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If you’re a regular reader at Historic Metals (and why wouldn’t you be?) you probably already know that we love talking about shipwreck hauls. We also recently wrote an article about lost treasures that have never been found, and it got us thinking. What about the wrecks that have been found? What wonderful treasures have been discovered after lying in those deep, watery depths?
Buckle in as we dive below sea level to find out!
San Jose ‘The Holy Grail of Shipwrecks,’
In 1708, one of the flagship boats in the Spanish treasure fleet sank off the coast of Colombia. The San Jose was a 64-gun three-masted galleon, a true beauty to behold. It’s last voyage saw it sail from Portobelo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. However, it encountered a British fleet near Barú and a battle ensued.
During the conflict, the powder magazines inside San Jose went off, and the ship sank with her crew. Unfortunately, she also sank with her massive hoard of gold, silver, emeralds, and jewels collected from the South American colonies on board. Only 11 people survived out of 600.
For years people speculated over the wreck because of the considerable amount of gold and fortune on board when she went under. The ship was referred to as the ‘Holy Grail of Shipwrecks’.
In November 2015, the Colombian Navy made an incredible discovery. They used an underwater vehicle to find the wreckage, and could identify the famous galleon from its trademark bronze guns engraved with dolphins.
Of course, the large amount of loot available meant that when people actually found San Jose there were immediate disputes over what country owned the treasure. Spain or Colombia? Technically, the loot did originally come from South America, but it was in the hands of the Spanish when it sank.
In fact, those ongoing debates have meant that the wreckage remains strictly at the ocean floor, and the Colombian government initially kept the location as a state secret. So far, none of the loot has been recovered. But it’s reportedly worth billions.
Spanish Fleet off Florida’s Coast
Another Spanish wreckage on this list, and this time it isn’t just one galleon but an entire fleet. Let’s travel back to the 1700s, Spain was losing its hold as a dominant world power, and Europe was recovering from two massive (and expensive) wars.
Spain needed money, and fast. So a fleet laden with treasure from the New World set sail for Spain from Cuba. Because they were so desperate, they departed even though hurricane season had already started. It was a fatal error.
They stacked the galleons full of gold, silver, tobacco, spices, and jewelry. One ship alone reportedly contained 3 million silver coins. There were also 44,000 pieces of eight, gold coins and bars, emeralds, pearls, and Chinese porcelain.
But on July 31st 1715 they hit a hurricane near to Vero Beach, Florida, at that time a small Spanish outpost. The ships were thrown onto coral reefs and broke easily. They crumpled, and approximately 1,500 Spanish sailors lost their lives.
The only boat (out of 12) to survive was a French warship that sailed northeast. The ship made it to Paris and didn’t know how narrowly they’d escape a much worse fate.
Some sailors survived by fleeing the scene on small rowboats, and there were attempts to salvage the massive wreckage, but there was so much treasure nobody could get it all. Underwater technology wasn’t as advanced in the 1700s, surprisingly.
However, in the 1960 regular salvage operations started again, and people regularly make the trip to see what treasure they can find. There’s even a website you can check out to get all the updated information. Some hunters found 350 coins across two days, worth around $4.5 million.
Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes – The Black Swan Project
This list seems full of Spanish ships, but apparently the country has lost a lot of valuable cargo out on the seven seas. The Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes went down in 1804, sunk by the British navy in a battle off the coast of Portugal.
It was at a point when Spain and Britain weren’t at war with one another, but the flotilla this galleon was part of was still intercepted by a British Royal Navy team, and told to change course and head to a British port where they were to be investigated. The Spanish objected and started the battle. One shot from HMS Amphion landed in the ship’s magazine which went up immediately. The ensuing explosion sank the ship and killed 250 Spanish soldiers. The other three ships were captured, and 51 survivors were taken captive too.
For just over 200 years the ship lay at the bottom of the ocean, before the Odyssey Marine Exploration (a private company interested in exploring the oceans) reported finding a treasure laden shipwreck. They didn’t disclose the location, and gave the shipwreck a codename ‘Black Swan’ as to protect its identity.
