Spanish Empire > Spanish Treasure Fleets

Spanish Treasure Fleets

Chapter Decoration

Background

Origins

In the early 1520's after the defeat of the Aztec empire by the conquistadors the Spanish began sending gold and treasures back at an astonishing rate. However early French corsairs in the 1520's had different ideas about who should have the stolen treasures of the Aztec's. Beginning in 1522, French privateers would station themselves off the coast of Spain and capture them as they returned from the New World. In fact, of the original fleets most of the treasure save for 220,000 pesos or so was seized by the French.

In 1522, the Spanish began designing a military convoy system to accompany merchant vessels as they crossed the Atlantic, and paid for the military using a tax on the merchant cargo called the averia. By 1526 it was mandatory law that the merchant vessels travel with a military convey to and from the New World. A treasure galleon could potentially hold nearly 2 million pieces of eight. Therefore a capture by one of these ships by pirates would lead to a great score. Leaving from Veracruz or Havana every summer, the fleets would stop in the port of Seville and were celebrated with fireworks, holidays and lots of wine.

Spanish Empire - Destroying an Armada Straggler (The British Navy Book - 1915)

Destroying an Armada Straggler - The British Navy Book (1915)

Once the treasure was transported to the settlements along the coast and after being processed it needed to be shipped back to Europe. This was no easy feat in the 16th and 17th century and the Spanish came up with a design for a treasure fleet system. This treasure fleet system would come to be the principle route and technique Spain used to transport is vast mineral wealths once a year from 1556 to 1790. Therefore the predictability of it led it to become a prime target for pirates in the Buccaneering Era and the later Post Spanish Succession Period.

The Spanish required a better transport system after repeated French privateer assaults in the mid 1500's against Havana. In 1560, admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and personal advisor to Philip II of Spain came up with an idea to create a military convoy around the treasure fleets along with the definitive model of the Spanish Galleon we know today. The convoys would travel along two major sea lanes, based on what region of the world they were coming from.

Spanish Empire - Treasure Fleets - Treaure Flet 17th Century

Spanish Treasure Fleet - 17th Century

The Spanish owned colonies in Southeast Asia and from the port of Manila they would transport their goods and riches to the New World before sending them back to Spain. The treasure galleons from the far east would usually stop in Acapulco on the Pacific side of Mexico and offload their goods. From Acapulco they were transported by mule train to Veracruz to be loaded with the rest of the loot onto the treasure fleet headed for Spain.

Treasure Fleet Routes

The convey would leave from Seville in the 16th and 17th centuries and Cadiz in the dying days of the Casa de Contratacion in the 18th century carrying clothing, food, European made goods and luxuries to trade with the Spanish colonists. They would sail south along the coast of Africa to the Canary Islands in order to stop for supplies and take on water. Then from the Canary Islands they would sail west to take advantage of trade winds and after about a month they would enter the Caribbean near Puerto Rico.

Golden Age of Piracy - Treasure Fleet Routes

Treasure Fleet Routes (White - Spain | Blue - Portugal)

From here the conveys split into two fleets and would then sail around Spanish Empire, collecting the wealth from each port. The Tierra Firme Fleet would collect the wealth from the South American mainland and the New Spain Fleet would collect all the treasure from Central America and the Caribbean before meeting up once again in Havana.

The New Spain Fleet sailed onto the port of Veracruz in the viceroyalty of Viceroyalty of New Spain and the Spanish merchants would trade their gold, silver, emeralds, hides, sugar and indigo for things like manufactured goods, clothing and other European supplies. Next the New Spain fleet for about a month sailed North along the Gulf of Mexico, down the coast of La Florida and into the harbor at Havana.

The Tierra Firme Fleet picked up all the treasures from Viceroyalty of New Granada before reconnecting with the New Spain fleet. First they went to the port of Cartagena de Indias in present day Colombia and picked up items such as precious metals, gems, pearls and spices from the vast mines of South America. Next the fleet sailed to the ports of Nombre de Dios and Portobello in Panama. Next they said through the Yucatan Channel and around the western edge of Cuba into the port of Havana as well.

While in Havana the two fleets would make preparations in order to return to Spain. The combined fleets would restock their food, supplies and begin sailing along the east coast of Florida up into the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream, which was a strong, warm water ocean current helped carry the fleets easily back east towards Spain. This method of wealth transport concentrated all of the treasures of the Spanish colonies into one fleet that moved once a year. For this reason it was disastrous for the Spanish economy if one of these fleets were lost due to piracy or natural disaster. They were sailing through the Bermuda triangle, what could go wrong?

Sunken Treasure Fleets

The losses of these years treasure fleets were a huge economic blow against Spain at the time.

1715 Treasure Fleet

Golden Age of Piracy - Spanish Empire - The Urca de Lima - William Trotter

The Urca de Lima - William Trotter

The following is a quote from one of the surviving captains of the 1715 treasure fleet.

"The sun disappeared and the wind increased in velocity coming from the east and east northeast. The seas became very giant in size, the wind continued blowing us toward shore, pushing us into shallow water. It soon happened that we were unable to use any sail at all...and we were at the mercy of the wind and water, always driven closer to shore. Having then lost all of our masts, all of the ships were wrecked on the shore, and with the exception of mine, broke to pieces."

The loss of one of these fleets was a major economic loss to Spain at the time. In fact Spain never really recovered too much of these fleet. As soon as the fleet sank Spain sent salvage divers down to try and collect the gold. Since the shipwrecks were only in fifteen or so of water there was no problem. However ex-privateers/pirates including Samuel Bellamy, Charles Vane and led by Henry Jennings had other ideas about who should have the looted Spanish treasure.

Golden Age of Piracy - Spanish Empire - The San Pedro - William Trotter

The San Pedro - William Trotter

In 1716 they launched a coordinated attack on the Spanish salvage camp in Florida, making off with one of the largest scores in recorded history. After the raid the pirates established the pirate republic at Nassau in order to spend all their new found fortune how they want. Nassau, located on New Providence Island in the Bahamas was a place perfectly situated with which to coordinate more raids against Spanish salvage efforts as they (and in the present day) have barely scratched the surface of the treasure that lies down there.

1733 Treasure Fleet

Treasure Fleet Wealth

In his book, The Spanish Treasure Fleets (1994), Walton gives the following amounts for the amount of wealth that was brought out of each area in each time period.

From To 1550 1600's 1700's 1790
Viceroyalty of Peru Havana 1,650,000 8,000,000 4,500,000 Negligible
Colombia Havana 500,000 1,500,000 1,500,000 2,000,000
México Havana 850,000 1,500,000 3,000,000 18,000,000
Havana Spain 3,000,000 11,000,000 9,000,000 20,000,000
Europe Asia 2,000,000 1,500,000 4,500,000 7,000,000
Viceroyalty of Peru Acapulco N/A 3,500,000 N/A N/A
Acapulco Manila N/A 5,000,000 2,000,000 3,000,000

The treasure fleets took the same principle path each time and they were often well protected by the Spanish navy in a convoy, This system worked for a majority of the 17th century. However this would all change as English and French colonists took over key port areas in Tortuga and Port Royal. From there they could easily stage and launch assaults of Spanish galleons easily.

Due to their rich colonial holdings and their treasure fleet system, Spain became the richest country in Europe and possibly the world at the end of the 16th century. However the Habsburg kings of Spain did not invest their wealth and instead used it to fight endless wars in the 16th and 17th centuries against the Ottoman Empire and other major Imperial powers such as Britain and France. These wars were what opened the Spanish treasure fleets up for a legitimate privateer attack.

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