Nuestra Señora de Atocha
Spanish expansion in the New World was rapid and by the late 1500's. Mexico City, Lima and Potosi had populations that exceeded the largest cities in Spain. It would be another half a century or more before the chief cities of colonial North America; Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, were to be founded. Colonists were granted huge tracts of land to grow tobacco, coffee and other products for export to the mainland. More important to the throne however, was the continent's mineral wealth of silver and gold, which were vital to Spain's continued growth.
Trade with the colonies followed a well-established system. Beginning in 1561 and continuing until 1748, two fleets a year were sent to the New World. The ships brought supplies to the colonists and were then filled with silver, gold, and agricultural products for the return voyage back to Spain.
The fleets sailed from Cadiz, Spain early in the year, following the approximate route that Columbus had taken years before. Upon arrival in the Caribbean, the two fleets would split up, the Nueva España Fleet continuing on to Veracruz, Mexico and the Tierra Firme Fleet to Portobello in Panama. Here, the ships were unloaded and the cargo of silver and gold brought aboard. For the return trip the divided fleets reassembled in Havana, then rode the Gulf Stream north along the coast of Florida before turning east when at the same latitude as Spain.
The treasure fleets faced many obstacles; the two greatest of which were weather and pirates. It was well known that the hurricane season began in late July, so for this reason the operation was timed for an earlier departure. For protection against pirates, each fleet was equipped with two heavily armed guard galleons. The lead ship was known as the Capitana. The other galleon, called the amaranth, was to bring up the rear. A recently constructed 110 foot galleon, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, was designated the amaranth of the Tierra Firme Fleet.
The fleet departed Spain on March 23, 1622 and after a brief stop at the Caribbean Island of Dominica, the Atocha and the Tierra Firme Fleet continued on to the Colombian port city of Cartagena, arriving in Portobello on May 24th. Treasure from Lima and Potosi was still arriving by mule train from Panama City, a port on the pacific side of the Isthmus. It would take nearly 2 months to record and load the Atocha's cargo in preparation for departure. Finally, on July 22, the Tierra Firme Fleet set sail for Havana, via Cartagena, to meet the fleet returning from Veracruz. In Cartagena, the Atocha received an additional cargo load of treasure, much of it gold and rare first year production silver from the recently established mints here and at Santa Fe de Bogotá. It was late August, well into the hurricane season, before the fleet arrived in Havana.
As a military escort, the Atocha carried an entire company of 82 infantrymen to defend the vessel from attack and possible enemy boarding. For this reason, she was the ship of choice for wealthy passengers and carried an extraordinarily large percentage of the fleet's treasure. Unfortunately, firepower could not save her from the forces of nature.
On Sunday, September 4th, with the weather near perfect, the decision was made to set sail for Spain. The twenty-eight ships of the combined fleet raised anchor and in single file set a course due north towards the Florida Keys and the strong Gulf Stream current. The Atocha, sitting low from its heavy cargo, took up its assigned position in the rear. By evening the wind started to pick up out of the northeast growing stronger through the night. At daybreak the seas were mountainous and for safety most everyone was below deck seasick or in prayer. Throughout the next day the wind shifted to the south driving most of the fleet past the Dry Tortugas and into the relatively safe waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The Atocha, Santa Margarita, Nuestra Señora del Rosario and two smaller vessels all at the tail end of the convoy received the full impact of the storm and were not so fortunate. With their sails and rigging reduced to shreds, and masts and tillers battered or broken, the ships drifted helplessly toward the reefs. All five ships were lost, the Atocha being lifted high on a wave and smashed violently on a coral reef. She sunk instantly, pulled to the bottom by her heavy cargo of treasure and cannon.
The next day, a small merchant ship making its way through the debris rescued five Atocha survivors still clinging to the ship mizzenmast. They were all that were left of 265 passengers and crew.
Salvage attempts began immediately. The Atocha was found in 55 feet of water with the top of its mast in plain view. Divers, limited to holding their breath, attempted recovery but were unable to break into the hatches. They marked the site and continued searching for the other wrecks. The Rosario was found in shallow water and was relatively easy to salvage, but the other vessels could not be located. While the salvagers were in Havana obtaining the proper equipment to retrieve the Atocha's treasure, a second hurricane ravaged the area tearing the upper hull structure and masts from the ship. When they returned, the wreck was no where to be found and salvage attempts over the next 10 years proved futile. However, the Santa Margarita was discovered in 1626 and much of her cargo salvaged over the next few years. But, time and events slowly erased memories of the Atocha. Copies of the ship's register and written events of the times eventually found their way into the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain. These documents, like the treasure itself, were to lay in obscurity waiting for the right set of circumstances centuries later.
The twentieth century was a period of tremendous technological advancement. For the Atocha, one of the most significant occurred in 1942 when a French naval lieutenant named Jacques-Ives Cousteau developed the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, or SCUBA for short. It allowed divers to remain underwater for extended periods of time. SCUBA contributed to the discovery of ten wrecks from the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet near Vero Beach, Florida. This highly publicized 1960's salvage operation, conducted by Real Eight Corporation, ignited an unprecedented interest in Spanish colonial shipwreck salvage, which remains strong to this day. It was this event that drew people such as Mel Fisher into the industry and onto the path of the Atocha.
After participating in the 1715 Fleet salvage operation, Mel formed a company called Treasure Salvors and began searching in earnest for the much talked about Atocha. His effort over a sixteen-year period from 1970 to 1986 is a book in itself. But in short, led to the discovery of the Santa Margarita in 1980 and the Atocha on July 20, 1985; her hull lying in 55 feet of water, exactly as recorded by the first salvage attempt in 1622.