Thursday, 21 March 2013

The Nuestra Señora de Atocha

Spanish expansion in the New World was rapid and by the late 1500's Mexico City, Lima and Potosi had populations that exceeded the largest cities in Spain. Spanish settlers were given vast tracts of land to grow tobacco, coffee and other products for export. Far more important to the throne was the wealth of silver and gold, which were vital to Spain's continued dominance as a global power.

Trade with the colonies followed a well-established system. Beginning in 1561 and continuing until 1748, two fleets a year were sent to the New World. The ships brought supplies to the colonists and were then filled with silver, gold, agricultural products and sometimes the colonists for the return voyage back to Spain.
The fleets sailed from Cadiz, Spain early in the year. Upon arrival in the Caribbean, the two fleets would split up, the Nueva España Fleet continuing on to Veracruz, Mexico and the Tierra Firme Fleet to Portobello in Panama. Here, the ships were unloaded and the cargo of silver and gold brought aboard. For the return trip the divided fleets reassembled in Havana, then rode the Gulf Stream north along the coast of Florida before turning east when at the same latitude as Spain.

The treasure fleets faced two main obstacles; weather and pirates. The hurricane season began in late July, so for this reason the operation was timed for an earlier departure. For protection against pirates, each fleet was equipped with two heavily armed guard galleons. The lead ship was known as the Capitana. The other galleon, called the amaranth, was to bring up the rear. A recently constructed 110 foot galleon, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, was designated the amaranth of the Tierra Firme Fleet.

The fleet departed Spain on March 23, 1622 and after a brief stop continued on to the Colombian port city of Cartagena, arriving in Portobello on May 24th. Treasure from Lima and Potosi was still arriving by mule train from Panama City. It would take 2 months to record and load the Atocha's vast cargo in preparation for departure. Finally, on July 22, the Tierra Firme Fleet set sail for Havana, via Cartagena, to meet the fleet returning from Veracruz.

In Cartagena, the Atocha received an additional cargo load of treasure, much of it gold and silver from Santa Fe de Bogotá.

As a military escort, the Atocha carried a company of 82 infantrymen to defend the vessel from attack and possible enemy boarding. For this reason, she was the ship of choice for wealthy passengers and carried a large percentage of the fleet's treasure.

On Sunday, September 4th, with the weather near perfect, the decision was made to set sail for Spain. The twenty-eight ships of the combined fleet raised anchor and in single file set a course due north towards the Florida Keys and the Gulf Stream current. The Atocha, sitting low from its heavy cargo, took up its assigned position in the rear. By evening the wind started to pick up out of the northeast growing stronger through the night.
The Atocha, Santa Margarita, Nuestra Señora del Rosario and two smaller vessels at the tail end of the convoy received the full impact of the storm. All five ships were lost, the Atocha being lifted high on a wave and smashed violently on a coral reef. She sunk instantly, pulled to the bottom by her heavy cargo. The next day, a small merchant ship making its way through the debris rescued five Atocha survivors still clinging to the ship mizzenmast. They were all that were left of 265 passengers and crew.

Mr. Mel Fisher formed a company called Treasure Salvors and began searching in earnest for the much talked about Atocha. His effort over a sixteen-year period from 1970 to 1986 lead to the discovery of the Santa Margarita in 1980 and the Atocha on July 20, 1985, her hull lying in 55 feet of water, exactly as recorded by the first salvagers in 1622.

Lost in the shipwreck of Nuestra Señora de Atocha, Florida Keys, 1622

Estimation: 150,000 - 250,000 USD

LOT SOLD. 410,500 USD (Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium)

NOTE DE CATALOGUE: The magnificent emerald jewel of the lost Atocha showcases the largest faceted stone in the group of emerald-setjewels recovered from the shipwreck of the famous Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

"Set with a single rectangular step cut emerald measuring approximately 11.00 carats, the gold setting, cast and vigorously chased with strapwork and studded with rosettes, reveals the remarkable skills of the New World goldsmiths. The bezel setting, meticulously burnished, secures the stone at the girdle with gold extending up and into the crown of the gem, sealing it firmly in its setting. Although seawater seems to have seeped in behind the stone, it has remained secure for centuries."
In 1622 the galleon was loaded with the belongings of the noble families and other passengers making the return journey to Spain with the armada. There was also bullion, tobacco and emeralds, both uncut stones and gems set in gold jewelry such as the present example, many not included on the ship’s manifest to avoid the Spanish quinto tax.

On September 5, the Atocha was driven by a severe hurricane onto the coral reefs near the Dry Tortugas, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) west of Key West.