The Cuban Treasure Connection

By Bob "Frogfoot" Weller

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     There hasn't been a day in my 37 years of salvaging Spanish galleons off the coast of Florida that I haven't let my thoughts drift southward to the reefs that line the coast of Cuba.  Every salvager that is still afloat  has the same dream that I have, to work a few of the hundreds of shipwrecks that litter the dragon's teeth along Cuba's northwest and southwest coasts.  It's true that there are other places, even along the coast of the United States, that over the years have become a graveyard of shipwrecks.  But these wrecks are different as seen through the eyes of a salvager.  This is the graveyard of the Spanish galleons.
     Havana Harbor was established as the provisioning port for Spanish ships in 1519, the same year that Vera Cruz was established as the port-of-call for the Spanish galleons picking up the New World treasures.  But years before that the various pilots of vessels returning to Spain used the Cuban port as a layover, Keeping it a secret so that English, Dutch, and French ships wouldn't create a showdown if they dropped anchor in the harbor at the same time.
     Havana Harbor had everything going for it.  There was a deep water bay located strategically on the travel route, or "Carrera de las Indias", and it fresh drinking water.  There was enough land close at hand for cultivating crops, and the harbor was certainly defensible.

  Divers from Carisub anchor up just outside Havana Harbor, smack in the middle of ancient mooring area whose bottom is strewn with anchors and olive jars. The famous fortress, El Morro, looms in the background.

     The bluffs guarding the entrance provided the location for El Morro, and eventually two other fortresses were built on the opposite side of the entrance.  Although Havana would be sacked in the years to come, it took a major force to penetrate the defenses.  The Gulf Stream, coursing from the Spanish Sea (the Gulf of Mexico) northward between Cuba and the Dry Tortugas to the west, gave the Spanish galleons a slingshot-beginning on their way back to Spain.  But the Bahama Canal (Straits of Florida) was also the target of the many hurricanes that skittered along the Leeward Islands picking up speed and strength.  As in life, you spin the wheel and take your chances.

     The gold and silver that the conquistadors took from the Incas soon dwindled to a trickle, and it became necessary to mine the conquered lands for gold and silver if the treasure was to continue.  Using the labor of local natives the mines were established, and by 1536 the precious metal flow has swelled to a point that a mint was founded in Mexico City.  The first coins of the New World began to make the journey back to Spain the following year.  The treasure fleet in 1537 had its first armed escort of navios, guarding them for the entire voyage homeward.
    In 1536 Quesada conquered New Granada, and the funnel of gold began to flow through the port of Cartagena in Colombia.  Pizarro opened the door of Peruvian gold and silver when he conquered Emperor Atahualpa in 1531, and soon the areas around Lima and Cuzco yielded more gold and silver that the king of Spain had ever dreamed.  But it was the silver mountain of Potosi, discovered in 1545, that changed the financial foundations of Europe.
     Tons of silver suddenly became available.  A shipping route along the west coast of South America ended at the port of Period, on the Pacific side of Panama.  Here the precious metal was off-loaded onto requas of mules (strings of 50) and carried over the mountains to Panama's north coast  to the port of Nombre de Dios, where the treasure galleons awaited.  So the stage was set.  The ports of Vera Cruz, Nombre de Dios (until 1595 when the port was shifted to Porto Bello), and Cartagena filled the treasure galleons with gold and silver, as well as other New World products, and sent them on their perilous way back to Spain.  These frail galleons were made of wood, with canvas sails, and they were subjected to the whims of nature and adventurous pirates.  The roadway back to Spain was long, edged with dangerous reefs and shoals until the ships cleared the northern end of the Bahama Canal.  And the routes from all ports met at a single point, off Cabo San Antonio, the westernmost point of Cuba.  It almost became a traffic jam.

