“Let me tell you a story about a Spaniard named Vasquez. A few weeks ago he staggers into a tavern in Port Royal. Takes a seat next to an English merchant captain. Vasquez, it turns out, is dying. Bleeding to death from a knife wound to the belly. The knife wound was courtesy of his former employer, La Casa del Contratación, in Seville.”
— Captain James Flint, Black Sails
The McGuffin in my beloved pirate drama Black Sails — the object that motivates the action — is the gold contained by Urca de Lima, a massive Spanish treasure galleon on which the dread Captain James Flint and the crew of the Walrus have fixed their sights after Flint secured intelligence of its sailing provided by the renegade Spaniard Vasquez. The Urca — and Vasquez — are deployed as a fictional device, but the Urca was a real ship — part of a doomed Spanish treasure fleet bound from the Spanish Main to metropolitan Spain in the summer of 1715.
Spain desperately needed the infusion of the vast haul of gold and silver the fleet carried (along with exotic New World products, raw materials and foodstuffs). The War of Spanish Succession — known in the English New World as Queen Anne’s War, had drained the coffers of the world’s richest empire, and delayed the sailing of the treasure fleet that kept Spain solvent. Now, with the war over, there was safe sailing for the great fleet of 1715. Or so it seemed.
The great treasure fleet of 1715 sailed from Havana harbor in the early morning of July 24th, a beautiful and calm day, with a gentle breeze to help the ships find the Florida current which ran north and up the Straits of Florida (the Gulf Stream). Slowly and smoothly the ships of [the] fleet gently followed the East coast of Florida, staying far enough away from the shore to take advantage of the Gulf Stream, staying clear of the treacherous shoals and reef formations which fringed the Florida coast. For the first five days the voyage was uneventful with the weather remaining good and giving no indication whatsoever of the rapidly approaching killer storm. But on July 29th, long swells started to appear, coming from the southeast. The atmosphere became heavy with moisture with the sun shining brightly through the haze. A gentle breeze still blew and the sea was smooth, but the swells started to make the ship gently dip and roll. Experienced navigators, pilots, and old hands started to be concerned. They knew that these were the early signs of an impending tropical storm.
The storm was traveling north, almost due east of the convoy, but still many miles away. The storm had reached alarming intensity with winds at the center of the storm now reaching one hundred miles per hour. By nightfall the hurricane had made a drastic change in course, suddenly veering directly to the west. On the morning of July 30th, along the east coast of Florida, just south of Cape Canaveral, winds had begun to pick up and by midday had increased to well over twenty knots and the sea was rapidly building up. By late afternoon winds had increased to over thirty knots and the waves were reaching twenty feet. [The] fleet was relentlessly driven closer and closer to shore… The velocity of the wind kept increasing, and by midnight, the ships were barely under control. Around 4 a.m. on July 31st, the hurricane struck the doomed ships with all its might, driving one ship after another on the deadly jagged reefs. The ships broke up like wooden toys… The entire fleet was lost, and of the some twenty five hundred persons aboard various ships, well over one thousand perished.
The loss of the fleet rocked the already unsteady finances of the Spanish Empire with a body blow akin to a major stock market crash. And the disaster had geopolitical fallout that would shape the development of the Caribbean and the North American British colonies. Despite wrecking on the remote central Atlantic coast of Florida, the word spread by moccasin telegraph that some 15 million pieces of eight worth of treasure was up for grabs. The Spanish sent salvage crews out from Cuba to recover the treasure, but opportunistic English and French seamen descended on the wrecks to dive for treasure. Often, natives or African slaves were used as free-divers, and many died.
Many of those who descended on the Spanish wrecks were seamen and captains who had only recently been plying a lucrative and adventurous trade as privateers, raiding Spanish shipping in the name of the English Crown. Some of them, under the nominal command of Captain Benjamin Hornigold, had formed a kind of freebooters’ republic on the island of New Providence, centered around Nassau. Privateer Henry Jennings, frustrated in his salvage efforts, simply raided a Spanish salvage camp and stole their recovered gold — an act which could have touched off another round of war.
As the easy pickings of the Spanish treasure fleet diminished — either out of reach of divers or already recovered by the Spanish — many of the men who had set sail to find their fortune diving the wrecks went on the account, as the lexicon of the age had it, launching a five-year spate of unprecedented piracy in the Caribbean.
The destruction of the 1715 fleet and the subsequent rise of (mostly) British pirates of the Caribbean marked the permanent decline of Spain’s New World Empire. Great Britain ultimately put down the pirates of Nassau, establishing a strong naval presence in the region. France and England would contend for dominance in the Caribbean through the rest of the 18th Century, with the British gaining ascendancy through victory in the Seven Years War (aka The French & Indian War).
Spain’s decline and the rise of France and ultimately Great Britain may have been inevitable. Spain’s Empire was a rickety structure long before the turn of the 18th Century, and Britain was steadily moving toward the naval supremacy the Empire would fully establish in the 19th Century. But the process was accelerated, perhaps by decades, by the winds of fate that blew up a deadly storm that, on July 31, 1715, brought doom to the Spanish Treasure Fleet.