SUNKEN TREASURE WORKSHOP
Spain's Treasure Fleet Disaster
The story of the contemporary ship wreck treasure era in the Keys probably began in 1938 when Islamorada fisherman Reggie Roberts looked up Homestead diver Art McKee to show him an old "cannon wreck" he had found. The wonderfully curious McKee wrote to Spain after he discovered Spanish coins on the wreck - and received back a salvors' map of the locations of ships of an entire fleet that had wrecked in the Keys in 1733. It is one of North America's greatest maritime disasters, an event totally unknown to us until the letter from Spain arrived. There is a copy at the Islamorada library of Spain's National Library's letter to McKee stating they had forwarded his inquiry to the Archives of the Indies. It is dated "28 febrero 1938" to "Mr. Arhur McKee, Jr., Phone Key Largo, 3731, P. 0. Box 165, Tavernier, Florida (U.S.A.)"
More wreck sites were subsequently found by others. The tales of this exciting era of discovery can be read in a book written by one of the modern-day salvors, Martin Meylach, Diving to a Flash of Gold (1971), and in articles kept on file at the Islamorada library.
Jack Haskins of Islamorada has been the dogged archival researcher of the event, traveling to Spain many times, teaching himself to read and translate the ancient handwritten Spanish documents, discovering the drama of what happened in a hurricane here at the Upper Keys on July 15, 1733.
Two days after leaving Havana for Spain with a year's collection of New World treasure aboard, the fleet was wrecked by a hurricane with no warning at the Upper and Middle Keys. It was made up of King's ships, merchant ships, an advice ship and 2 ships that were only enroute to St. Augustine, but sailed with the fleet for its protection.
One day into the intended voyage, on July 14th, Key West was sighted, and the people aboard the ships noticed that the sun had a "bad appearance.” In the evening it became stormy.
By 11:00 the next night the winds finally stopped, the moon came out, and hundreds, perhaps a thousand people, were left surviving, barely, on their sorry wrecked hulks and on the nearby islets that we now call home until their rescue days later. What happened July 15, 1733 is related in a poem by a survivor, diaries of people on the wrecked ships, and reports of the subsequent salvage and rescue efforts.
The people on the ships, who attempted to return to Havana because of the storm, saw the waves hitting the reef that their ships were being driven toward. A passenger aboard Nuestra Senora de Las Angustius later wrote in his poem, "The ship saw the silver reef...there was only time to sigh, to ask for grace. Clouds and waves in approaching mountains....”
The Infante grounded at 8:30 p.m. and pounded upon Little Conch Reef all night. She settled submerged to her decks. At daybreak on the 16th it was clear and her people could see Key Largo and Plantation Key 4 1/2 miles distant. They also saw five other ships aground.
The San Joseph sank in 30' of water after tearing over that same reef. Her people crowded onto the afterdeck. [In 1968 a human skull was found on this wreck.] El Rubi Segundo, the Capitana [flagship] was leaking so badly before she grounded between Davis and Crocker Reefs, also off Plantation Key, that no one aboard had expected to survive. Her only casualties, however, were two men that were flung into the sea and a sailor crushed by the tiller when the ship struck bottom. She came to be totally submerged. On one of the warships, [unnamed in the account] masts were cut away and 14 cannon jettisoned to prevent her grounding, but to no avail. Nuestra Senora del Carmen grounded only 1/2 mile off Windley Key in 10' of water, her hold remaining watertight. The ship of owner Herrera, Nuestra Senora de Belen grounded 2-3 miles off Upper Matecumbe Key, submerged to her decks.
Next to her was the totally submerged Tres Puentes. Among the group of six large ships that would never sail again was the "Little Balandra", still afloat but dismasted, saved on an anchor between two sheltering keys. She was one of the ships enroute to St. Augustine, and her cargo of 256 barrels of flour "aided in keeping the shipwreck survivors alive."
The San Pedro ran aground one mile from Indian Key, submerged to her decks. All her people survived. Nuestra Senora de Rosario of Murguia [the owner] grounded at a small channel also near Indian Key. She was later refloated. The San Felipe grounded one mile offshore of Lower Matecumbe Key, submerged to her deck. Her people survived. Also off Lower Matecumbe was the grounded Poder de Dios, later refloated.
