WHAT'S IN A NAME

by Kerry Firth

How did the 'virtue' of a newlywed Spanish Queen, international rivalry and slow-paced donkeys combine to give our Treasure Coast its name? According to historians, these factors steered the 1715 Plate Fleet to a collision course with the hurricane that cost 700 men their lives and buried a magnificent treasure along our coast.

For two centuries, Spain typically sent fleets twice a year to collect treasure from her New World colonies. The War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1714) interrupted this cycle as enemy English and Dutch squadrons patrolled the Atlantic. Upon war's end, Spain moved to reestablish this rich colonial trade, sorely needing the surplus of merchandise lying in her New World warehouses to help defray the cost of the conflict.

A treasure fleet of unprecedented size amassed in Havana harbor throughout early 1715. By mid-March the Cartegena Fleet, commanded by General Don Antonio de Echeverz had arrived in Havana heavily loaded with silver and gold coins from Santa Fe de Bogata, chests filled with Colombian emeralds from the Muzo mine and gold jewelry from Peru. Echeverz anticipated meeting the Vero Cruz Fleet, commanded by his friend and superior General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla. Although already laden with gold bullion and silver ingots, however, he delayed in Vera Cruz awaiting the arrival of pack-mule trains overland from Acapulco. With each week of delay, the bounty grew.

Eventually the mules trailed in with silks, ivories and porcelain, and in the first week of May the generals met up in Havana. The flotilla now numbered eleven ships. No treasure fleet had sailed in over three years, so excess cargo awaited shipment from Havana. The Cuban governor chartered a French war ship to carry the extra bounty, but dissention arose to the French joining the convoy, further delaying departure. The Spanish commanders knew that sailing late in the season increased the risk of being caught by a storm in the narrow passage between the Bahama Bank and Florida, so they finally allowed the French ship to join the fleet.

The final delay was due to the passions of Philip of Spain himself. Although he had wed the Duchess of Palma, she declined to consummate the union until regaled with her choice of New World jewelry. The amorous king ordered eight chests loaded with exquisite jewels such as a heart of 130 matched pearls, a 74 carat emerald ring, and a rosary of pure coral. Late delivery of these jewels sealed the fate of the armada.

Finally, on July 24th, the twelve ships slipped past Havana's El Morro Fortress and into the Gulf Stream. Strong currents and fair wind initially provided brisk sailing, but by noon on July 29th the sea was becalmed. All was still except for a silent swell. There was no wind. As the swell grew stronger, the crew realized the danger upon them.

The next morning the wind returned, first from the southeast, then shifting slowly until by nightfall it gusted viciously out of the east-northeast. The waves crashed on the decks carrying away cargo, spars and cordage. The men prayed as they cut lifeboats free, resigned to being shipwrecked.

All eleven Spanish ships crashed into the treacherous reefs off our coast in the early hours of July 31st. The commander of the French ship, taking a more easterly course, had just enough room to ride out the storm. By dawn's early light, his was the only ship spared.

The survivors clambered on to the beaches but the violent winds sucked many back into the water. Daybreak found more than 700 men missing, with wreckage and bodies scattered across 30 miles. The senior surviving officer ordered a damaged lifeboat repaired, then sent the Chaplain and a young pilot for help. Three days later they landed at Fort Augustin, 120 miles to the north.

The Spanish attempted to salvage the treasure for the next four years, however, the hazards of sharks, barracudas, buccaneers and Indians led them to abandon the operation. Enough jewels must have been recovered to please the Queen; historians note that she bore King Phillip several heirs. However, records indicate that only 30 percent of the treasure was recovered; the rest lay buried in the sands of the Treasure Coast -- a land christened through royal passions, and the stubbornness of both man and beast.

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