For the past several years, the Subdirectorate General of Historical Heritage of the Spanish Ministry of Culture has been working on compiling a list of historic Spanish shipwrecks which occurred in American waters.
Taking this inventory of more than 700 shipwrecks as a starting point, the following statistics have been compiled for the 150 shipwrecks located in waters off American coasts.
|16th century||55 of 150||36.67%|
|The Bahamas (Atl. Coast)||16||29.09%|
|North Carolina (Atl. Coast)||4||7.27%|
|South Carolina (Atl. Coast)||2||3.64%|
|Florida (Atl. Coast)||13||23.64%|
|Unknown zone (Gulf of Mex.)||1||1.82%|
|Florida (Gulf of Mex.)||7||12.73%|
|Texas (Gulf of Mex.)||9||16.36%|
|California (Pac. Coast)||3||5.45%|
|17th century||20 of 150||13.33%|
|The Bahamas (Atl. Coast)||8||40%|
|Florida (Atl. Coast)||11||55%|
|Oregon (Pac. Coast)||1||5%|
|18th century||55 of 150||36.67%|
|The Bahamas (Atl. Coast)||6||10.91%|
|North Carolina (Atl. Coast)||8||14.55%|
|Florida (Atl. Coast)||34||61.82%|
|Virginia (Atl. Coast)||3||5.45%|
|Louisiana (Gulf of Mex.)||1||1.82%|
|Texas (Gulf of Mex.)||2||3.64%|
|California (Pac. Coast)||1||1.82%|
|19th century||20 of 150||13.33%|
|The Bahamas (Atl. Coast)||7||35%|
|North Carolina (Atl. Coast)||7||35%|
|Florida (Atl. Coast)||5||25%|
|Virginia (Atl. Coast)||1||5%|
Causes of shipwrecks
This study reveals some particularly interesting findings. After examining all 150 shipwrecks, we now know that:
- Of all known causes, 98.06% of these shipwrecks were due to weather-related causes, mainly tropical storms (29.13%) and hurricanes (68.93%), which may have hit the ships while they were at sea or anchored in port or driven them into shoals and reefs.
- Only 1.94% of shipwrecks were the result of a collision at sea with reefs or unknown shoals in calm seas.
- There are no known shipwrecks due to piracy, privateering or other acts of piracy.
|A collision with shoals, cays and reefs||2 of 103||1.94%|
|A hurricane||71 of 103||68.93%|
|A storm||30 of 103||29.13%|
Types of ships
|Brigantine / Brig||8 of 107||7.48%|
|Caravel||1 of 107||0.93%|
|Carrack||2 of 107||1.87%|
|Frigate||7 of 107||6.54%|
|Galleon||36 of 107||33.64%|
|Schooner||5 of 107||4.67%|
|Merchant ship||18 of 107||16.82%|
|Nao||15 of 107||14.02%|
|Patache||5 of 107||4.67%|
|Urca||2 of 107||1.87%|
|Chalupa / a small boat||8 of 107||7.48%|
The registered cargo is very varied. Throughout the three centuries of maritime and commercial navigation, the cargo was varied: oil, cotton, live animals, weapons, quicksilver, sugar, cocoa, riches, wax, Spanish ceramics, eastern ceramics, Mexican ceramics, chocolate, citrus fruits, nails, hides and skins, spices, emeralds, cochineal, tools, indigo, copper ingots, gold bullion, silver ingots, wood, construction materials, coins, logwood, pearls, precious stones, porcelain, silk, tobacco, fabrics, dyes, vanilla, wine, brandy and liquors, glass…
|Hides and skins||7||4.67%|
|Oil / Olives||1||0.67%|
|Wine, brandy and spirits||2||1.33%|
Wrecked ships of known explorers and conquistadors
- The shipwreck of Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria on December 25, 1492 off the coast of present-day Haiti changed the history of America. The first European settlement in America was built with its remains.
- Two of Vicente Yáñez Pinzón’s caravels sank in the shoals of the Dominican Republic in 1500, sailing from Brazil.
- Two ships carrying Rodrigo de Bastidas, Juan de la Cosa and Núñez de Balboa sank in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1501.
- In 1503, Christopher Columbus abandoned the Vizcaína in Portobelo Bay, Panama, because it was plagued by shipworms.
