If the pirate Long John Silver had in his possession the report that the Spanish Government has taken five years to elaborate, it would quickly abandon the treasure Island and would launch to plunder the Caribbean carrying this document in his hand. I would know where the mythical one is located Santa Maria (the first European ship sunk in America), the boats that lost Hernán Cortés in his conquest of Mexico, those that were under Francisco de Pizarro or Núñez de Balboa, but also the coordinates where the sea swallowed the most incredible treasures of gold, silver, emeralds or huge pearls.
However, this character of Robert Louis Stevenson would not have enough lives to loot the 681 ships that the first Inventory of Spanish shipwrecks in America, written by the General Subdirectorate of Historical Heritage of the Ministry of Culture and which today reveals EL PAÍS, documents. It would have in its power, yes, the history of Spain between 1492 and 1898, information that has coordinated the underwater archaeologist Carlos León with the collaboration of his colleague Beatriz Domingo and the naval historian Genoveva Enríquez. Hundreds of historical files of the Archive of the Indies and the Naval Museum have had to be scrutinized thoroughly, as well as 420 ancient plans, to draw the largest treasure map of the Spanish Underwater Cultural Heritage known never. A project that is part of the policy of the National Plan for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage developed by Spain, under the principles of 2001 Unesco Convention.
The Spanish empire based its expansion on both hemispheres on two main pillars: the army and the fleet. But behind them was hidden navy silent and effective, the officials, whose work (they took note of the smallest details of each expedition) has now allowed the location of the ships in waters of Panama, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Bahamas, Bermuda and the Atlantic coast of the United States. United. The objective is not so much to extract them from the seabed, but to preserve them from looting or possible fortuitous damages with the cooperation of the countries involved.
The first ship that sank in America was the nao Santa Maria on December 25, 1492. That night Christopher Columbus He locked himself in his cabin and delegated command to a pilot who, in turn, passed it to a cabin boy. A few hours later, the captain ran aground. The admiral, angered, ordered the landing, for which he counted on the help of the Taino Indians who lived on the island. Small pieces of gold hung from their necks, which they soon exchanged with the explorers for items of little value, such as rattles. What at first seemed a disgrace, soon became a good fortune. The discoverer then dismounted the ship and with its frames built the first European settlement in America, the Christmas Fort (Haiti), where he left some of his men.
Three days later, he left for Spain to announce it to the Catholic kings. But he would never see his abandoned companions again: they were massacred. Anyway, not all the ship could be used to build the fort, so that part of their remains could be in the place where the apprentice ship ran aground, right where the Inventory points.
Of the almost seven hundred documented shipwrecks, only 23% have evidence of archaeological remains. The rest is unexplored. The country with the highest number of submerged Spanish wrecks is Cuba (249), followed by the Atlantic Coast of the USA (153), an area that includes the famous pirate islands, and Antigua Florida (150), an area that It extended to the current states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and Alabama. In Panama, for example, 66 shipwrecks have been located and in Hispaniola, 63. By the way, in the famous Stevenson novel The island of the treasure It is curiously called La Hispaniola.
And why did they sink? Carlos León explains that 91.2% of the disasters were caused by meteorological causes and only 1.4% were caused by combats with enemy countries. "The pirates' thing is more legend. The Spanish ships were fearsome, heavily armed and could carry up to 110 guns. They gave more fear to the pirates than vice versa. " In fact, only 0.8% of subsidence is due to private attacks.
The cataclysm of these marine giants – which could hold a thousand people, including passengers, soldiers and sailors – caused real human catastrophes. Five ships of the fleet of Juan Menéndez de Avilés submerged under the waters in 1563 in Bermuda causing 1,250 deaths. At Count of Tolosa, in 1724 off the coast of the Dominican Republic, 600 embarkations died. Only seven survived for 33 days were fed pumpkins and seawater seized to the top of the mainmast.
But these misfortunes also brought exploits that have nothing to envy to the literary Robinson Crusoe. The survivors of St. lucia, captained by Juan Lopez in 1584, they managed to reach the shores of Bermuda by boat, where they found seven other Spaniards from a ship sunk two years before. Together they built a boat, crossed the Caribbean between indescribable hardships, but reached Puerto Plata (Dominican Republic), 900 kilometers away in a straight line.
