The Nueva España fleets (1715)
Those were not good years for the recently established Bourbon dynasty, in terms of ship losses. During his early years as king, Philip V saw the shipwreck of the Vigo fleet in 1702 and the loss of the galleon San José in Colombia. But this was the first shipwreck during the Bourbon era off the coast of North America. Two entire fleets sunk: the Tierra Firme Fleet, commanded by Antonio Echevers; and the Nueva España Fleet commanded by Juan Esteban de Ubilla.
Both fleets left the port of Havana together on July 24. A few days after leaving the Cuban port, they were caught in a wind and rain storm as a result of a powerful hurricane that had developed in Bermuda and was dissipating.
The ships scattered in the storm. Only a few managed to avoid getting caught in it, among them the captain of the Griffon —a French merchant ship that did not really belong to the fleets— who sailed east of the area of bad weather. Following Ubilla’s orders, the rest continued to fight against the waves, wind and rain along the dangerous coast of Florida, towards St. Augustine. At the end of July, evidence of what had befallen all the boats, one by one, could be clearly seen in the reefs and shallows south of present-day Cape Canaveral.
The eleven shipwrecks left the beaches and cliffs littered with corpses and the remains of the hulls, rigging and masts of the heavy galleons. More than a thousand people died on those coasts. The survivors had to face the burning sun, starvation and attacks by Indian tribes in the area. Luckily, a boat managed to reach St. Augustine and warn the governor, who notified Havana. Help was sent to rescue the people and the valuable cargo, under the orders of Juan del Hoyo, who arrived in the area in September.
Part of the scattered cargo of some of the ships was immediately stolen, making it necessary to establish a checkpoint on the Matanzas River. Some people tried to flee inland with their loot, but whether they made it or not, is not known.
In the spring of 1716 a camp was set up near the Sebastian River where one of the sunken galleons was located. In a few months they were able to recover some four million pesos out of the approximately 12 million pesos that the fleet transported.
The site of the shipwrecks became a nest of pirates and corsairs, who found it easier to go after semi-sunken cargo than to try to attack galleons at sea.
A group of Spanish cutters spent 1717 protecting and trying to salvage part of the cargo, until Manuel Miralles, who had signed a loan contract, called asiento, and had permission from the King to dive on the sunken warships, stepped in and successfully continued the salvage operations. The recovered cargo was loaded onto the General Fernando Chacón’s ships, and taken to Spain, although more than half of the cargo remained under the sand, on the beaches and reefs of the Florida coasts.