     The Sierra Acostas mountains begin some thirty miles inland from Cabo San Antonio, and they provided a navigational beacon for the galleons as they closed the coastline.  The south coast is lined with small kayos, merely spits of sand no more that a few feet above water and covered with scrub brush.  They are surrounded by reefs, often only a foot or so below the surface.  Even today, hydrographic charts warn "Strong indraughts are experienced along the south coast of Cuba".  These are the currents that carried many of the galleons onto the reefs when there wasn't wind enough to steer them to safety.

   SOLID GOLD MANICURE SET ON A CHAIN found by CARISUB divers on a Cuban reef.

   As the galleons made the turn to the east clear of  Cabo San Antonio, they were faced with the Colorados Reef system, a 130-mile stretch of reefs extending as much as eight miles to seaward and only a few feet deep.  Havana Harbor lay forty miles beyond, and the Spanish pilot expelled a sigh of relief when El Morro jaws finally sighted.  It was along the Colorado's Reef system that so many galleons and merchant naos, some sailing at night without breaking waves to warn them of the shallows, bilged their bottoms on the sharp reefs...and scattered treasure and ballast stones across the shoals.  Recent archeological discoveries along this reef system are what salvors' dreams are made of. 
     Shipwrecks along the Colorados Reefs began as early as the first fleet of galleons.  In 1519 an English pirate by the name of Christopher Newport was able to cut off two straggling vessels of the treasure fleet, sinking one of them, the Victoria close to the edge of the reefs, and driving the Rosario up into the reef system, where he boarded and stripped her of treasure.  In 1590 another galleon by the name of Rosario struck the reefs near Bahia Honda and sank with a great deal of treasure.
    In 1989 the Cuban salvage team CariSub discovered a large ballast pile in the general area and believed they had the Rosario of 1590. The huge ballast pile was located between Cayo Arenas and Cayo Justias on the last day of salvage before the summer was over. They dug several small test holes in and around the ballast pile and recovered two coins and a piece of curved, worked, wood railing. The coins were in such great shape they believed them to be modern, until cleaned, and then they discovered they were late Philip II coins from Potosi. It was then they knew the ship could not be the Rosario. It was later, probably early to mid-seventeenth century.
    The following summer of 1990 the group brgun a major project on this site, They recovered large intact olive jars, majolica and ceramic bowls, muskets, a gold chain with a scimitar type toothpick at the end, a 160-pound ingot of lead completely marked like a bar of silver (possibly a counterfeit bar), and 42 silver coins from the Lima and Potosi mints. The dates: 1610-1619.
     In the summer of 1991 they were back working the area around the main pile. As they began removing the ballast they were amazed to discover an almost intact hull underneath. It was certainly one of the best preserved wooden structures for that age they had ever seen. The decision was made to bring the timbers ashore and preserve them, possibly for display in a museum. It was during this time that a strange thing happened.

NEARLY INTACT BRONZE ASTROLABE, removed from coral on a Cuban reef with dental tools, still exhibits graduation marks and degrees around the perimeter and ....a Portuguese stamp with the date 1555!!!
Photo Courtesy: CARISUB.

