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He surfaced gasping for breath. Trying to call out, he could not, struggling to keep his head above water long enough to gulp air. Spain had enslaved a whole village from the island of Santa Margarita, a population of pearl divers who amazed the Spanish conquistadors with their prowess for diving deep and remaining underwater for long periods while gathering oysters. They were driven so hard by their Spanish masters, pressed into the frenzied search and salvage of sunken treasure galleons, that the whole tribe from the village eventually died off.
On 3 June 1626, the slave, diver Juan de Casta Bañon, was not only struggling for breath, he was struggling for life itself. His master promised freedom to the first person that found the shipwreck. Casta Bañon had just found it.
What happened next is reconstructed from the log and official report of Cuban treasure salvor Francisco Nuñez Melián to King Philip IV of Spain. Nuñez Melián was an adventurer, who discovered salvaging after a career that included wine smuggling in the Canary Islands. Nuñez Melián knew how to curry favor with important politicians in much the same way that it is done today, by paying them off with a share of the swag. Narrowly escaping prosecution in Spain, Nuñez Melián landed in Cuba, where he became a favorite of the governor.
Nuñez Melián's providential day would come four years after salvor Gaspar de Vargas-sailing under the mandate of the Marquis de Cadereita, commander of the ill-fated Tierra Firme treasure fleet of 1622-returned without the gold and silver from the Santa Margarita and the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, two of the fleet's ships that had sunk in a hurricane less than two weeks earlier. The Spanish were quite skilled at salvaging ships. Vargas was dispatched at once to recover what he could for the crown.
Although Vargas had located the galleon Atocha he only managed to recover two bronze cannons from its deck. Hoping to come back to the Atocha, he sailed to find the Rosario. A second storm blew away Vargas's markers, and he was unable to find the Atocha again, but he did manage to recover the Rosario's treasure and rescue some of that ship's survivors, who were stranded on one of the keys.
Upon his return to Cuba, a horrible sense of dread spread through the merchant community. The Spanish nobility were stunned. The entire year's output of the silver mine at Potosi, a fortune in Inca gold and oriental treasure, was lost. Spain's debts would be unpaid, its wars unfinanced, the king's creditors unsatisfied. Private fortunes would be wiped out, and the Royal Casa de Contratación, Spain's House of Trade, would have sad news to bear to the king. Without the annual bullion shipment from the Indies, Spain faced near bankruptcy.
Juan de Casta Bañon did not know his fate would be decided on 5 September 1622, when the galleons of the treasure fleet were dashed upon the shoals and sunk in the fury of a hurricane. He did not know it on 16 September 1622, when Gaspar de Vargas sailed in the aftermath of the tragedy, hoping to salvage the gold and silver. Casta Bañon could not have known that the famed commander of the fleet, the Marquis de Cadereita, personally undertook a search for the lost ships but failed. All Casta Bañon knew four years later, in the summer of 1626, was that his master, Nuñez Melián, had ordered him to dive. He knew that if he were successful, he would be freed. With his heart still pounding in his chest, Casta Bañon called out to his companions on board the salvage vessel. "Found. La Santa Margarita, found. A line quickly. A line."
Nuñez Melián took a diving bell aboard his salvage vessel. The kettle-like contraption was constructed with a window that would enable his divers to look out as the massive inverted bronze bell was towed behind his salvage ship. It was an ingenious device for the times, but it proved cruel, indeed fatal, to many divers. The slaves were his property, and when Nuñez Melián sent his accounting to the king he claimed dead slaves as part of his tally. This day he would add Casta Bañon's name to the expense account. Casta Bañon had been the first to discover the lost shipwreck and his freedom would eventually have to be paid for by the Crown. The accounts were not yet rendered and for the moment Nuñez Melián only motioned from the deck of his salvage ship to the slave below, who hung from the dive ladder, gasping for breath.
The carbon dioxide buildup in his system had given Casta Bañon a painful headache, but one thought pulsed through his brain: he would be set free with one more dive. Casta Bañon grasped the rope that was handed down to him and curled his arm around stone weights that would drag him rapidly to the bottom again.
Then he was gone. The salvage master watched from the deck as Casta Bañon's rope played out. A minute, perhaps a minute more, and the men on deck began to haul in on the rope. Then Casta Bañon appeared. He broke the surface, struggling for breath, clinging to the rope and a heavy object it secured. Many hands were there now to help him. They dragged the slave up the dive ladder onto the deck. Nuñez Melián watched as his crew struggled to haul the object aboard.
