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The Quicksilver Galleons

The Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe and the Conde de Tolosa, part of General Baltasar de Guevara’s New Spain Armada, set sail from Cadiz, Spain, to Havana, Cuba and then on the Veracruz, Mexico. The two galleons took on supplies at Aguadilla, on the north-west point of Puerto Rico, and then continued their journey.  A few days later, on the night of August 24th, the ships were near Samana Bay, Dominican Republic when a hurricane struck.

 During the hurricane, the Tolosa was separated from the Guadalupe and managed to ride out the storm after setting anchor at the mouth of Samana Bay. But, the winds were too strong and early the next day the anchor lines parted. The Tolosa was pushed into the bay more than 3 miles from shore where it was beaten against the many shoals, wrecking at last on a large coral reef. There were only 40 survivors of the 600 passengers and crew and by the time salvage boats arrived 1 month later from Santo Domingo there were only 7 survivors. They survived by gathering supplies of fresh water and food that floated to the surface in barrels from the holds below, while they remained lashed to the tops of the mainmast.

 About 7 1/2 miles from Tolosa, the Guadalupe grounded on a sandbank along the coast of the Dominican Republic about 200 miles from Santo Domingo. The weight of 250 tons of mercury pinned Guadalupe against the sandbar, keeping her upright, allowing the ship and crew to ride out the 2 day storm. Eventually, about 550 of the 650 total passengers and crew reached land. Some made it by lifeboat to Cap Haitien, about 250 miles away. Other people started walking along the coast to Santo Domingo. Initially, the terrain was fairly flat and rivers provided much needed fresh water. From Cape San Raphael the coast became much more challenging and many died en route to Santo Domingo. As they got nearer to Santo Domingo they were spotted by fishermen who summoned boats from Santo Domingo to rescue the remaining survivors.

 These were large ships, more than 1000 tons, with total of 144 cannons, and carrying more than 1200 passengers and crew. They were classified as azogues, which means they carried mercury. Mercury was essential for extracting pure silver from ore and the silver mines in the New World were dependent on this supply.  When mercury was shipped from Spain it had to be packaged very carefully. Half a quintal of mercury (almost 60 lbs) is poured into a leather bag and put into a wooden box along with 1 or 2 more bags. The box is carefully shut tight and wrapped in protective covering.

 In 1976, Tracy Bowden and his company, Caribe Salvage S.A., came to an agreement with the Dominican Republic government giving him the rights to search Samana Bay for wrecks. The Guadalupe was the first one to be salvaged by Tracy. After excavating beneath tons of sand, Tracy and his team reached the second deck but could go no further. The heavy timbers and solid construction prevented them from reaching the lower hold where 250 tons of mercury was stored. To compound this problem, the Guadalupe carried a large cargo of iron fittings that were being shipped to the New World for the construction of a large vessel. Caribe Salvage recovered gold jewelry, gold coins, silver flatware, religious artifacts, silver flatware, household items including 400 crystal drinking glasses, shot glasses, wine jugs and five ornate glass decanters. It is likely that the 250 tons of mercury remain in the lower hold and at todays prices the value would easily be in the millions.

 In June 1977, Tracy located Tolosas cannons with the help of a magnetometer. They recovered numerous artifacts of value including: gold medallion framed by 24 diamonds, pendant with 8 emeralds and 22 diamonds, brooch with 37 diamonds, another brooch with 20 diamonds, 1000 pearls, glassware, ceramics and coins. The mercury, no longer in its casks, has escaped to the sand or lies pooled on a layer of bedrock.

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