1715 Plate Fleet still resonates three centuries after its loss

Fleet destroyed by hurricane 300 years ago continues to yield gold coins
By , Coin World
Published : 08/28/15
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Coins, artifacts and other treasures are hardly a mainstay in the national American media. Most reporters have bigger fish to fry or simply don’t care. 

However, the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet, also known as the Treasure Fleet, has piqued global and national interest over the last few weeks with a find of more than 350 gold coins that the finders value at around $4.5 million. 

“The attention has been worldwide,” Queens Jewels CEO Brent Brisben said. “It’s been quite a magical summer. I’ve spoken to BBC in London, done interviews from folks in Japan, Germany, and Australia. It’s been crazy. Here in the states, the likes of NPR, PBS, CBS This Morning have all been intrigued. I’ve gotten e-mails from all over the world, from people of all ages and walks of life. They can’t seem to get enough of it.”

The latest 350 coins were reported as recovered on July 30, the 300th anniversary of the 11-ship wreck caused by a hurricane that hit the fleet off the coast of Florida while it was making its way from Havana back to Spain with a large load of gold and silver. 

The latest haul includes nine gold coins known as Royals that were struck specifically for Spain’s king at the time of the wreck, Phillip V. With each of those coins valued by the finders at $300,000, Brisben estimates the total haul to be worth $4.5 million. According to a Queens Jewels release, the nine Royals found recently represent 30 percent of all such examples known to exist.

The 350-coin find occurred only weeks after a Queens Jewels subcontractor discovered what the finders estimate as being about $1 million worth of gold, in the form of a long chain or rope and several coins, including one Royal. 

Queens Jewels, the 5-year-old company that took over the Fleet-salvage operations from storied treasure hunter Mel Fisher and his family, had some immediate success upon taking on the venture. 

“Just 17 days after we took over the mission a few years ago, we found some very significant stuff,” Brisben says.

In addition to the Royal coins, the firm says it has found, during its ongoing salvage efforts, anchors, a silver sword handle, cannons, guns, a hulking iron hook, a rare swivel gun, and 40 feet of gold rope. According to Brisben, there’s plenty more where that came from. 

“These artifacts are one-of-a-kind. There hasn’t been a Royal coin found anywhere in the Atlantic since 1998,” until the recent discoveries. “And we’ve got nine of them right here off the coast of Vero Beach, priced at roughly $300,000 each. It’s quite staggering.” 

This particular salvage is deeply historic and relevant. When one sits and really ponders it, these artifacts were at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean 150 years before the Civil War, and the wreckage wasn’t rediscovered until the 1950s. 

That was when building contractor Kip Wagner found a coin on the beach after a hurricane and was curious about how it got there. Wagner then located the original Spanish salvage camp from the 18th century efforts, which led him to the conclusion that the wrecks were likely located near that section of beach.

Soon thereafter, in 1963, storied treasure hunter Mel Fisher got in on the action. Over the years, Fisher and his team found numerous coins and other artifacts.

The magnitude of this find is evident, but it very well may be its history that warrants just as much of the attention. Finding treasure from 11 separate vessels simply does not happen very often. 

The fleet was a group of 11 treasure-carrying ships (and one French frigate) bound from Havana to Spain, where the cargo would be used to support the nearly bankrupt Spanish crown, according to Queens Jewels LLC’s website. However, on July 30, 1715, a hurricane wrecked 11 of the 12 ships off the coast of Florida, as they headed up the Bahama Channel. 

The journey began 15 days prior to the storm, when the 12 ships headed north from the Havana Harbor for their journey back to Spain. Ships in the convoy were from a few different European countries. Captain General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla led his five vessels of the New Spain flota, or fleet; Captain General Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza commanded his six ships, the Tierra Firme squadron; and Captain Antonio Daire rounded out the group with his French ship, the Grifon. 

There’s said to be tens of millions of dollars’ worth of artifacts and objects still remaining in the Atlantic.

Not only does the treasure itself make this exploration unique, but the fashion in which it’s being found adds weight to proverbial sunken treasure scale. 

The reported discovery of the nine Royal coins on the 300th-year anniversary of the fleet’s sinking is one factor in a story line that adds mystique to the overall legend of the fleet. And as the exploration continues, there’s no telling what may yet be pulled from the depths of the Atlantic.

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