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     " Still Out There" is a series of articles by noted author and historian Timothy R. Walton, and it highlights the treasures that sill lie buried on the ocean floor.  For the serious treasure finder these articles should provide the adrenaline to take the "project" off the back burner and turn it into a dream come true.  The historical facts are supported by archival documentation.  The rest is up to the treasure hunter. 

The Veracruz Wrecks


   The area in and around the harbor of Veracruz, Mexico, has one of the largest concentrations of wrecked Spanish treasure galleons in the world, but these are also among the least salvaged and most inaccessible sites in the seven seas.  From the 1560s to the 1770s, the Spanish tried to send two treasure fleets a year to bring back to gold and silver from their colonies in the Western Hemisphere.  One fleet sailed to Spanish Main, the northern coast of South America, to load the treasure from that continent; the second fleet sailed to Veracruz to gather silver from the mines in Mexico.  The outbound fleets from Spain carried European-style food items that the colonists craved, such as wine and olive oil, as well as manufactured goods, such as textile and weapons.  The galleons from Spain also brought gunpowder and mercury, which were used in mining and refining ore.
     In Colonial times Veracruz was not a large city, despite the importance of the trade that passed through it.  There was no real harbor to provide shelter, and ships had to anchor in an open roadstead.  In addition, the low-lying coast was a haven of tropical diseases, and few people wanted to risk living there year round.  The authorities did, however, fortify an offshore island (San Juan de Ulua) to provide protection from raids by pirates or enemy war fleets.
     When the treasure fleet was expected, thousands of people-merchants, officials, guards, and sight-seers-descended on the city.  Along the waterfront, or in a healthier locale on the high ground further inland, there was a huge fair in which Mexican merchants exchanged silver for supplies.  More treasure came from taxes that had been collected in Mexico, donations to the Catholic church, and funds from private individuals who wanted to ship their wealth back to Spain.  Although the amount of treasure loaded for the trip back to Spain varied, three or four million pesos worth might be on board the outbound fleet in a typical year.


Piece-Of Eight (1600s) From Mexico City Mint. The type of silver coins that were shipped from Veracruz and might be expected to be found on many of the shipwrecks near port city.
    Spanish officials tried to time the movements of the treasure fleets to avoid hurricanes, which were the most serious threat to a safe voyage, but the size and complexity of the work that was necessary to prepare a fleet for sea meant there were often delays.  Over the period lasting more that two centuries that the treasure fleets were in operation, there were dozens of wrecks in and around Veracruz.  The number of wrecks in the region is large because Veracruz was the only port on the east coast of Mexico through which silver was exported, and the open roadstead provided little protection against storms.

   A diver interested in the many wrecks in the Veracruz area would have to distinguish carefully between wrecks of ships inbound from Spain and those outbound for the return voyage.  Wrecked inbound ships would have been carrying cargo that would have largely disintegrated over the centuries, although there might still be interesting artifacts that have survived.  It was the outbound ships, with silver on board, that would be of most interest to the treasure hunter.
    The wrecks that are of the greatest historical significance are those from a battle in the roadstead in 1568.  A small English fleet, commanded by John Hawkins and with Francis Drake in command of one of the ships, was caught in the harbor by the inbound Spanish supply fleet, and most of the ships were lost in the fighting that followed.  Hawkins and Drake, who were just starting their careers as privateers, managed to survive, but the severe pounding they received in the battle set them on a path of revenge that would culminate in the defeat of the Spanish Armada twenty years later.

    Probably the most intriguing wreck for treasure divers is that of Nuestra Senora del Juncal, which sank in 1631 just north of the city.  The ship was part of a fleet carrying over 3,000,000 pesos worth of silver that was hit by a hurricane shortly after leaving Veracruz.  Unlike most of the other wrecks of ships carrying treasure, there is no record of a salvage operation immediately after the sinking.
   Other wrecks in the area have a much smaller chance of treasure on board.  Three treasure ships that were lost Santa Maria la Blanca in 1555, Nuestra Senora del Rosario in 1621, and the Larga in 1628 appear to have been salvaged shortly after they went down.  Given the fairly primitive salvage techniques of the time. It is possible that not all of the treasure was recovered.  In 1738 two warships, the Incendio and the Lanfranco, sank in the roadstead; it is not clear from the records if they were carrying significant amounts of treasure.
     In 1590, and again in 1600, large portions of entire fleets were lost when hurricanes hit Veracruz.  But these were inbound fleets, carrying general cargo rather than treasure, and only artifacts and whatever personal money and jewels the passengers were carrying would be left for salvage.

   Despite the many interesting wreck sites in and around Veracruz very little in the way of treasure or artifacts has been recovered because of the formidable obstacles against salvaging.  Today Veracruz is a major port, and there is not much interest in interrupting profitable trade for salvage operations that may be only speculative.  The large amount of traffic through the port, especially in recent years, means that any old wrecks have been obscured by more modern wrecks or the huge amounts of garbage that have been dumped by ships over the years.
     The most serious obstacle to treasure diving, however, is the attitude of the Mexican government.  Unauthorized salvage operations are strictly illegal in Mexico, and the government confiscates all treasure recovered.  Probably the best way to pursuer an interest in the Veracruz wrecks is to work through the Mexican diving club known as Conservation, Exploration, Diving, Archaeology, and Museums, or CEDAM.  CEDAM's first priority is careful archaeological work at a wreck site, and it donates everything recovered to museums, including its own Underwater Archaeological Museum in Mexico City.  CEDAM has an affiliated organization in the United States.

[Contact CEDAM International/ One Fox Road / Croton-on-Hudson/ NY 10520.  Phone: 914/271-5635.FAX: 914/271-4723.  E-mail: cedamint@aol.com]

THE AUTHOR: Tim Walton is a political analyst, naval veteran, author, and coin collector with a doctorate in history from the University of Virginia.  These varied interests and experiences sparked his interest in telling the multifaceted story of  The Spanish Treasure Fleets.            
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