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« on: August 15, 2009, 11:19:07 pm »
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For more than two centuries, the Spanish conquerors raided the New World and brought back huge amounts of gold and silver to their home country.

Between 1552 and 1648 three Spanish fleets each year tried to master the dangerous journey back to Spain from the Southern Caribbean Sea. The ships were often packed to the top with silver recovered from the mines of Potosi which is today part of Bolivia.

The plate fleets were a natural target for Spain's enemies, in particular England and Holland and for freebooting pirates owing allegiance to no nation. However, they were escorted by fighting galleons, and nine out of every ten treasure ships managed to get through.

Their worst enemy was the treacherous weather of the Caribbean, where shallow waters and hurricanes at certain times of the year combine to create conditions that are a deathtrap for heavily laden and cumbersome sailing vessels. Many foundered between Florida, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, their last safe anchorage in the New World.

A Fortune Fathoms Deep

One of the biggest single disasters to befall a Spanish plate fleet occurred in July 1715, when a 12-ship convoy left Havana in Cuba carrying 6.5 million pesos (at then-current values) in gold and silver bullion and coin, and the equivalent amount in contraband smuggled abroad by the crew in the defiance of the death penalty which was the punishment for such actions in Spain. The fleet consisted of five ships from the New Spanish flota (fleet), a further six Spanish ships from Panama, and one French vessel. In addition to bullion and coin, they carried cocoa, brazilwood, vanilla, tortoiseshell, pearls, jewelry, tobacco, hides, and rare Chinese porcelain.

Six days out of Havana, in the Straits of Florida, the fleet was struck by a hurricane. All but the rench ship sank, with the loss of more than 1,000 lives although 1,500 people survived. The Spaniards were quick to try to retrieve their loss. Within six month they had set up a salvage camp near Sebastian in Florida and forced nearly 300 Indians to dive to the wrecks. Within four years, the divers recovered most of the treasure.
      
That satisfied the Spaniards, and the circumstances in which the plate fleet foundered were largely forgotten, to the extent that later historians disagreed over where the disaster had taken place. They proposed two sites, 200 miles apart and both wrong. In reality, the wrecks were spread over 50 miles from Cape Canaveral to 5 miles south of Fort Pierce.

Wagner Finally Hits The Jackpot
      
It was not until 1948, when a Florida building contractor called Kip Wagner discovered seven silver coins on the beach at Sebastian, that the treasure once again excerpted its lure. Wagner worked in secret, combing the archives for references to the loss of the fleet and observing the action of wind and waves on the Florida coastline. He reasoned that the location of the Spanish salvage base would provide the key to that of the wrecks, and he found it near Sebastian with the aid of an old mine-detector.

His research showed that the base had been raided while the Spaniards were still trying to raise the treasure - perhaps by English pirates.

Wagner's persistence paid off. In 1959, he partly lifted his veil of secrecy, engaging amateur divers to help pinpoint the wrecks. He found seven or eight of them (the exact details are still shrouded in mystery), established legal title to he relics, and created a museum in which the finds could be displayed.

Prominent among them was a gold whistle on a golden chain of 2,176 links, the insignia of a Spanish fleet commander. Within the whistle, shaped a as a dragon, was a solid gold toothpick, which prompted Wagner to comment: "What kind of dinner can a man eat to pick his teeth with that?" It has been valued ad up to $60,000.

Wagner recovered Spanish pieces-of-eight - more than 1,000 in one day alone - and individual and fire-fused silver coins. There were also 28 undamaged Chinese porcelain vases and an authentic treasure chest, a wooden box 3 x 1 x 1 feet in size, crammed with 3,000 silver coins.

So far as it is known, three or four wrecks from the 1715 plate fleet still remain to be located in the Straits of Florida.

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