The inventory of the Ministry of Culture details the location of each wreck, the name of the vessel, the type of vessel, the name of the captain, the armament and the loaded cargo, as well as the crew and passengers. Among the most famous names, besides Columbus, who also lost the ship Vizcaya in Panama, you can read the Vicente Yáñez Pinzón (two caravels in 1500 in Abrojos, Dominican Republic), Juan de la Cosa and Núñez de Balboa (two naos in Haiti, 1501), Francisco Pizarro (a ship in Nombre de Dios, Panama, in 1544), Pánfilo Narváez (two ships, in Trinidad in 1527) or two owned by Álvaro de Bazán (Santo Domingo, 1553) …
In the ports the fleets of the King also sank, and dozens. In 1768 70 ships went down because of a hurricane in the port of Havana, the same happened in 1810 with another 60 boats in the same shelter.
The Spanish ships that sailed the seas of the world carried the most varied loads. Among them, experts have found gold, silver, pearls, emeralds and ivory, but also Ming pottery, tobacco, sugar, vanilla or cocoa, as well as slaves, artillery, books or relics of Jerusalem. This random transfer of wealth caused some fighting with English and Dutch. So they went to the bottom of the sea, among others, the galleons Our Lady of the Rosary and Our Lady of Victory, in 1590 on the shores of Cape San Antón (Cuba). The Neptune, Our Lady of the Pillar and Our Lady of Loreto in 1762 they were sunk by the Spaniards to block access to the English to the port of Havana. And even the destroyers Cristóbal Colón, Furor, Admiral Oquendo, Infanta María Teresa and Vizcaya shattered during the battle of July 3, 1898 after the outbreak of the North American ship Maine. All its wrecks are currently a National Monument.
Of the pirate attacks few remains have been discovered, some in Camagüey (Cuba) in 1603 or three ships of 1635 that ran aground after the fight against the corsair. They have also documented the cargo that Juan de Benavides threw overboard so that it would not be stolen by the Dutch pirates in Matanzas (Cuba). In fact, Benavides did not lose any ships in battle, but the Dutch robbed him 14, so Felipe IV, when the captain returned to Spain to recount the disaster, beheaded him.
Reaching land or staying afloat did not always mean salvation. In fact, in 1548 a ship sank off Cayo Largo (Florida). All survived but were captured, enslaved and sacrificed by the Calusa Indians, except Hernando Escalante, 13, who lived another 17 with the Indians until being rescued by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565.
In 1605, the Holy Trinity He left Cartagena (Colombia) and a storm sent him to the bottom near Santa Isabel (Cuba). Only 36 people remained alive, who climbed into a boat with such cargo of gold and silver that the barge also sank. Two years later, a frigate ran aground on the beach of Tienderropa, in Panama. They survived 13 embarcados that reached the coast, but there the maroons (Africans fled from the plantations) killed them.
The Spanish kings spent huge amounts of money in Florida, an area in which there was neither gold nor silver, nor natural resources to exploit. In fact, Felipe II was desperate with the immense investments that the military advised him. The reason was that it was a strategic point at the time of the return of the ships full of wealth because the coastal current runs through the sea that leads directly to Spain. If the British took it, the passage of the galleons would be interrupted. Thus, what were initially strong wood were transformed into stone fortifications of which many still remain in the Caribbean seas.
Curiously, these ships not only transported what the royal officials wrote, but a huge amount of contraband products to avoid taxes. Therefore, it is not known exactly what the sunken galleons could actually carry in their bogedas. At Our Lady of Pure and Clean Conception there are pieces of silver in the shape of cork stoppers in the cargo jars, in the Guadalupe (1724) a collection of more than 600 decorated glass vases has been detected.
When the royal collectors discovered the contraband upon arrival in port, the owners offered the most diverse excuses. Thus they have been registered from which he argued that he had not noticed, the one who spoke of "lack of time" and a Franciscan who said he thought that since he was not going to Spain "he thought that he should not register the gold and silver he was carrying "
The General Subdirectorate of Historical Heritage has only completed one of the various parts that will have in the future the Treasure map -The specialists prefer to call it Map of the Submerged Cultural Heritage- of the Spanish empire, since the current one has stuck to the sinkings in the Caribbean and on the Atlantic coast of the United States. The Pacific, the South Atlantic or the Philippines remain to be traced in order to have a true idea of the volume of Spanish maritime transport between the 15th and 19th centuries and the exact number of ships that were lost, mainly due to the storms in the seas that dominated Spain, because of the pirates it's more legend than anything else.