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January 25, 2016

Tidbits from History – The Spanish Silver Fleets

How did the wealth of the Spanish world get to Madrid to fill the new palace of Carlos III?

Havana silver fleets gathering from Peru and Mexico        We’ve discussed Mexico City’s palaces during the 1770s and the Manila Galleons. Hopefully, everyone has heard of the Spanish silver fleets. After gathering silver and gold from Peru and Mexico, the shipments were collected at Havana. Twice a year, Spring and Fall, the massive, heavily protected fleets sailed out of Havana harbor to carry the treasure to Spain. All too often the fleets were caught by pirates, hurricanes or bad weather as the Gulf Stream current swept them north along the Florida coast, then east across the Atlantic following the trade winds back to Cadiz or Seville.


Carlos III

Carlos III


Obverse of the Carlos III coin

Spanish silver coin

Everyone from kings to commoners depended on those yearly shipments. Kings borrowed heavily against their arrival to pay for their constant wars. Dutch money lenders counted on the fleet to get repaid for their loans to the Spanish kings. The English (if they hadn’t already captured the ships) counted on the Dutch to get repaid, so the Dutch could buy merchandise from the rapidly industrializing English factories, to then sell the goods, in turn, to the Spanish. Ironic though it is, Spanish silver fueled the Industrial Revolution of their hated rivals, the British.

Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain

Archivists at the Archivo de Indias in Sevilla always smile when they see sunburned, grizzled young Americans clad in T-shirts, shorts and sandals who stumble, wide-eyed into their quiet reading room. They know that these are not historians. They are treasure hunters searching for records of the ships from the silver fleets that went down in the Caribbean or along the Atlantic coast. Like gambling on the lottery, the discoveries are not guaranteed, but the Spanish records are available and very complete.


Discovering silver ingots

Diving the wrecks

Marine archeologists have discovered many wrecks of the silver-laden treasure ships. Perhaps one of the better known is Mel Fisher out of Key West. My aunt Carolyn, who lived there at the time, had a chance to invest in Fisher’s hare-brained scheme. It took him ten years and the loss of his son and daughter-in-law, but he managed to scrounge up enough money to eventually find the Virgen de la Atocha.

      His discovery proved that there was a lot of chicanery going on. Spanish officials and citizens were sneaking emeralds back without paying the King’s fifth. Since gold could be brought back as jewelry without paying taxes, there were rings, pendants, pins and long, heavy necklaces of gold that were brought back by Spaniards returning from the New World on the silver fleets.

I wondered what it must have been like for those standing in Havana harbor watching the amazing sight of the gathering of the silver fleet for its semi-annual trip to Spain. In 1772, Don José de Gálvez, along with his nephew, Bernardo, and Teodoro de Croix all sailed back on the winter silver fleet. Is it possible this is what they saw?

Havana Harbor gathering of the silver fleets

Havana Harbor

From The Spanish Captain’s Daughter: “The excitement had been thick in the port when two dozen great galleons, loaded to groaning with gold, silver, emeralds, spices and cochineal from the New World, fired their guns in a final thunderous salute. Anchor chains clanked and rattled as the sailors turned the capstans and drew the broad curving iron arms from the bottom of the bay, dripping mud and seaweed from their heart-shaped flukes.

Silver fleet bound for Seville

Silver fleet

“The bos’n’s mates’ whistles squealed across the rippling water of the harbor, sending sailors scrambling into the rigging to loose the heavy canvas sails that dropped open and cracked full as they caught the southeasterly winds. The giant ships lumbered into motion, each turning ponderously, one behind the other, amazing in their precision as they gathered speed and tacked out to join the line of frigate escorts awaiting them in the roadstead beyond the protective arms of Havana’s harbor.

“Standing on the dock, well-dressed merchants, anxious about their cargos, stood next to sweat-stained dockhands, grateful for the brief respite from their never-ending toil. Government officials, thankful that the ships were no longer their problem, consigned the treasure to God and to the waves and to the English brigands always ready to pounce. The prostitutes and doxies already sought new customers among the willing soldiers and sailors, and the townsfolk sighed and turned homeward, at once awed by the might of Spain and irritated at the burdens of empire.”

Non-fiction just doesn’t provide the images that imagination—and novels–do, as long as it is, hopefully, accurate.

About Caroline Castillo Crimm
Retired Professor Emeritus from Sam Houston State University, interested in writing novels and speaking about topics such as the history of Latin American. Would like to share the AMAZING world of the 18th century in Northern New Spain, that's Spanish Texas and Mexico!

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