The 1733 Plate Fleet
Treasure for the King
Almost every year from the 16th through the mid -18th century Spain sent an Armada to the swampy little town of Vera Cruz. Twice a year this little Mexican coastal fishing community thrived with activity. Once when the yearly Armada arrived and again when it departed. The arriving ships carried mercury for processing the precious metals obtained from the mines. They also carried a variety of luxury items from the old world such as wines, liquors, ironwork, etc. The departing fleet was called the New Spain Flota and was loaded with gold, silver, and other fruits of the land.
Due to unhealthy climate at Vera Cruz, all of the trading and registry of goods was done in the town of Jalapa, located higher up in the interior. After unloading each arriving Armada, a great Fair was held and the merchants for miles around flocked to it to buy commodities from abroad at exorbitant prices. A similar Fair was held prior to the departure of each New Spain Flota.
The arriving ships would tie-off on a small rock fortress called San Juan de Ulua, located out in front of Vera Cruz. The leeward side of the island faced the city and was steep-sided with very deep water right up close to shore. The ships of the Armada would ride here with their bows tied to great iron rings embedded in the stone fortress, and in this manner it was possible for a person to go aboard by merely stepping onto the bow. The stern of the ship was held off by deploying a large anchor astern. Secured in this fashion, the ships could safely ride out the many storms normal to these waters.
The Adventure Begins
On the 25th of May in 1733, the New Spain Flota for this year, commanded by the Chief of Squadron, Lieutenant General Don Rodrigo de Torres y Morales, left this island fortress for Spain. The fleet was to make a stop at Havana to pick up the Caribbean Islands’ registry and make last minute provisions. The Flota was comprised of 17 ships at this point; the three principal ones being the Capitana El Rubi, the Almiranta El Gallo Indiano, and the Refuerzo El Infante. Each of these three warships carried 60 cannons and their combined registry of treasure was in the neighborhood of 13,000,000 pesos in gold, silver, and copper. The rest of the ships all carried some amount of registry silver along with other valuable commodities, and each carries some armament to aid in fighting off intruders. The Royal Scoutship of His Majesty King Phillip the Fifth carried no registry and was named Nuestra Senora del Populo.
Once out on the broad expanse of the Gulf, the ships slowly worked their way north to the 25th parallel, where they took advantage of the Westerly winds at this latitude to push them eastward. The approach of the Florida coast was signalled by the shallowing of the water to 30 fathoms. At this point, the navigators knew they were off the southwest tip of the Florida Keys in a place called Sonda de Tortuga. From here it was an easy 30 league tack to the south to pick up the Cuban coast and Havana.
Trouble on the Horizon
On the morning of the 13th of July, there was great excitement throughout the city; the Flota was leaving for Spain! A rosy sunrise greeted the ships as they worked their way into the open sea, where a fair southeast breeze met them. Don Rodrigo de Torres’ flagship El Rubi, swathed in new red paint, and with cross emblazoned sails, led the fleet up the Bahama Channel. This swift waterway, known today as the Gulfstream, would give the ships an extra four knots speed up to the 32nd parallel, where they planned to turn eastward for Spain. However, a fast circulating weather system a few hundred miles to the southeast had other plans for them.
A letter written by the Naval Commissioner, Don Alonso Herrera Barragan, to the President of the Council of Trade at Cadiz, best describes what happens next. He writes from the Capitana El Ruby: “...the 14th we discovered the land of the Keys of Florida. At 9:00 that night the wind began to rise out of the north. It continued to freshen to the point where we all knew a hurricane was imminent. We found ourselves close to the expressed Keys, with the wind and seas so strong we were unable to govern ourselves, and each new gust came upon us with renewed major force. On the 15th, signs were made (among the ships of the fleet) to try to arrive back to the Havana, but we were unable to do so for the wind went around to the south without slacking its force or lessening the seas. By 10:30 that night we had all grounded in the expressed Keys at a distance of 28 leagues in length. This Capitana grounded on the one called Cayo Largo, two and one-half leagues from shore. I make assurance to Your Lordship that it was fortunate that we grounded for if the contrary had occurred we would have all drowned because the hold was full of water and we were unable to pump it out...”