    Each summer the local fishermen would come out to the site and ask the salvagers how they were doing. Between friendly cups of coffee they would ask the usual questions. "What do you look for? Do you find gold?" The fishermen work with hammock nets, the kind that snag on bottom objects, requiring them to dive down and free them. They never offered the salvors suggestions as to where other wrecks might be. That is, until 1991 when one of the fishermen casually asked, "What did you find around the cannons over there?"
      "What cannons?"
      "Those cannons over there," and he pointed to a spot no more than 500 feet away. It took the salvors less time than you could say "Jack Robinson" backwards before they had the fisherman in a small boat and circling the area he had pointed to. The fisherman squinted at a distant mountain, and an even smaller cayo several miles inshore, then told one of the divers, "Go down here." Sure enough, here lay two cannons.
    The salvagers had been so dedicated to the primary ballast pile that they had neglected to check around for the scatter pattern. The gun tubes were, in fact, from their wreck site. It wasn't long before the cook, the mechanic, the captain of the salvage boat-everyone- was in the water looking the area over. Very quickly they began to locate "goodies" around the cannons.
     The cannons were actually a bit southeast of the ballast pile, and the area was a sandy bottom with pot holes. In one of the pot holes a diver discovered a fairly large emerald. Then a big gold chain was recovered, gold beads of a rosary, and a gold dragon earring with the dragon grasping its tail in its mouth. There were gold bars, four of them, four gold coins from the Seville mint and the Pamplona mint, 1300 silver coins, complete olive jars, and a number of gold bits and pieces.
     In 1993 the salvage group brought to shore the wooden sections of the hull, and the preservation process began. In a silo once used to house Russian missiles, the timbers were placed in a sugar and water bath. By the end of 1997 they hope the timbers will be preserved enough to be placed on display in the museum at El Morro.
    As the timbers were taken from the bottom and placed aboard the salvage vessel, more artifacts were discovered. Even as a National Geographic crew filmed the work, two more gold coins were recovered, twelve silver coins, a silver pitcher, a silver salt shaker, three complete olive jars, the handles of a silver cup, and a small anchor.
     During the heyday of transporting treasure, often there was not enough room for the galleons and merchant naos to anchor within the harbor of Havana. They had to anchor outside and wait their turns. The place they commonly used for an anchorage was just to the west of the harbor entrance, Today the area is called Caleta San Lazaro. The water varies from 36 feet deep to over 100 feet, and the bottom is rocky. As it turns out, the galleons would often hook their anchors into an immovable rock, and rather than trying to dislodge them with divers, they simply cut the anchor lines. And while they waited their turns to enter the harbor, they cast over the side of their ships items that were no longer needed and were taking up space, such as olive jars and bottles.

SOLID GOLD KEY found by CariSub divers on an ancient shipwreck in Cuban waters. Length approximately 2".
Photo Courtesy: CARISUB.

     When divers from CariSub first dived the area they were amazed at the thousands of intact olive jars and thirty to forty different types of anchors that were found scattered across the bottom . The water is also dirty here, but near the bottom it clears considerably during an incoming tide, and it becomes an underwater museum. This is also the funnel for large fish that find their way to the harbor in search of an easy meal. Over the past ten years divers from CariSub have also dived the shipwreck that lies just inside the harbor entrance. This is the warship Sanchez Barcaestegui that sank in 1898. There were two German Krupp cannons on board when she struck the Mortero that September night, and so far the group has been able to recover one of them. They have also recovered the captain's eyeglasses, demijohn wine jugs, ceramic plates, small bottles of iodine, a few silver and copper coins, a square box full of kitchen utensils, and 35 to forty gold coins. But they never located the safe, or strong box, that was purportedly on board. The CariSub group has a new wreck site they have just begun to work. It lies on the Colorados Reef system and is scattered across the shallows. The water is so shallow that divers can work standing with their heads above water. What would bother most salvage divers here in the States is that they are picking up gold bars lying exposed on the hard reef, raising their heads above water and shouting for the rubber boat to "Come over here, I have some more gold bars!" The first day they spotted this wreck they recovered twelve gold bars. By the end of the first week the count was up to 36 gold bars.
    The plane for Cuba leaves in one hour!



I found the article on "Cuban Treasure Connection" by Bob Weller fascinating.

It made me realize just how unique my experience in 1996 was when Cari-sub invited me to join Frank Gottier and Susan Hendrix to dive in Havana Harbor, and then on the wreck to the west.  In the two days diving we found several amphorae, cannons, ballast, anchors and two astrolabes, both dated! (1598, I think)

Here are a couple of my photos.

Thanks again,

Capt. Craig Eubank
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Reprints of "The Best Of Treasure Quest Magazine" are used with permission from a series of stories in Treasure Quest Magazine by Bob "Frogfoot" Weller,  Ernie "Seascribe" Richards and other
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