- In 1525, a ship owned by Hernán Cortés, captained by Juan de Ávalos, sank off Cape San Antonio (Cuba) with a cargo of gold and jewels belonging to Cortés, which came from Mexico as a gift for Carlos I.
- Two of Pánfilo de Narváez’s ships sank off the southern coast of Trinidad (Cuba) in 1527.
- Several ships owned by Alvaro de Bazán sank in the port of Santo Domingo in 1553.
- In 1541, two naos owned by Juan de la Puebla departed from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. On board was the Bishop of Tierra Firme Tomás de Berlanga, who was traveling with artisans, chaplains and bricklayers. They were on their way to build a church when they sank in the Mulatas archipelago, in Panama. Some 30 people were killed.
- In 1544, one of Francisco Pizarro’s naos sank in Nombre de Dios (Panama).
- Eight ships belonging to Tristan de Luna’s fleet sank in Pensacola (USA), in 1559.
- In 1563, a galleon in which Juan Menéndez de Avilés, son of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, was sailing to Veracruz, sank off the coast of Florida. There must have been a very important cargo on board because the merchants complained of huge losses in the letters they wrote.
- Some of the accidents could not truly have been foreseen, such as that of Ruy Diaz de Mendoza’s ship, Santiago. The crew spotted a lighted lantern on the horizon, and thought it belonged to the flagship, the capitana, as they had been sailing together. They approached it and realized the light was really a lantern located on dry land. The ship sank in Montecristi (DR) in 1583.
- In 1584, the nao La Gallega, owned by Gonzalo Méndez, anchored in the bay, lost its anchor, hit the coast and ended up sinking.
- In 1631, San José de Panamá hit the only shoal in the area for hundreds of miles. The shoal has since borne the name of the ship and the following year it was added on the maps so that all sailors knew about it. We have located the original rutter describing how the area was navigated with a map of the exact location of the wreck.
Shipwrecks in port
- In 1559, a strong storm sank part of Tristán de Luna’s fleet, namely the San Andrés, Santa María de Ayuda, San Antón, San Juan de Ulúa, Santiago y Santo Amaro, the urca Jesús and the small ship La Salvadora in Pensacola Bay.
- In 1563, 4 naos owned by Antonio Aguayo sank while anchored in the Nombre de Dios bay (Panama).
- In 1741, while the capitana Invincible was in the harbor of Havana, she was struck by lightning and was burned within an hour. The crew managed to save themselves by using the launches.
- In 1751, 15 ships that were anchored in Santo Domingo sank in a storm.
- In 1768, 70 ships sank in a hurricane in Havana Harbor.
- In 1810, due to another hurricane 60 ships sank in Havana Harbor.
Battles against England, the Netherlands and North America
- In 1590, two ships owned by Rodrigo de Rada, the Nuestra Señora del Rosario and Nuestra Señora de la Victoria, were attacked by two English ships off Cape San Antón in Cuba, in the San Felipe keys; one sank and the other one was driven ashore.
- In 1596, the nao Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, commanded by Pablo de Monverde, coming from Angola with 175 slaves was attacked by the English and sank in San Antonio (Cuba).
- In 1626, four naos left Santo Domingo with sugar, skins and ginger. In Saona they were attacked by three Dutch enemy ships and, as a result, the Candelaria and a fluyt sank.
- In 1638, the galleon known as El Carmen, commanded by Sancho de Urdanibia, which was part of Carlos de Ibarra’s fleet, was set on fire at Cape San Antonio, Cuba, to avoid being captured by the Dutch.
- In 1762, three ships, Neptuno, Nuestra Señora del Pilar and Nuestra Señora de Loreto, were sunk on purpose to hinder the passage of English ships to the port of Havana.
- In February 1898, the American battleship Maine, exploded in Havana Harbor while part of its officers were ashore, at a party organized by Spain. 254 American sailors died and Spain was blamed for the incident and war was declared. On July 3, 1898 both navies clashed in Cuba. As a consequence, the torpedo boat destroyer Plutón was sunk by enemy fire. The destoryers Cristóbal Colón, Furor, Almirante Oquendo, Infanta María Teresa and Vizcaya, were heavily hit by enemy artillery, and their captains ran them aground. All the wrecks from that battle are now National Monuments.
