The Atocha

Ch 6: The Atocha
Miami, Florida

Our Story:

"In 1622, a man of God and a Caribbean slave are thrown together on an ill-fated ship loaded down with Spanish wealth. Three and a half centuries later, an American treasure hunter following clues left by the sole survivor discovers both the remains of the ship and a mysterious object pointing to yet another New World trove that has been lost to history..."

The Real Story Behind The Atocha

In the early 17th century, Spain was financially strapped, and had come to rely heavily upon the gold and silver coming out of its New World colonies. Unfortunately for the royal treasury, the transport of the precious materials across the Atlantic was a risky proposition: there are many severe storms each winter, but hurricanes were a threat in the summer months. Spanish fleets aimed to make the journey as early as possible in the summer in order to minimize the danger, but delays were sometimes unavoidable.

This is precisely what happened in the summer of 1622, when the Marquis of Cadereita was charged with the task of assembling a fleet to convey riches worth about two million pesos — over $400 million in today’s dollars — to Spain. Various delays caused the fleet to leave its port at Havana nearly six weeks behind the Marquis’s intended schedule, at the height of the hurricane season.  Despite the danger presented by the weather, the Marquis and the fleet commander were anxious to avoid hostile Dutch raiders, and the Spanish crown was impatiently awaiting its funds.

The large fleet of 28 ships thus departed from Cuba on September 4; the bulk of the treasure had been loaded onto two huge galleons, the Santa Margarita and the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. The latter ship was new and outfitted with 20 bronze cannons to defend itself against raiders. Just a day into the journey, however, a hurricane drove the fleet off-course, driving seven vessels, including the Margarita and the Atocha, into the shallow waters and dangerous reefs off the Florida Keys. All told, more than 500 crewmembers of the fleet lost their lives, and only five men from the Atocha survived, two of whom were slaves. The Margarita had run aground in fairly shallow water, and so Spain was able to salvage about half of its cargo over the next few years, but the Atocha was never located: it had sunk to a depth of around 50 feet, and subsequent storms ultimately dispersed its wreckage over an area more than seven miles long. The loss of the bulk of the precious cargo dealt a serious blow to Spain.

In the following centuries, many treasure-hunters attempted to locate the wreck of the Atocha, but most of them were searching in the wrong place. Enter the now-famous Mel Fisher: after a successful experience diving for sunken treasure in the late 1960’s, he turned his attention to the wrecks of the Margarita and the Atocha in the 1970’s. They proved to be elusive until one of his colleagues doing research in the Spanish archives discovered that there was a different way of interpreting the 17th-century documentation of the Atocha wreck site. Fisher and his associates began searching near the Marquesas Keys, and their 1975 discovery of five cannon from the Atocha confirmed that they were in the right vicinity. Nevertheless, it took ten more years of perseverance, during which Mel daily repeated his mantra that “Today’s the day,” before the “motherlode” of the Atocha cargo finally emerged from the depths. Mel Fisher’s trying 16-year search was over, and it was vindicated; along the way, his team had also located the remains of the Margarita in 1980.

Mel Fisher passed away in 1998, but his work continues: new finds from both the Atocha and Margarita wreck sites continue to come to light, providing an invaluable source of information about life in the 17th century.

The Chapters: 12 Lost Treasures

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