Shipwrecks - The Buen Jesus and other Shipwrecks off Chile

The Buen Jesus is one of several treasure ships which sank off of Chile carrying a vast cargo of treasure. There were many Treasure Fleets which operated in the Pacific Ocean and even off the coast of Chile.


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The Buen Jesus and other Shipwrecks off Chile - article from Treasure Quest Magazine


Buen Jesus and Other Wrecks off Chile

Most wrecks of Spanish galleons are along well-known routes of the treasure fleets, at locations such as the Florida coast, and these are the sites that have received the most attention from salvors. But there are also potential salvage sites that are not along the usual routes, and one example is the Buen Jesus, which sank in the Pacific Ocean off Valparaiso, Chile, in 1600.

Beginning in 1513, when Vasco Nunez de Balboa sighted the Pacific from the coast of Panama, the Spanish had a virtual monopoly of the ocean-going commerce in the Pacific. Ferdinand Magellan staked a claim on the Pacific for Portugal during the first voyage around the world a few years later. In 1580, King Philip of Spain also became King of Portugal, and he consolidated the claims to the Pacific in the hands of the Spanish royal family.

Secure use of the sea lanes in the Pacific was of great importance to Spain. Huge amounts of silver were transported overland from the mines of Peru to the ports of Arica and Callao. From there the treasure was transported by ship northward to Panama, where it was carried across the isthmus and then shipped to Spain. Ships that went down along this well-traveled route included the Jesus Maria de la Limpia Concepcion, which broke up on the Chanduy Reef off Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1654. There was considerable excitement in the treasure diving community when it was announced earlier this year that this famous wreck may have been discovered.

More silver was loaded onto ships at Acapulco and sent westward, across the entire Pacific to Manila, in Spain's colony of the Philippine Islands, where it was used to purchase silk and other products from China. A number of these Manila galleons were lost in the Philippines, Marianas, and other locations in the Pacific, and several efforts have been made to find these potentially valuable wrecks.

Less attention, however, has been paid to the fact that smaller amounts of gold and silver came from Spanish settlements in what is now Chile. This Chilean treasure was also carried to Panama by ship so it could be sent on to Spain, and one of these transport vessels was the Buen Jesus.

These extensive shipments of treasure in the Pacific were only rarely attacked by foreigners, and the losses that did take place were usually the result of storms or faulty navigation. The other European powers--such as the British and the French--usually preferred to go to Asia through the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, where there were more places to stop for supplies and repairs. This meant that Spanish shipments of treasure were only challenged when other countries found a captain daring enough to make the long and dangerous voyage to the Pacific. At first, only the English were daring and resourceful enough for such adventures, and Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish attacked Spanish shipping in the Pacific during their circumnavigations of the Earth in the 1570s and 1580s.

At he end of the sixteenth century a much more serious challenge to the security of Spanish shipping came from the Dutch. The Netherlands were a part of the large Spanish empire in Europe, but Spain's efforts to extract more taxes from the Dutch and to force them to return to the Catholic Church caused increasingly more unrest in the Netherlands. The Dutch had begun rioting in 1566, and by 1572 they were in full revolt. The Dutch were one of the great seafaring peoples of Europe, and so while the conflict against the Spanish was waged mainly on land, the Dutch also sought to strike Spain at sea.

The Dutch had a considerable advantage in their struggle against the Spanish. Spain was a land power, forced to operate at sea to hold on to its overseas empire, while the Dutch were a more natural sea power. The Netherlands had large numbers of high quality ships, and their crews were often better trained and disciplined. In addition, Dutch commanders were usually more competent than their Spanish counterparts.

In 1597 the Dutch began raiding into the Pacific, hoping that by attacking the Spanish colonies and shipping they could force the Spanish to grant them independence. Spanish forces were able to sink or capture all the ships in this first expedition

In 1598 the Dutch launched another expedition to the Pacific under Admiral Oliver van Noort. In May 1600, as van Noort's squadron approached Valparaiso, he spotted a single, small Spanish ship, the Buen Jesus which was carrying gold as well as a general cargo. The Dutch ships cleared for action and started their attack. On board the Buen Jesus the Spanish captain Francisco de Ibarra, knew he could not successfully resist against such overwhelming force, but he was determined to prevent the Dutch from capturing his valuable cargo. As the Dutch approached on one side, he had his crew dump the gold on board, most of it in ingots but also some coins, over the side.

The Dutch captured the Buen Jesus but all they found on board was hides and grain. They never realized there had been treasure on board, and after sinking the Spanish vessel they continued on their way. Van Noort later learned about the gold that had been jettisoned from the Buen Jesus, but by that time it was too late for him to do anything about it.

Van Noort and his ships crossed the Pacific and attacked Spanish shipping in the Philippines, opening the struggle at sea between the Dutch and the Spanish for control of the islands off southeast Asia. When Van Noort returned to the Netherlands, he was acclaimed a hero for striking at the Spanish and completing the fourth expedition (after Magellan, Hawkins, and Cavendish) to circumnavigate the glove. But, in fact, a considerable treasure had slipped through his hands and remains on the bottom of the ocean southwest of Valparaiso. The Dutch struggle for independence continued until success was finally achieved in 1648.

There are other interesting Spanish shipwrecks in the area that have not received much attention from treasure divers. Another ship with treasure on board, the San Juan Bautista, also sank in Valparaiso that same year of 1600, when it was struck by a storm while anchored in the harbor. Unlike the Buen Jesus there was a salvage effort at the time, and most of the treasure was apparently recovered. Fifteen years later, the Dutch were back along the coast of Chile and sank several treasure ships in a battle south of Callao. Other ships, probably with treasure on board, sank in storms or accidents near Valparaiso in 1596, 1647, 1650, and 1695. It appears that little salvage work has been done on these sites.

The modern Chilean government has not had much experience dealing with treasure divers, and it is not clear what its attitude would be toward a salvage operation in its waters. Any prospective salvor would have to get in touch with the Chilean government to determine their regulations and procedures.

Tim Walton

This article and more valuable information is available in Treasure Quest Magazine, Jan. - Feb. 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.


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