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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: The San Pedro and the Shipwreck Disaster of 1733

By the early 1730s, some aspects of the treasure fleet system had changed. The galleons themselves were larger, sleeker, and not as heavily armed as in earlier days. The English, French, and Dutch were successfully selling their own goods in the American colonies. As the threat of attacks on Spanish vessels decreased, Spain focused on trying to maintain its share of trade.1 Treasure fleets tended to sail every two to three years during this period.

On August 2, 1732, a New Spain fleet left Spain under the command of Don Rodrigo de Torres. The fleet reached Veracruz in early October and remained there until after the trade fair. Delays in receiving and loading cargo prevented the fleet from leaving for Havana until the end of May. By mid June the fleet had arrived in Havana and was being refitted and loaded with more cargo and passengers. Although hurricane season had already begun, General Torres knew that the Crown was in dire need of its share of the 12 million pesos of registered treasure aboard the convoy.

The fleet finally sailed for Spain on July 13, 1733, carrying gold, silver, tanned hides, rare spices, tobacco, porcelain, and precious jewels. By this time, the convoy was made up of four armed galleons and 17 or 18 merchant vessels, including the San Pedro. The return journey should have taken six to eight weeks.

After sighting the Florida Keys on the second day, General Torres ordered the ships to turn back to Havana because the winds indicated an approaching hurricane. The effort was unsuccessful, and by nightfall most of the ships had been wrecked and scattered 80 miles up and down the Florida Keys. Only one ship returned safely to Havana. Spanish Naval Commissioner Don Alonso de Herrera wrote of the experience:

On the 14th of July we discovered the islands of the Florida Keys. By 9:00 that night the wind began to rise out of the north. It continued to freshen to the point where we all knew a hurricane was imminent. We found ourselves close to the expressed Keys, with the wind and sea so strong we were unable to properly govern ourselves, and each new gust came upon us with renewed major force.

On the 15th, signs were made among the ships of the fleet to try and arrive back to La Havana But we were unable to do so for the wind went around to the south without slacking in force or lessening the height of the seas. By 10:30 that night we had all grounded on the expressed keys at a distance of 28 leagues in length.

This Capitana grounded off the one called Cayo Largo, two and one half leagues from shore. I make assurance to Your Lordship that it was fortunate we grounded for if the contrary had occurred we would have all drowned because the hold was full of water and we were unable to pump it out faster than it was coming in.... 2

Fortunately, the storm did not totally destroy all the ships and most grounded in shallow water. Survivors quickly established camps wherever they came ashore and began salvaging food and supplies from the shipwrecks. Ships soon arrived from Havana to rescue survivors and recover as much lost treasure and goods as possible. The locations of the wrecks were charted on maps and salvage operations began.

The San Pedro, whose cargo included 16,000 pesos in Mexican silver and several crates of Chinese porcelain, grounded in shallow water and remained relatively intact. Almost all the cargo was recovered and taken to the closest salvage camp. Some of the other ships were refloated, and the rest (including the San Pedro) were burned to the waterline so divers could get to the holds to recover any possible cargo, and so pirates would not discover them. Within three months, royal officials in Havana told the Crown that all of the registered treasure as well as quite a bit of unregistered treasure had been recovered. The fact that more treasure was found than had been listed on official manifests was proof that merchants and others often smuggled extra gold and silver onto ships to avoid paying taxes.

Questions for Reading 3

1. How had the treasure fleet system changed by the time the 1733 fleet sailed?

2. Create a timeline for the 1733 fleet from the date it left Spain until it wrecked in the Florida Keys.

3. What happened to the San Pedro during and after the hurricane?

4. How was it possible that the Spanish recovered more treasure than had been registered in the first place?

Reading 3 was compiled from Robert F. Marx, The Search for Sunken Treasure: Exploring the World's Great Shipwrecks (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1993); Della Scott-Ireton and Barbara Mattick, "San Pedro" (Monroe County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001; Roger C. Smith, "Treasure Ships of the Spanish Main: The Iberian-American Maritime Empires," In Ships and Shipwrecks of the Americas, edited by George F. Bass; Timothy R. Walton, The Spanish Treasure Fleets (Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, Inc., 1994); and Robert M. Weller, Galleon Alley: The 1733 Spanish Treasure Fleet (Lake Worth, Florida: Crossed Anchors Salvage, 2001).

1Robert M. Weller, Galleon Alley: The 1733 Spanish Treasure Fleet (Lake Worth, Florida: Crossed Anchors Salvage, 2001), 17.
2 Letter to the President of the Council of Trade in Cadiz, Spain. As quoted in Weller, 281.

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