Slowly, the company combed through the wreckage and recovered 500,000 silver and gold coins before taking them to the United States. However, when the Spanish caught wind of it, they soon realized the ship’s identity and took the company to court.
As we see with these cases, Peru also wanted to lay claim to the treasure, as it had been originally taken from Peru by the Spanish. A court battle followed, with the judge ruling in favor of the Spaniards as Peru was a Spanish colony at the time they took the treasure. They also ruled in favor of the Spanish getting the treasure. The court ordered Odyssey Marine Exploration to return the treasure to Spain, and they did so in 2013.
Later in 2015, the Spanish sent their own team to examine the wreckage and found that the Odyssey had damaged the shipwreck in order to take the loot.
All in all, quite underhanded of the Odyssey Marine Exploration company to try to sneakily take the treasure to America, but in the face of millions of dollars, can we really blame them for trying?
The Atocha Motherlode
Surprise! I bet you thought from the title that this would not be a Spanish ship. Well, you’re wrong. This ship’s actual name is the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, and she sank in 1622. Not at war this time, this magnificent galleon was another one taken down by a hurricane.
She had three masts and was a treasure galleon. When she sank off the Florida Keys she was laden with copper, silver, gold, tobacco, and other precious gems gathered from Porto Bello, Havana, and Cartagena. The ship was headed for Spain when she went down.
Ships were sent to salvage the wreckage, but she had sunk in 17 meters of water. Attempts at salvage were difficult, and a hurricane one month later caused the wreckage to get scattered around the ocean floor. Over the following years the Spanish did attempt to salvage as much as they could and recovered half using slaves.
She lay buried for almost 400 years.
Finally, in 1969 Treasure Salvors Inc began their search for the ship. It was a team made up of well-known American treasure hunters Mel Fisher, Finley Ricard, and some other subcontractors. They found parts of the wreckage in 1973, coming across some silver bars identified as being part of the Atochas. A further stash of silver, gold and emeralds was found in 1975.
But it was 1985 when the ‘Atocha motherlode’ was found. They recovered 40 tons of gold and silver, 114,000 silver coins, 1000 silver bars, gold coins, and rare Muzo emeralds from Colombia. It could be worth over $600 million at today’s prices.
In saying that, loads of the treasure is still in the seabed. The stern castle has never been discovered, and it’s rumored to contain the ship’s most valuable treasures as it’s where the captain’s quarters were.
So if you want to go diving… now you know where to look.
The Antikythera Wreck
Okay, we had to choose one that wasn’t Spanish (or really obvious, like the Titanic). What better then, than the shipwreck that spawned plenty of expeditions and dates all the way back to Ancient Greece?
We know little about the ship itself, but in 1900 a couple of sponge divers discovered a shipwreck just off the island of Antikythera in Greece in the Aegean Sea. They reported their find to the authorities and the Hellenic Navy went to investigate.
The ship itself was dated back to Ancient Rome. Many statues were recovered, 36 marble sculptures of Ancient Greek gods like Hercules, Apollo, Hermes and more were found, three marble statues or horses were also recovered. The ship’s hull also contained lead weights.
They took artifacts to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and examined them. While there they found a corroded piece of bronze that appeared to have a gear wheel inside. Nowadays this is referred to as the Antikythera mechanism, and it’s a really cool piece of tech. Prior to this item’s discovery, we did not know that the Ancient Greeks and Romans had an understanding of their place in the universe.
It was found in a wooden box, but as scholars have studied it they’ve separated it into 82 fragments. Through this conservation work we’ve learned it had gears and inscriptions. The inscriptions indicate there were 37 bronze gears to track the movements of the Sun and Moon through the zodiac. It could have been used to predict eclipses, and to measure the positions of planets.
The device itself is dated to around 87 BC, and research continues. In 2022, experts proposed 178 BC or 204 BC as potential calibration dates. Technology of this kind didn’t exist again until the 1500s.
Today salvage efforts continue, a head was recovered in 2021 which they believe is of a Hercules statue salvaged in 1902. It’s been described as the ‘richest wreck in the Ancient world’.
There’s a lot of wealth still hidden under the sea to be discovered. We think it’s time for some scuba lessons, or maybe we should just buy a submarine!