One ship of the Flota escaped from the storm with little or no damage; the 60 gun warship Senor San Joseph, alias El Africa. This newly built whip which joined the Flota in Havana, managed to weather the storm with only the loss of a top mast, a few spars, and some rigging. After the storm eased up a bit, the Africa slid in close to the reefs off of Key Largo, where she anchored to effect repairs to her storm-battered rigging.
After settling back on two storm anchors dropped in 40 fathoms of water, some of the crew aloft in the rigging spied two wrecked ships inshore. The one was still afloat, but the other was sunk up to the top of its roundhouse or poopdeck. The ships were later determined to be the Adviceship of His Majesty [and] Nuestra Senora del Populo. After gathering what they could from these ships along with their crews, the Africa set about to make the necessary repairs in order to continue her journey to Spain. At this point, it is interesting to note that the crews of these ships knew nothing of the fate of the rest of the Flota. They ran across some nomadic Indians who said they had just come up from Key West, but had seen nothing of the rest of the Flota.
The salvage of the wrecked ships began within a few days after the storm. Three of the ships were re-floated with little difficulty: the ship of Murguia (Nuestra Senora del Rosario y Santo Domingo), the ship of Sanches Madrid (El Gran Poder de Dios), and a small Balandra bound for St. Augustine under the protection of the convoy (La Balandra el Santander). There is a good possibility that the ship of Chavez (Nuestra Senora del Carmen) was also refloated, but the documents are contradictory over this point. Two of the ships of the Flota met absolute disaster: the ship of Don Christoval de Urquijo (San Ignacio) and the Fragata which was bound for St. Augustine witht he payroll for the Prsidio. The San Ignacio came apart out in front of present-day Marathon, (cayo Vaca del Oeste), and oly 12 or 14 of those aboard survived. The Frigata (El Floridano) crashed across the reef known today as Coffin’s Patch and only one man lived to tell the tale.
It would be extremely difficult to say who was the first of the modern day salvors to find the 1733 wrecks. The local fishermen have been fishing on them for years and have always, understandably, kept the locations to themselves. One of these local fishermen deviated from this practice one day in 1948 and showed Arthur McKee, Jr., the location of a tremendous ballast mound. The Conch fisherman’s name was Reggie Roverts and his sons Jack and Earl were out with Art McKee one day when they ran across the pile, right where Reggie had said it was.
After finding the Capitana, Art McKee ran across a map which showed the locations of the 1733 Flota, and he set out to find more by comparing the ancient map with a modern one. He managed to find the Infante, Herrera, Chaves, San Pedro, and last, but no the least, the San Joseph. But Art was primarily interested in the Capitana and so he concentrated on this and reaped the harvest in gold, silver, and artifacts. He was so successful that he applied to the State for some protection of his finds and they issued him an exclusive lease covering hundreds of square miles, and they even appointed him the first Acting Underwater Archeologist for the State of Florida. However, the area was too big to control, and the inevitable happened: others got bit by the treasure hunting bug and followed his footsteps. Since that first day in 1948 when Art McKee revisited the Capitana he has been bringing up treasure from it. In fact, he brought up so much treasure that he had to build a museum to house it all. He erected it like a great stone castle. (This is now the Montessori Village School) Each year thousands of visitors travel down through the Keys and stop in to view these remnants of 18th century living. The great stone faces structure stands today on Plantation Key, boldly facing the sea and the Capitana which Art dug for so many years.
The salvage of these rich wrecks has not been without its more tense moments. When Art first found the Capitana, claim jumpers plagued him constantly. Most of them were poorly equipped and only a nuisance. However, one group from Miami came down with a big boat and achored it squarely over Art’s wreck. They proceeded to tear into the Capitana with eight inch airlifts, spewing sand, stones, and artifacts in all directions. Art managed to drive them off after a confrontation in the water with spearguns and an antishark 12 gauge shotgun powerhead. “It was like something out of a scene from “Thunderball”, Art reflected. But in all the years that modern day treasure hunters have been working these waters no one has actually killed another salvor, something the fishermen of these waters, unfortunately, cannot say.