At Long Key, then named Cayo Vibores, the San Francisco grounded and flooded, but her people survived. El Gallo Indiana, the Almiranta [second in command that guarded the rear of the fleet] grounded there too and four people aboard her died, including a child. The Angustius came to be in the channel between Long and Conch Keys, her keel broken. Nuestra Senora del Rosario de Arizon (Arizon the owner of this second Rosario) did well, comparatively. She too grounded, off Walker's Island between Conch and Duck Keys, but her people survived and part of the cargo saved.
To the west of her was Nuestra Senora de los Reyes, submerged to her deckhouse. One of her passengers perished, her cargo lost. San Ignacio broke into four pieces when she struck the reef off Key Vaca. Only 14 people aboard her survived; 38 others did not. The fate of the frigate Florida enroute to St. Augustine was told by her only survivor, who floated ashore on a mast after two days clinging to it. She and her people had been swallowed by the sea.
The Angustius'poet saw "150 dead sailors…those washed up by the sea swollen bodies."
At the northern end of the Keys 80 miles away the fleet's war scout ship, El Populo, sank to her poop deck in 29' off Elliott Key. Nearby was the advice ship Dolores upon a reef. She was later refloated. El Africa survived in the Gulf Stream. That ship's notary, Antonio Prieto, gave this account which differs from another as to the time the wind stopped:
"They proceeded to the entrance of the Canal of the Bahamas and on the night of the 14th there came upon them a storm out of the north of such qualities that at 2 a.m. this ship was forced to run before it, without having seen any other ship of the convoy since midnight. At 11 a.m. of the next day, and within two hours, they lost the main mid mast and mizzen top mast. At 6 p.m. the wind came upon them very strong from the south which lasted all the following night. At daybreak on the 16'' it started to calm. By jury rigging the fore mast sail they made their way to Key Largo where the currents were less severe and they anchored with two anchors in 40 brazas [240'] of water." There they found the Dolores and the Populo, put their survivors aboard and proceeded on the voyage to Spain. Prieto's declaration was given at Cadiz.
Meanwhile the hurricane victims' efforts at survival continued. Aboard the Infante on Little Conch Reef a raft was made from the wreck of the ship, and after a day of construction 60 people were towed ashore on it by the ship's boat. The next day another raft made for more people, and the next day another. On July 22, one week after the storm, all remaining aboard were finally brought ashore [except 6 men ordered to stay on the wreck]. Like activities were taking place on the other ships as well.
Immediately after the storm a ship was sent from Havana, that city also suffering the hurricane, to check on the just departed fleet. Before it returned another Spanish ship came into port on the 21st with the news of seeing 12 large ships aground. All ten ships then in Havana harbor were sent to the Keys.
John Colcock of Charleston was sailing near the Dry Tortugas when the hurricane struck and later told the governor of South Carolina that he himself barely survived it and that afterwards at the Keys his ship was approached by a launch with 20-30 survivors aboard, who asked if he would take them to Havana. He did so and his merchant ship with a cargo of hides was immediately seized by the Spaniards and pressed into the rescue and salvage operations, leaving him and his crew to wander about Havana for the next five weeks. Upon complaint they told him that "he had two remedies - patience or beating his head against the wall." Another colonial American ship, the John, was also pressed into the rescue service while at Havana.
A report of the disaster declares that the Havana help, "arrived...so on time that to have delayed some more days they might have perished, the most part of the people….”
Two survivors' camps were organized, and two forts of four cannon each were built to protect the treasure that divers began to recover. On August 18th the Governor of Havana wrote of his fear of Bahamian wreckers appearing on the scene at the Keys, and of the dire need for water in the camps. The salvage of ordinary cargo and the huge amount of treasure in the hulls of the ships continued, for months. After the salvage the Spanish fired the ships to obtain their ironwork. One by one they disappeared from sight above the waves. Forgotten history - until 1938.