- In 1549, a ship sank in a storm in Long Key (Florida). A few days later, all the survivors were captured, enslaved and finally killed by the Calusa Indians, except for a 13-year-old boy namedHernando Escalante Fontaneda, who spent the next 17 years living with the Indians until he was rescued by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565.
- In 1554, three ships that were part of Bartolomé Carreño’s fleet–the San Esteban, the Espíritu Santo and the Santa María de Icíar–sank in a storm off Padre Island (Texas). Most of the few survivors who made it to shore either died of hunger and thirst, or were killed by the Karankawa Indians.
- That same year, another ship loaded with silver was shipwrecked in the Bahamas Channel in the middle of a storm. The survivors built a small boat with the remains of the ship; however, they sank on their way to Cuba and only two people survived.
- In 1571, the galleons San Ignacio and Santa María la Limpia sank off Cape Canaveral (Florida), and most of the few survivors that managed to reach the coast were massacred by the native Indians. Only a few managed to reach San Agustín.
- In 1605, the galleon Santísima Trinidad left Cartagena de Indias and sank in a strong storm in the keys in Santa Isabel (Cuba). A few men managed to survive while about 36 people died. The few survivors managed to escape in a chalupa, taking with them a large part of the cargo of gold and silver; however, the chalupa ended up sinking as well with the salvaged cargo.
- In 1607, a frigate ran aground on the beach of Tiende Ropa, near the town of Pierdevidas, Panama. Some survivors managed to reach Portobello in a small boat, leaving 13 people on the beach, including a clergyman. When help arrived eight days later, all of them, the priest included, had been killed by twelve maroons (men escaped from the plantations) with arrows and machetes.
- In 1621, in the so-called Bermuda’s Western Reef, the Portuguese ship Fernandino da Vera, aka San Antonio, which had been chartered by Spain, sank while carrying a cargo of skins, Chinese porcelain, jewels, coins and weapons. 120 men survived. They arrived ashore and were tortured by a group of Bermudians to reveal the location of the sinking so they could benefit from the shipwreck.
- In 1628, the galleons Santa Gertrudis and San Ignacio were captured in Matanzas Bay by Dutch pirates. While sailing as prisoners, they sank near Lucaya Beach in the Bahamas.
- In 1724, the Azogues fleet sank in the midst of a hurricane. The survivors of the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe had to walk more than 375 kilometers to be rescued and more than 40 people lost their lives along the way, among them a father and his two sons from A Coruña, who were on their way to Mexico for the wedding of his oldest son to a wealthy heiress.
- In 1788, the brig Infanta sank in a storm in Inagua Chica (the Bahamas). Everyone survived and used some boats and a launch to reach a deserted island about two miles from the wreck. A few days later, two English ships, under the pretext of providing assistance to take them to Cuba, robbed them of their belongings.
Rescue of stranded shipwrecked survivors
- In 1520 the nao Buen Jesús, captained by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, sank in South Carolina. Seven years later a ship exploring the coast rescued two survivors; the others had died.
- In 1533, the survivors of Captain Juan de Leon’s nao Santa Maria de Portugalete, which sank off Bermuda, were all rescued three years after the shipwreck, when another Spanish ship saw smoke signals on the beach.
- The same happened to the Santa María la Bella, which also sank in Bermuda in 1550 and whose survivors were rescued four years later.
- In 1584, the ship Santa Lucia, captained by Juan Lopez, sank off Bermuda. Some survivors managed to board the boats and reach shore. When they arrived on the shore, they found seven survivors of another Spanish ship that had sunk in 1582. Together they built a boat and sailed to Puerto Plata, where they saved their lives. The remains of the Santa Lucia were located and identified in 1964.
- In 1605 the dispatch boat San Lázaro, commanded by Diego Ruiz, ran aground in Cayo Romano (Cuba). They built rafts with planks and reached a lost and deserted cay where they spend 19 days eating rationed figs and chestnuts until a frigate sighted them and picked them up.
- Two ships were sunk in Cayo Romano, in the Camagüey Archipelago (Cuba) in 1603 by a pirate attack.
