Spanish naval ships of the 1600s and 1700s transported gold and silver from the New World to Spain, taking on cargo from several ports in the Caribbean before sailing in convoys across the Atlantic. In 1622, the Tierra Firma fleet, 28 ships in all, left Havana bound for Spain. Eight of the vessels, including the Santa Margarita and the Nuestra Se~ora de Atocha, sank two days later in a hurricane, along with a fortune in gold, silver, emeralds and pearls. The Spanish tried to recover some of the treasure, but the two ships lay abandoned for more than 350 years. After a 16-year search, Mel Fisher and his treasure hunters discovered them in the 1980s.
More than one billion dollars in treasure has been recovered from these two wrecks.
All of these objects were all recovered from the 1622 wreck of the Santa Margarita.
Sinking of the Plate Fleet
© C. Chesek/AMNH, Courtesy of the Florida Division of Historical Resources, Bureau of Archaeological Research
The Plate Fleet sailed for Spain in 1715. The 12 ships of the convoy were loaded with two years' worth of bounty from the New World, along with gold and silver earmarked for the King of Spain. King Philip desperately needed the cargo to refill Spain's treasury after years of war. All but one ship sank in a hurricane off the Florida coast. Over the next four years, the Spanish salvaged 80 percent of the Spanish crown's share, but the private, smuggled, or unrecorded treasure cargo remained lost.
Because gold doesn't tarnish, these artifacts look much the same as they did before they were lost to the sea hundreds of years ago.