Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Hurricane that Sank Spain
by Robert A. Waters

On the white-hot afternoon of July 24, 1715, a Spanish flotilla of eleven ships sailed out of Havana.  A small French warship, the Grifon, tagged along.  General Juan Esteban de Ubilla commanded six of the Spanish vessels while General Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza was in charge of the remaining ships.  Bound for Spain, the fleet carried nearly a thousand crew members and passengers, as well as a staggering 14 million pesos worth of treasure.  Much of the plunder, taken from Mexico and South America, consisted of gold and silver coinage and bars.

General Ubilla was furious that it had taken two months longer than usual to transport the vast treasure from the mines to the ships.  He knew the chances of encountering a hurricane had increased dramatically.  For 50 years, Spanish treasure galleons had made the passage across the Atlantic, and dozens had been lost to the dreaded storms.

Spain’s life’s-blood depended on the success of these ships.  According to Robert F. Burgess and Carl J. Clausen in their book, Florida’s Golden Galleons, “Spain’s economy was almost totally dependent on these treasure shipments from the New World.  Since she manufactured nothing that was needed by other countries, the wealth received from her New World colonies merely passed through her economy into the economies of other European nations…”  (In 1712, the country had finally ended the costly 13-year War of the Spanish Succession, another of the endless conflicts Spain fought that kept its treasury drained.)

The treasure ships, six in all and crucial to the financial stability of the nation, were stuffed with produce, meat, and all manner of cargo, as well as the treasure chests.  The rest were warships, tasked with beating off pirates or privateers.  Cannons lined their decks, making the ships an overloaded yet dangerous foe. 

After passing Punto Ycaco, an island near the outer edge of Cuba, the majestic armada headed north.  They would hug the Florida coast until they reached San Augustin when they would turn east.  With flags flying in the breeze, none of those aboard knew a hurricane was headed straight toward them.

On July 29, sailors began to notice that the sea in the distance looked like lead.  A gray, milky haze obscured the sun as the fleet, one by one, sailed between the Florida coastline and the Bahama islands.  General Ubilla and General Echerverz, already nervous, had become alarmed at the signs of bad weather.

Burgess and Clausen described the following day: “On Tuesday, July 20, dawn broke on an oppressively hot, humid day.  People’s hands felt clammy; their clothes stuck to their bodies.  The fleet had made little progress during the night.  Winds were erratic, often changing directions, sometimes ceasing to blow at all.”  Swells increased, causing the ships to roll and pitch.  By noon, everyone on board sensed what was coming.

Soon the afternoon sky had turned so black sailors lit lanterns so they could see.  Winds more than 100 miles per hour lashed the fleet.  As the ships were tossed about, children cried and strong men prayed.  The flotilla, so magnificent when it had left Cuba, became uncontrollable.  Cargo shifted dangerously on the ships as the pitching and rolling increased.  A survivor later said that “the sea came like arrows.”  Torrents of rain, shrieking winds, and waves higher than the ships themselves pummeled the fleet.

Near midnight, the fury of the storm increased.  Ships plunged down into the dark depths, then struggled up again.  Over and over and over.  Trunks, cargo, cattle, horses, even the big guns on the warships, ricocheted across the decks.  Back and forth they went.  The ships moaned as if dying, then let out ear-splitting booms as if the cannons had been fired.

Stuck between the Florida coast and the Bahamas, the fleet could not escape.  The boats wallowed, becoming waterlogged and weary.  Sailors, having worked in life-or-death desperation for twenty-four hours, were exhausted.  The unending storm, which seemed determined to punish the ships, only increased in its fury.

Finally, the once-proud flotilla could take no more.

The first to go was the Capitana, a 471-ton ship.  Its bottom was sheared off when it struck a reef.  The ship sank almost immediately.  General Ubilla, along with 200 sailors, drowned.  One by one, the other ships followed.  Sailors and passengers died as each ship plunged into the seas.  General Echeverz’s flagship, the Nuestra Senora del Carmen, dumped enough cargo to lighten its load and limp onto the Florida shore.  The general and most of his men survived.

Only the French ship that had been forced by the Spanish into becoming part of the flotilla (Ubilla and Echeverz didn’t want the captain of the Grifon to warn others that a flotilla loaded with treasure was coming across the sea) escaped because it had pulled far enough away from the Spanish fleet to miss the storm.

Much of the wrecked flotilla came to rest a few hundred yards off the shore of what is now Cape Canaveral.   More than seven hundred souls perished in the storm, and all the Spanish treasure was lost.  Dazed survivors launched longboats to San Augustin to inform officials of the disaster.  In time, the survivors were rescued and some of the treasure salvaged.

The following letter describing the hurricane was written by a survivor: "The sun disappeared and the wind increased in velocity coming from the east and the east northeast.  The seas became very giant in size, the wind continued blowing us toward shore, pushing us into the shallow water.  It soon happened that we were unable to use any sail at all...and we were at the mercy of the wind and water, always driven closer to shore.  Having lost all our masts, all of the ships were wrecked..."

The wreck of the 1715 flotilla was a disaster for the Spanish government.  During that year, Austria expropriated the Netherlands from Spain, which had little money left to finance another war.  As the British and other European nations became stronger, Spain’s influence and power dwindled.

Storms continued to wreak havoc on the Spanish.  In 1733, a flotilla of 21 treasure ships was decimated by a hurricane near Key West.        

In the 1950s and 1960s, treasure hunters located the 1715 flotilla and recovered treasure worth millions of dollars.
NOTE: Much of the information in this story came from Florida’s Golden Galleons: The Search for the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet by Robert F. Burgess and Carl J. Clausen.  If you have any interest in the subject, I highly recommend this book.   

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