Unaccounted for Shipwrecks - The 1605 Terra Firma Fleet


A large fleet of Treasure Galleons set sail in 1605 loaded with a vast treasure of Gold, Silver and Emeralds. Unfortunately a savage storm crossed the fleets path and wrecked the vessels on the Serranilla Banks. The treasure is still there waiting to be found.


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The 1605 Terra Firma Fleet - article from Treasure Quest Magazine


The 1605 Terra Firma Fleet

The Spanish made elaborate plans to minimize losses from their treasure fleets by carefully planning their routes to take advantage of favorable winds and currents and by scheduling departures to avoid seasonal storms. But sometimes even their elaborate precautions failed and there were sizable losses, as there was when most of the 1605 Tierra Firme Flota (Terra Firma Fleet) was lost in the Caribbean.

Spanish authorities normally sent two fleets a year to their colonies in the Caribbean to transport supplies to the settlers and then pick up the production from the gold and silver mines. One fleet left Spain in the spring and went to Veracruz to pick up the treasure, mostly silver, from Mexico. The other fleet left in the late summer for Cartagena, a heavily fortified port on the mainland of South America, or Tierra Firme, as it was known at the time. In Cartagena the treasure fleets loaded a more varied cargo of gold and emeralds from what is now Columbia, as well as silver brought along the Pacific coast from Peru and then carried by mule train over the Isthmus of Panama to Porto Bello on the Caribbean coast.

After loading at Veracruz, Cartagena, and Porto Bello, the last stop in the Caribbean for the treasure fleets was Havana, another heavily fortified port, where galleons loaded supplies and made repairs before the long Atlantic crossing back to Spain.

In the early seventeenth century the Tierra Firme Flota was by far the most valuable of the two treasure fleets. The mines in Peru, especially those near Potosi, were the richest known, generating as much silver as all of the world's other mines combined. Production was at a level that would not be surpassed in the colonies until modern mining techniques were implemented in the eighteenth century, and as much as ten million pesos worth of treasure was being produced every year. The peso, or piece-of-eight, was a silver coin that was the standard way of measuring the size of treasure shipments.

The fleets that were to carry this fabulous treasure often spent the winter in the Caribbean and then left before the summer hurricane season. Pirates, and the navies of other countries, only rarely constituted a serious threat to the large and heavily armed treasure fleets. The danger that brought the most losses was the weather, especially the hurricanes of the Caribbean.

The seven galleons of the 1605 Terra Firma Fleet left Cartagena in January, confident that it was well past the hurricane season, and headed north toward Havana. As the fleet passed the Serranilla banks, halfway between Jamaica and Yucatan, a surprise storm struck. One ship was able to make it back to Cartagena, two pressed on and found shelter in Jamaica, but four galleons-carrying by some estimates about eight million pesos worth of gold, silver and emeralds-went down on the Serranilla Banks. All of the crew and passengers, some 1,300 people in all were lost.

As soon as word of the disaster reached Cartagena, the Spanish immediately launched a salvage expedition, as they usually did after the loss of treasure ships. Some was salvaged, but with no survivors to point the way to the exact location of all the wreck sites, it proved impossible to locate the bulk of the lost treasure.

Later in the seventeenth century there were rumors that local fish men found some of the wrecks and brought up more of the treasure, and there might have been other discreet recoveries of limited amounts in the first decades after the disaster before the growth of the coral reef covered the sites. Then, for centuries, knowledge of the location of the treasure was lost and there was no technology to find it.

Large amounts of treasure from the 1605 Tierra Firme fleet are still sprinkled over the Serranilla Banks. This treasure is in international waters, and so no government's permission is necessary to look for or recover it.* Although the wrecks are not in deep waters, finding the sites would be difficult because the wooden ships have long since disintegrated, and almost 400 years of coral growth has made it virtually impossible to locate visually the piles of ballast stones or other clues that usually mark Spanish wrecks. Instead, searchers would have to rely on magnetometers to locate anchors or other iron artifacts that would be associated with galleons. Because there were four wrecks, probably the treasure is widely scattered. Search and salvage would also be a challenge because of the dangerous reefs and volatile weather of the area.

Timothy R. Walton

This article and more valuable information is available in Treasure Quest Magazine, Sept - Oct. 1998: Click Here


THE AUTHOR: Tim Walton is a political analyst, naval veteran, author, and coin collector with a doctorate in history from the University of Virginia. These varied interests and experiences sparked his interest in telling the multifaceted story of The Spanish Treasure Fleets.

*NOTE: Although positioned in the open Caribbean Sea hundreds of miles from either one, the countries of Colombia and Honduras both lay claim to the Serranilla Banks and her sunken riches; this will one day be contested in an international court! As recently as March or April of this year, we have learned, at least one party from Colombia and one from the U.S. have claimed to have found the San Roque and Nuestra Senora de Begona of the 1605 flota and have applied for salvage rights with the government of Colombia-ed.


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