. The gold of the Aztecs, the silver of the Incas and the gems of the Mayan were in great demand in Europe.

The Spanish fleet sails out of Havana Harbor late in July 1715. Nuestra Señora del Carmen leads while several yachts sail to see them off. The weather was fine at the time. JAMES FLOOD

Every year, Spain commissioned two fleets to sail to the New World. One, the Galeones de Tierra Firme, or the Ships of the Mainland Fleet, sailed to Cartagena at New Granada — modern Colombia, South America — where the galleons took delivery of gold, emeralds, pearls and silver from Peru’s fabled mines in Potosi.

Capt. Gen. Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza was the commander of the Tierra Firme fleet. In the winter of 1714, he was delayed in Cartagena, waiting for silver and gold being delivered by llamas over the Andes Mountains from Bogota. Echeverz departed Cartagena, riding low in the water, and sailed heavily back to Cuba. He arrived in Havana in mid-March and waited for the Plate Fleet, which had more treasures and was still in Mexico. Chests filled with uncut Colombian emeralds arrived from the Muzo mines and were placed on the docks of Havana Harbor. By the time the ships were ready to depart, an overabundance of silver and gold weighed the ship down into the waters of the harbor.

Echeverz’s flagship, Nuestra Senora de la Carmen, was laden with gold bars, doubloons, silver and 72 cannons. The Nuestra Senora del Rosario, a massive 155-foot vessel, followed close behind for protection and served as a fighting vessel with more than 50 cannons. Nuestra Senora del Rosario also carried an equal amount of chests of wealth. A third galleon, Senora de la Concepcion, carried hundreds of chests of coinage as well. Senor San Miguel, La Holandesa, and La Francesca brought up the rear of the fleet, serving as passenger and supply ships. In most likelihood, the three vessels carried contraband to avoid taxation in Spain.

The Plate Fleet carried gold bullion and silver from Veracruz, Mexico. Chinese porcelain and silk from Emperor K’anghis of the Manchu Dynasty were added to the manifests. A mule train carried the cargo over the deserts of Mexico to the ships docked at Veracruz.

Cochineal red and indigo blue dyes were brought aboard near Acapulco. Capt. Gen. Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla was the commander of the Flota de la Plata, or Plate Fleet. He oversaw a combined fleet of 11 ships.

Ubilla’s galleon, Nuestra Senora de la Regla, carried 1,300 chests of nearly three million silver coins and fifty cannons. Gold coins, chests of uncut emeralds, pearls and Chinese porcelain rounded out the cargo. Ubilla’s protective ship, Santo Cristo de San Roman y Nuestra Senora del Rosario, carried a thousand chests, each chest containing three thousand coins. A supply ship, Santissima Trinidad y Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, also known as Urca de Lima, carried 81 chests of silver coins and 50 chests of worked silver. A dispatch ship, Nuestra Senora de la Nieves, carried 44,000 pieces of silver. The trailing frigate, Mariagalonte, carried supplies and armaments.

By the summer of 1715, the patience of King Philip V of Spain had worn thin on the delivery of the treasure. Pressure from the king would force the departure from Cuba of 2,500 passengers and $14 million in gold, silver, gems and Chinese porcelain.

However, fate had a different destination for these ships, their crew and passengers. Hundreds soon faced death; innocent grandparents, women and children were about to sail into a horrific hurricane.