- Juan de Benavides’ fleet was attacked by Dutch pirates in Matanzas (Cuba) and a lot of valuable cargo was thrown overboard to avoid falling into enemy hands. No ships sank but 14 naos were stolen by the Dutch. Felipe IV ordered the beheading of Juan de Benavides.
- In 1635, three ships under the command of Francisco Trujillo, on their way to fight pirates near Tortuga Island in Haiti, ran aground and were later cannonaded by pirates.
Diving operations at the time of the shipwrecks
Another important aspect documented in this work, which has also provided many clues to locate information on shipwrecks, has been the diving operations carried out at the time of the sinkings, such as those carried out on the 1715 fleet in Florida, the San José in Panama or the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Samaná (D.R.), many of them with the help of local pearl divers.
Remains with a first and last name
- There is a very exceptional case in which detailed information about a person has been located, whose name was also found on a silver bracelet pulled from one of the shipwrecks. The bracelet did not belong to any embarked person but to the mother of five girls who had just been orphaned and were traveling to Uaxaca (Mexico) to be taken in by their uncle, when they all drowned with the Conde de Tolosa (1724).
- Information has also been located regarding a table clock found on the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, which was a gift for the Bishop of Puebla.
Only the skeletal remains of a body have been documented. The remains were found under a cannon on the galleon Conde de Tolosa, in the Dominican Republic.
The deadliest shipwrecks
- Five ships that were part of Juan Menéndez de Avilés’ fleet sank in 1563 in Bermuda, killing 1,250 people.
- In 1715, 11 ships that were part of Juan Esteban de Ubilla’s fleet sank off Cape Canaveral and Fort Pierce (Florida): San Miguel, María Galante, Nuestra Señora de la Regla, El Ciervo, Santísima Trinidad, Santo Cristo de San Román, Nuestra Señora del Carmen, Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, Nuestra Señora del Rosario, Nuestra Señora de la Popa and Urca de Lima. For two years, artifacts from the ships were recovered while constant attacks by pirates and astute “fishermen” were repelled in the area. More than a thousand lives were lost.
- In 1733, 15 ships that were part of the Nueva España fleet, commanded by Rodrigo Torres, sank in the Florida Keys: Nuestra Señora del Pópulo, Infante, San José, San Pedro, the ship of Alonso de Chaves, Sueco de Arizón, Nuestra Señora de las Angustias, Gallo Indiano, San Francisco, Tres Puentes, San Felipe, Rubí Segundo, Herrera, San Fernando and the San Ignacio. Only two ships were saved, one managed to return to Havana and the other one arrived in Spain. More than a thousand lives were lost.
- All the crew and passengers of the Conde de Tolosa, in the Dominican Republic died. Of the 600 people on board, including men, women and children.
Smuggling and unregistered cargo
- There was so much unregistered cargo on the San José that when the vessel ran aground and the cargo was lost, they needed to make a second cargo list. The list that was found was very significant and exhaustive. The excuses for not having declared the transported goods ranged from it being an oversight to lack of time and illness. A Franciscan argued that as he was not going to Spain, he understood that he did not have to register the gold and silver he was carrying.
- In the galleon Nuestra Señora de la Pura y Limpia Concepción, silver pieces in the shape of cork stoppers were found hidden in small bottles among the cargo, together with a double-bottom trunk full of coins.
- On the Guadalupe and the Conde de Tolosa’s shipwreck (1724) a collection of more than 600 undeclared decorated glass vessels was hidden in an area of the ship of difficult access.
Last Spanish ships which sank in American waters
- The schooner Vencedora sank in Long Key, Florida in 1846.
- The steam gunboat Pizarro sank in a storm off Bermuda in 1878. The 153 crewmen were saved by an Italian corvette.
- In February 1898, the American battleship Maine, exploded in Havana Harbor while part of its officers were ashore, at a party organized by Spain. 254 American sailors were killed and Spain was blamed for the incident and war was declared. On July 3, 1898 both navies clashed in Cuba. As a consequence, the torpedo boat destroyer Plutón was sunk by enemy fire, while the armored cruisers Cristóbal Colón, Furor, Almirante Oquendo, Infanta María Teresa and Vizcaya, were heavily hit by enemy artillery, and their captains ran them aground. All the wrecks from that battle are now National Monuments.