Shipwrecks and Treasure: the Spanish Treasure Fleet of 1750

In 1750 a small fleet of Spanish galleons and merchant vessels left Havana bound for Cadiz laden with treasure. However, before the fleet could catch the Atlantic trade winds for home it was hit by a hurricane which scattered and decimated the fleet along the coast of North Carolina.

Since 1566 Spain had been successfully exploiting the indigenous people and taking advantage of the treasures to be found in New Spain ( Mexico) and the Spanish Main in South America. Spain had developed a sophisticated fleet system which combined three separate fleet convoys sailing from Vera Cruz, Panamá and Cartagena laden with goods and treasure from the Americas and Spain’s colony in the Philippines. The combined fleets joined forces in Havana, Cuba, where they took on supplies before returning to the port of Cádiz, Spain, via the Azores.

However, in 1739 Europe became engulfed in a war known as the War of Austrian Succession (or in the Americas, King George’s War). Great Britain declared war against Spain and attacked Spanish interests in the Americas with a degree of success. Privateers were sanctioned by the British to attack and plunder the Spanish Main, and Spanish galleons, for the valuable treasures. The war lasted until 1748 with the signing of the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. It was costly and exhausting for all sides, indeed, for Spain it marked the beginning of the end for the treasure fleets and Spain’s supremacy as a naval power.

The treasure fleet of 1750 was a far cry from that of previous years which often numbered as many as one hundred ships. Just seven vessels were docked at Havana harbor awaiting the return journey to Spain. They made the transatlantic crossing in August, late into hurricane season. It was thought that this would help deter pirates, although the strategy carried obvious risk.

The commander of the fleet was General Manuel de Bonilla aboard the Dutch-built, flagship Nuestra Señora de Guadeloupe. Aside from the ships usual cargo of goods such as cotton, spices, copper, hides and indigo. The heavily armed galleon carried over 400,000 ocho reale silver coins ( pieces of eight) minted in Bogota and Mexico with a value of 613,000 Mexican pesos. Locked up in the Guadeloupe's hull, and one other galleon, were 50 Dutch, English and French prisoners accused of smuggling in Spanish territorial waters. Passengers aboard the galleon included the viceroy of Mexico and the governor of Havana with his family.

The second most important ship in the convoy was the 50-gun frigate, La Galga. Its cargo included luxury items such as tobacco, cigars, snuff and silk. There was also gold bars, silver, diamonds and emeralds. Other ships in the fleet were the Portuguese registered vessel the San Pedro; La Merced, Los Godos, El Salvador and the frigate La Soledad to protect the convoys rear from attack.

After the fleet left Havana it crossed the Florida straits and navigated the treacherous reefs of the Florida Keys in fine weather and without problem. However, before the fleet reached the latitude of 33° north a hurricane or tropical storm descended upon the fleet, separating the vessels and pushing them toward the leeward shore. As the storm, which lasted for one week, intensified, one by one the fleet foundered upon the treacherous shoals of North Carolina’s Outer Banks and further north. The ships crews tried desperately to salvage the valuable cargos, some with more success than others.

North Carolina's Outer Banks were treacherous to ancient mariners.

The Guadeloupe had run aground on Ocracoke Bar. General Bonilla was aware that the fleet had foundered in enemy territory and although Britain and Spain were at peace by then there was still hostility between the two sides. The general also knew that British pirates would love to get their hands on Spanish royal treasure. Bonilla also had to deal with a mutiny. A group of the ships crew led by the boatswain’s mate feared that because the Guadeloupe had not completed its journey they would not get paid. So they demanded to be paid before they would continue the salvage operation from the sinking ship. Bonilla refused to pay the crew from the ships treasure as he did not have the authority or permission from the Spanish crown. However, Bonilla managed to curtail the mutiny and regain control of the situation. Bonilla realized he had no choice but send word to the governor of North Carolina, Gabriel Johnson and ask for assistance. Whilst Bonilla and his crew were awaiting help, two English sloops the Seaflower and the Mary approached and offered assistance. Bonilla was weary of the two former privateer vessels but believed it was an opportunity to avoid dealing with Governor Johnson.

An eighteenth century ocho reale coin, also known as a piece of eight.

So General Bonilla and the captains of the sloops came to an arrangement. The galleon’s treasure was to be loaded aboard the two sloops. The crew of the Guadeloupe and its fifty prisoners would then join the sloops and head for Virginia where General Bonilla would purchase another vessel for his crew and cargo, then sail for Cadiz. However, as the sailors were transferring the treasure, the captain’s of the Seaflower and Mary seized the opportunety, cut their anchor lines and ran for the open ocean, headed for the West Indies. They had captured from the Spanish 55 chests of silver reale coins, plus gold bars and other cargo.

When Governor Johnson got word of the entire incident he immediately sent HMS Scorpion to Ocracoke Bar where the Royal Navy sloop-of-war rescued the Spanish crew and loaded the remaining treasure from the Guadeloupe. He also sent two frigates of the West Indies squadron to search for the pirate sloops.

All images from commons.wikimedia and flickr.com.

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