Black from its four-year immersion under the sea, the object only vaguely resembled a silver bar. A member of the crew scraped the discoloration away. Excitement spread through the ship almost simultaneously, and Juan de Casta Bañon, still lying on the deck, was temporarily forgotten. Nuñez Melián and his men gathered around the silver bar. The slave had indeed found the treasure galleon Margarita. When he could stand, Casta Bañon pushed his way through the group of men standing over the silver he had just wrested from the deep.
"Señor. Señor Don Francisco, I beg you, señor," the slave gasped, clutching Nuñez Melián by his shirt. "Your promise, señor. I beg you remember your promise," Casta Bañon said excitedly. He risked his life to deliver treasure up from the sea floor, and now the slave claimed his reward. But the Spanish were notoriously cruel, unfaithful to their word, and more than a century of enslavement had taught the Indians that their Spanish masters were not to be trusted.
Casta Bañon must have feared the worst when Nuñez Melián brushed his hand away, loosing his grasp on his shirt. In that instant, the slave must have remembered his station in life. Now the salvor studied his master's face to see if his promise would be kept.
Nuñez Melián shouted for all the crew to hear. "On the honor of a Spanish gentleman I pledged the man who first discovered the lost ships would have his reward. And you shall." Francisco Nuñez Melián grasped the hilt of his sword and pledged in the sight of his men and Almighty God that henceforth Juan de Casta Bañon was a free man. Then with the spirit of discovery still fresh, Nuñez Melián called his steward to bring wine to toast the freedman and commemorate the provenance of his discovery.
Bañon drank, he breathed deeply, drew his first breath as a free man. It was worth the risk, it had been worth everything, even life itself, to be free. For Nuñez Melián, he would make a mental note to debit the accounts for Casta Bañon's freedom, then set about the task of recovering what he could from the sunken galleon.
Casta Bañon couldn't know, nor could Nuñez Melián even foresee, that this very act, the very accounting for his expenses in freeing this slave, would have momentous importance more than three and a half centuries later. The wormeaten expense account would be unwrapped and studied by a soft-spoken, unassuming American scholar in the Archives of the Indies in Seville. Casta Bañon's discovery and Nuñez Melián's inflated salvage expense accounts would provide the key that would eventually unlock the secret whereabouts of two of the most fabled treasure ships to the modern world. What began on 3 June 1626 with a slave diver's discovery would cost the lives of four persons in the twentieth century and nearly wreck the lives and hopes of countless others before the treasure of Spain's 1622 Tierra Firme Fleet would be found again.
"Another fellow by the name of Mel 350 years ago dug for it and found it. At one time a mast was even sticking out of the water on one of the wrecks. But they left because they couldn't break into the ship's battened-down holds. When they came back, another storm had wiped out their markers and they couldn't find it again," he told me, hardly able to get a minute free from interruption. On a table near his desk was a working model of his team's favorite treasure hunting boat. His salvage captain and crew barged in to see it and work the electric motor that turned the Virgalona's scale model propellers. "It's good. It's a good model," one of his divers called out, and Mel was gone. The men demanded his attention as they toyed with the model ship, marveling at the accurate detail that went into its mailboxes.
"It's just in time. We'll ship it up tomorrow," one of the men in the crowd said while the others continued to work the mailboxes that extended off the stern of the model and were fitted over the ship's two propellers. The two mailboxes were the digging end of the salvage ship, an ingenious improvisation by Mel Fisher-the "other Mel," who had discovered Nuñez Melián's provenance after eleven years of searching. Like his predecessors, this "Mel" was basking in the glory of its discovery and salvage.
"They camped on the Marquesas and planted a coconut tree out there. You'll still see it, only now it fell in the water with the last storm," the modern treasure salvor recounted. He was exuberant. The working model of his salvage ship would be displayed in a museum with gold bars, gold chains, plates and chalices, silver coins, and ingots weighing upwards of seventy pounds each. People from around the world would again, after a lapse of many centuries, marvel at the treasure of the Indies, the wealth of New Spain.
The "other Mel" would not be named governor of Caracas by his grateful king, he would in fact be set upon by creditors and creditors' lawsuits, by government agents and state custodians, defamed, called a fake by his contemporaries, and, like his namesake, have to struggle to clear his "accounts."
