Mexican Gold: largest detailed treasure map in history assembled


The Ministry of Culture documents and locates the 681 sunken ships in the Caribbean between 1492 and 1898, including the Santa María and the naos de Cortés, Pizarro or Núñez de Balboa.

If the pirate Long John Silver had in his possession the report that the Spanish Government has taken five years to elaborate, he would quickly abandon Treasure Island and launch himself to plunder the Caribbean carrying this document in his hand. He would know where the mythical Santa María is located (the first European ship sunk in America) , the ships that Hernán Cortés lost in his conquest of Mexico , those that were commanded by 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 Spanish Shipwreck Inventory in America , written by the General Subdirectorate of Historical Heritage of the Ministry of Culture and that today reveals EL PAÍS, documents. It would have in its power, yes, the history of Spain between 1492 and 1898, information coordinated by underwater archaeologist Carlos León with the collaboration of his colleague Beatriz Domingo and the naval historian Genoveva Enríquez. Hundreds of historical files from 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 Spanish known never. A project that is part of the policy of the National Plan for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage of Spain, developed under the principles of the 2001 Unesco Convention.

The Spanish Empire based its expansion on both hemispheres on two main pillars: the army and the fleet. But behind them hid a silent and effective armada , 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, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Bahamas, Bermuda and the Atlantic coast of the United States. 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 María 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 disembarkation, for which he counted on the help of the Taino Indians who lived on the island of Bohío (baptized as La Española). 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 Monarchs. 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 nao ran aground, just in the place 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 identified Spanish wrecks is Cuba (249), followed by the Atlantic coast of the USA (153), area that includes the famous pirate islands, and Antigua Florida (150), an area that stretched by the current states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and Alabama. In Panama, for example, 66 shipwrecks have been located and in La Española, 63. 

And why did they sink? Carlos León explains that 91.2% of the shipwrecks 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, they were heavily armed and could carry dozens of 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. In the 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 Santa Lucia, captained by Juan Lopez in 1584, managed to reach the shores of Bermuda by boat, where they found seven other Spaniards from a sunken ship 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, in addition to Columbus, who also lost the Vizcaya ship in Panama, you can read those of 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 de Narváez (two ships, in Trinidad in 1527) or two that were owned by Álvaro de Bazán (Santo Domingo, 1553).

In the ports the fleets of the King also sank, already 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. Thus, the galleons Our Lady of the Rosary and Our Lady of Victory went to the bottom of the sea, in 1590 on the shores of Cape San Antón (Cuba). The Neptune, Our Lady of the Pillar and Our Lady of Loreto in 1762 were sunk by the Spaniards to block access to the English to the port of Havana. And even the destroyersChristopher Columbus, Furor, Admiral Oquendo, Infanta Maria Teresa and Vizcaya destroyed by the United States fleet  during the battle of July 3, 1898after the outbreak of the  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. The cargo Juan de Benavides threw overboard was also documented so that it was not 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 report the disaster, ordered him to behead.

Reaching land or staying afloat did not always mean salvation. In fact, in 1548 a ship sank off Cayo Largo (Florida). All the crew 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 departed from Cartagena (Colombia) and a storm sent it 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 (African slaves escaped from the plantations) killed them.


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 for 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 cellars. In the Our Lady of the Pure and Clean Conception there are pieces of silver with forms of cork stoppers in the jugs of the loading, in Guadalupe (1724) a collection of more than 600 decorated glass glasses 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 realized, the one who spoke of “lack of time” and a Franciscan who argued 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 the treasure m- l will have in the future – specialists prefer to call it a map of the submerged cultural heritage  of the Spanish Empire, since the current one has stuck to subsidence 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 dominating Spain. , because the pirates’ thing is more legend than anything else.

Source: El Pais