Spanish study reconstructs 681 ship sinkings, thereby possibly creating the world’s “largest treasure map”

SpanishMap showing Francis Drake's attack on Saint Augustine, a Hispanic town in Florida.

Spain’s culture ministry, in collaboration with various Spanish academics and researchers, has successfully reconstructed a whopping 681 Spanish ship sinkings by the American landmass. The recreated scope named quite modestly as the ‘Inventory of Spanish Shipwrecks in America’ starts from the year 1492 AD and ends in 1898. The first vessel covered by the study pertains to Santa Maria, one of Columbus’ three ships, that sunk off the island of Bohio, now known as Hispaniola. As for the last vessel documented by the study, it entails a total of five Cuban destroyers that were sunk by the US naval crafts in the Spanish-American War of 1898.


Among the 681 recorded sinkings in the study, most have been located close to the Cuban coast – numbering 249, while the waters around the American coast takes the second place with 153, followed by Panama – 66, and the aforementioned Hispaniola – 63. As for the details, the comprehensive endeavor not only mentions the location of the respective sinkings but also records the ship type, the name of its captain, its armament, the number of crew members and passengers, as well as the cargo.


Pertaining to the latter, it does conjure up notions of treasures hoards strewn across the depths of Atlantic by the Americas. In fact, the researchers taking part in the study have mentioned how around 80 percent of these ship hulls have never been explored. Added to that, many of these ships indeed carried expensive cargoes like pearls, emeralds, and gold. These were complemented by other ‘exotic’ items like Ming ceramics, tobacco, sugar, vanilla, cocoa and relics. Furthermore, while the subject is undoubtedly contentious, Spanish merchant ships were also known to carry slaves.


However, as opposed to ‘green lighting’ treasure hunting expeditions, the study aims to rather protect the shipwrecks from potential intruders. Consequently, the location mappings become crucial to the effort of preservation, which can only be achieved with the aid of the American nations that lie in proximity to the sinkings. And talking of intruders, it is interesting to know that historically the marine-based trade routes in the region, by circa 18th century, were frequently raided by the infamous Caribbean pirates and privateers. As we wrote in one of our articles about the pirates


One of the most popular motifs associated with the pirates pertains to the plundered treasure chest filled with gold coins, precious stones, and jewelry items. However, when it came to actual plunders, as historian Angus Konstam noted, gold coins were pretty rare – since circulated money was in low supply in the Caribbean while the first mint in America was established only after 1776. To that end, most of the coins (or money) were accumulated by selling off the stolen goods, as opposed to finding chance treasure troves or chest-carrying ships.

Simply put, the cargoes of the targeted merchant ships were far more important to these Caribbean pirates (so that they can sell it off later or at least use them for their own purpose), and such commodities ranged from sugar, rum, wood to fur, ore, cotton, and manufactured goods of European origin. In few cases, the slaver ships did carry high-value items (between the triangular slave-trading nexus comprising Europe, America, and Africa) like gold, ivory, and spices. On capturing these prized crafts, it depended on the pirate captain as to how he would treat the slaves. In some cases, they were freed and recruited as pirate crew members or employed as workers aboard the ship. In other cases, when the allure of profit was too high, they were simply sold off to the highest bidders – with pirates taking up the role of slave traders.


Interestingly enough, in spite of such boarding actions and persistent naval warfare after the 16th century, the study in question here estimates how only 10 percent of the shipwrecks were a result of military actions. In other words, an overwhelmingly majority of the ships were lost in the sea because of storms. Moreover, in some cases, the loss of human lives was also significant, like in the case of the five ships sinking off the coast of Bermuda, resulting in the possible drowning of 1,563 people.


Source: ANSA

All Image/Video Credits: El Pais

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