Like the salvors of old, Mel Fisher of Key West, Florida, had discovered the wrecks of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita. For the moment at least, he was basking in public attention, awe, and acclaim for the discovery. His crew enjoyed a moment of lighthearted play with the model of his salvage ship before it and the gold they had brought up joined a museum exhibit, and they went back to sea to find more.
They were ungainly ships. With favorable winds a galleon could make only about four knots, but from 1510, for almost two and a half centuries, the galleon was known throughout the New World and with them Spain conquered and held the Americas and the Indies. When the Santa Margarita left Spain on 23 April 1622, it took thirty-nine days to reach its first landfall in the New World at the island of Dominica. The ship that would eventually join it for the trip back to Spain had been built by Alonso Ferrera in Havana. The Nuestra Señora de Atocha, although made in the New World, was named for the famed shrine to the Virgin in Madrid. When the six-hundred-ton ship was built, it cost twenty-six thousand ducats (a gold coin used in Europe worth about $2.30).
The Atocha was planked with cedar over an oak hull from Cuban forests. Its yard and masts were fashioned from pine imported from Germany. Both the Atocha and the Margarita carried twenty bronze cannons forged in Spain. The Atocha's arsenals were crammed with six and a half tons of gunpowder, more than half a ton of match cord, 60 muskets with more than a ton of shot, 60 hand-cut marble cannonballs and 540 iron. For its day, the Atocha was a mighty ship: 110.5 feet long and 32.9 feet wide, with two working decks and 70-foot masts. Thus armed and fitted out, eight mighty galleons sailed out of Havana harbor in a convoy of twenty-eight ships.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, each of the ships in the marquis's fleet was overloaded with passengers, goods, arms, provisions, and gold, the entire year's output of the silver mines at Potosi in the former viceroyalty of Peru, copper, indigo, fine jewels, and oriental porcelain. (Chinese porcelain was transferred from Spain's Pacific galleons engaged in the China trade from the Philippines, brought overland on the backs of mules to Caribbean ports for loading aboard the annual plate fleet.) Once a year the ships would sail, bringing trade goods from Spain, taking back with them the wealth of the New World.
On 4 September 1622, the Marquis de Cadereita, commander of the fleet, gave the order to sail. Almost at once, barely a day's sail out of Havana, the fleet was set upon by the fury of hurricane winds, sinking eight of the ships. An account of the tragedy appeared in a London newspaper in 1623, headlined "A True Relation of That Which Lately Happened to the Great Spanish Fleet." The newspaper account was vivid, "But Munday approaching... the weather ... seemed to change and the winds coming to the North-east raised both a care and a feare in the Admirall.... But it should seeme that tempests will have their courses, and are not inexorable: for the winde increased... the clouds thickened... they could not discerne one ship from another... and the passengers, when it was apparent they could not escape saw as little mercy in the sea as they had endured in the winds."
In the aftermath of the disaster the marquis returned to Havana with the remnants of his crippled fleet. Three of the eight treasure galleons were lost: the Margarita, the Rosario, and the Atocha, along with several smaller armed escort ships called pataches. In sum, 550 perished, 259 of them, almost half, went down with the Atocha. Of the survivors, 5 survived the Atocha's wrecking; 66 were rescued from the Margarita. Passengers and crew of the Rosario were marooned on a deserted island, their ship thrown up and grounded on the reef.
The Spanish rescuers tried to salvage the Rosario, but found that the ship's precarious position on the reef required special caution. In the end the salvage crew, under the orders of Gaspar de Vargas, set fire to the Rosario. They burned the ship to the waterline, in the custom of salvors of the day, then recovered all of its precious cargo and cannons.
Unsatisfied with the results, the Marquis de Cadereita personally set up a salvors' camp on islands that were named in his honor-the Cayos de Marques.
Excerpted from LOST on the Ocean Floor by John Christopher Fine Copyright © 2005 by John Christopher Fine. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||Spain's lost Tierra Firme fleet||1|
|2||The shipwrecks of Anegada||15|
|3||The terrible republic : privateers and pirate ships||31|
|7||The holocaust of war||89|
|8||Scapa flow : graveyard of the north||115|
|9||Bermuda : cemetery of sunken ships||154|
|10||Ships lost to time||183|
|11||Sabordage : death of the French fleet at Toulon||220|
|12||The Scilly Isles : sunken ships and sea history||229|