The lost jewels of the Spanish Crown
Summer 1622. A large Spanish fleet was returning to Spain from Havana, full of great riches from Orient and the Indies. It was protected by the guard galleons, which had cellars full of the most valuable treasures.
Every year it made the same route, but on that occasion, during the cyclone season, the navy was delayed, so that on its way to the Bahamas Channel it was caught up in a terrible storm with catastrophic consequences: eight sunken ships, among them the Santa Margarita and the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which were sailing together; more than 185,000 pesos in silver coins; 23 tons of gold and silver ingots; more than 500 tons of copper, and an invaluable amount of jewels were lost in the depths of the ocean along with the lives of hundreds of people.
Over the following decades, Spain carried out several rescue operations to recover what had been lost, but the galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha was never found. That treasure fleet was forgotten as the years went by. Today, on our jewellery blog, we are going to tell you the full story.
In pursuit of the lost ship of jewels
In the late 1960s, a Californian diving instructor, Mel Fisher, was able to find the track where Spanish ships could be found, on the basis of a series of documents from the Indies Archive in Seville.
From that moment, Fisher, who had already participated in other successful explorations of Spanish fleets, didn’t think it twice, and he decided to pursue this other equally tempting goal by undertaking the adventure. To do so, he set up a wreckage company, called Treasure Salvors, in which he involved his entire family and a large number of divers, archaeologists, and investors, and provided himself with the latest state-of-the-art exploration technology of that time.
The research began in 1971 and, after several scattered finds, it was not until four years later that they found the ultimate evidence of the presence of the Atocha: two groups of bronze cannons whose inscriptions corresponded to the registration numbers of the galleon’s goods. However, everything indicated that the ship had lost its cargo before sinking, as there was no trace of the treasure and hopes started to be given up. It was only when he was desperate to achieve his goal that he attempted a final exploration of the deep waters in the Hawk Channel.
On July 20, 1985, the Treasure Salvors offices received an announcement from the Dauntless ship’s radio, in which its euphoric captain, Kane Fisher, said: “Close the maps! We found it!”
The Indies Treasure
The retrieved cargo consisted of more than a hundred thousand silver coins, 125 gold ingots, more than a thousand silver ingots that were destined to the Spanish coffers, and a large amount of personal objects, belonging both to the crew and to the richest passengers, valued at over 500 million dollars of that time.
Among the most outstanding pieces, it was found a solid gold belt with rubies —very similar to the one worn by Princess Isabella Clara Eugenia, daughter of Philip II, in one of her portraits—; richly decorated gold goblets and plates, especially a goblet containing a bezoar; a complete collection of medical tools; a stone used as an antidote against poisons; carved ivory boxes from Ceylon, and many other things.
The wonderful collection of goldsmith’s and religious and secular jewellery was also very significant; it included a gold chalice designed to prevent those who used it from being poisoned; a magnificent gold and emerald cross, a gift from King Philip V of Spain to Elizabeth Farnese, Duchess of Palma; an important collection of crosses and rosaries and a very valuable collection of jewellery, which included a heavy gold chain of more than three kgs (which Mel Fisher himself brought during the interview he was given in ‘The Johnny Carson Show’); several smuggled emeralds, among them an impressive uncut hexagonal crystal of 77.76K, which experts determined it came from the Muzo mine in Colombia; and several rings, bracelets, pendants… set with rubies, topazes, pearls and other precious stones.
Today, as a token of appreciation for his work, a large portion of that sunken treasure can be seen in the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society Museum, a museum owned by the Fisher family in Key West, Florida.