The Atocha shipwreck. Why is its legend
remembered? A bit of history will help. In the 1500’s and 1600’s Spain was the
richest country in Europe. She had explored a large part of the world and laid
claim to a huge amount of land and ocean. She’d also stolen, traded, or
otherwise acquired vast treasures from those lands and shipped them home.
From the Far East she took silk, porcelain, spices,
jewelry, and much more. The cargo from South America included gold, silver,
foodstuffs, emeralds, copper, indigo, and tobacco. All of it was carried home
by ship. From the Far East the ships went across the Pacific to the coast of
Panama. The cargo was unloaded there, carried across the Isthmus by horse and
mule, then re-loaded onto other ships on the Atlantic side for the remainder of
the journey. Cargo from South America was shipped from ports in Panama,
Columbia, and elsewhere.
On both oceans the ships carried cargos of vast
wealth. As you can imagine they made excellent targets for pirates, many of
whom were English. To prevent such pillage the ships usually travelled in
groups called flotillas that were made up of those carrying cargo and their armed
The Atocha (the “Nuestra Senora de Atocha”), one of Spain’s newest and largest galleons, was one of those cargo
ships. In August 1622 she completed loading cargo from South America and headed
for Cuba to join up with the others heading home. She sailed for Spain from
Havana on September 4. Her flotilla was composed of 28 ships,
including another treasure-laden
galleon, the Santa Margarita.
following day a hurricane overtook the flotilla. Eight ships were sunk near the
Dry Tortugas islands, west of Florida; among the those sunk were the Atocha and
the Santa Margarita. Salvage operations were begun almost immediately by the
Spanish on the Santa Margarita, but another hurricane hit before they could start
on the Atocha and they couldn’t find her.
According to Spanish manifests the Atocha was loaded with 24 tons of
silver, 180,000 silver pesos (“pieces of eight”), 582 copper ingots, 125 bars
of gold, 350 chests of indigo, and 525 bales of tobacco. She also had several
rich and powerful merchants and politician aboard who carried a huge but
unknown quantity of valuable personal possessions. The Santa Margarita probably carried a somewhat similar cargo.
In 1969 a company called Treasure Salvors headed by Mel Fisher began looking
for the Atocha. Over the next eleven years they found over $100 million from
the Santa Margarita, but it wasn’t until 1985 that they finally found the
Atocha; since then more that $400 million has been recovered. Mel Fisher
estimates that there is more than $2
billion yet to be found.