|Spain had many rivals in the new world. There first
mayor rival were the French, with their early attempts to seize
the early treasures extracted from the Aztecs. In 1522, French
privateers, would station themselves off of the coast of Spain,
and capture treasure ships, as they returned to Spain from the
new world. In the five years after the defeat of the Aztecs,
French privateers were able to capture most of the treasure
shipped to Spain. They captured so much, that only about 220,000
pesos of gold and silver, reached its destination.
In 1522 The Spanish government started organizing a system of protective fleet of war ships to protect and escort merchant ships, bound for Spain with precious metals from the New World. Spain paid for the War Ships, by imposing a tax, called the averia on the cargo carried on the ships. In 1526, the government required all ships bound to the colonies, travel in convoys, also.
In 1535, Spain authorized the establishment of a Mint in Mexico, to produce coins for domestic consumption. The excess of the coins produced, were sent to Spain; but, since Silver production was limited at the time, the largest denomination struck, was the 4 real piece. In 1537, King Charles, ordered that gold coins could only be minted in the denomination of escudo coins. The largest escudo was 8 escudos, which was the same weight as the silver peso, about 27 grams of 92% gold. The practice of minting silver in reales, and gold in escudos, continued for over 300 years. One escudo was equal to Sixteen reales.
Within a few years, most of the gold and silver had been plundered from Mexico, and the flow of precious metals slowed to a trickle, back to Spain. Things did not pick up again, until after Pizarro, in 1531, conquered the Incas, and the flow of gold and silver back to Spain, increased.
Atahualpa, the Inca ruler, paid a ransom to Pizarro of a room, measuring 22 X 17 feet and 9 feet high, filled with gold and silver. After receiving this vast quantity of treasure, Pizarro executed Atahualpa, anyway. The ransom amounted to over 6.5 tons of gold, and 13 tones of silver. Pizarro's clerks calculated that the gold was worth over 2,000,000 pesos and the silver was worth another 350,000 pesos.
By 1535, treasures from Peru were being sent to Spain, was in excess of 1,000,000 pesos a year. About 25% of that went into the royal treasury, the rest belonging to the merchants and investors. Charles had all of the gold object and ornaments, melted into escudos, destroying all of the art objects, created by the Inca culture.
In 1545, silver ore was discovered in Peru, and it changed the way Spain extracted the treasures of the New World. Up to that point, all precious metals were obtained by stealing it from the natives. After 1545, mining became the main method for the acquisition of precession metal from America. Once mining for silver, became big business in the Colonies, gold took second place, as the metal of choice. In 1546, silver mines were discovered in Mexico, insuring two major sources of silver for Spain.
In 1555, the new king of Spain, Philip II, became alarmed when the French plundered and burned the city of Havana, in Cuba. In consultation with the Council of the Indies and the Casa de Contratación, ordered Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (the founder of the city of St. Augustine in Florida in 1564), to undergo a study of the problem and make recommendations. He was a Spanish naval hero, that unlike most of the Spanish officials, that had little or no military knowledge, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was an experienced naval officer that had escorted several Treasure Fleets in the past and later.
In 1564, the Council of the Indies, developed some basic rules on how the Treasure Fleet should operate to keep them safe from the predators that roamed the high seas. They need to protect the shipments of gold and silver that were being mined in Peru, Mexico and Nueva Granada..
The first thing ordered was the fortification of the main ports from which the treasure fleets sailed.
Heavy naval patrols were ordered in the Caribbean and off the coast of Spain. These were the points where the Treasure Fleets, begun and ended their journey.
Establishment of heavily guarded convoys that would operate on fixed schedules, twice a year.
|The entrance to the city of Havana, Cuba, founded in 1519. It had a very good harbor and large enough so that entire fleets could seek refuge in it. Notice that there was a chain, that protected the entrance to the port.|
During the 17th century, Spain was being crowded on all fronts by its enemies and the only thing that kept it as a world power, was the steady flow of precious metals from America. Philip III, was able to keep Spain out of the Thirty Years' War in 1618. Philip III died in 1621, and his son, Philip IV became king. He was not as willing as his father, to avoid war, so he joined the Thirty Year's War. Warships, that were being built for the Treasure Fleet, were reassigned to the war in Europe. In the 1630's, the tides of war, turned against the Spanish, and she found herself in trouble than she could afford. With the French were making gains in Europe, the English and Dutch were plundering and settling the Spanish Main. In 1624. The English built a settlement in St. Kitts, and in 1627, Barbados. In 1627 and 1635, the French were in Guadeloupe and Martinique.
In 1621 the Dutch formed the Dutch West India Company and in 1628 sent a fleet of over 30 ships into the Caribbean under Admiral Piet Heyn to capture the Treasure Fleet. His fleet was spotted by the Spanish and the Treasure Fleet stayed in port in Cartagena and Vera Cruz. When some of his ships returned to Europe, the Spanish thought the danger had passed, and he captured the fleet off the coast of Havana, due to the in-experience of the Spanish commander. The Dutch booty was 90 tons of gold and silver worth about 3,000,000 pesos. King Philip IV suffered a nervous collapse when he heard of the loss of the gold fleet, and did not appear in public for over 5 days. In 1634 the Dutch seized Curacao, further reducing Spain's influence in the New World..
After suffering such losses, Spain ordered that all shipping would travel in armed convoys By 1629 to 1632 the fleets were composed of primarily warships and warships were permanently assigned to the Caribbean on a permanent assignment. This was part of the suggestions made by Menéndez, 85 years before, and were never fully implemented. The 1629 fleet was made up of over 20 galleons and carried 4,000 troops, under the command of Fabrique de Toledo y Osorio and Antonio de Oquendo, two of Spain's best commanders.
By 1638, enough improvement had been added to the fortifications and fleet, that another Dutch expedition into the Caribbean in 1639 was unsuccessful. The Dutch were able to inflict heavy damages on the Spanish Naval forces but the fortifications, prevented a total disaster and protected the treasures. The Dutch used two new weapons in this battle against the Spanish. They used a new type of ship, the frigate, which was half the size of the Galleon, twice has fast, and carried the same number of guns. The also employed a new naval maneuver, which was to aligned the ships and depending on cannons, rather then boarding a ship. This formation also minimized the exposure of the most vulnerable parts of their ships, the bows and sterns. This new battle formation became the standard for naval warfare for the next 200 years.
The Dutch were able to severely weaken Spain's navy, and it was now all down hill. In 1640, Catalonia and Portugal revolted. It took 20 years to recover Catalonia and in 1668 granted Portugal's independence. Between 1650 and 1670's, the English, un Cromwell, rebuilt their fleet, and turned it into a professional navy. In 1652, Cromwell sent a fleet under the command of William Penn, father of the founder of Pennsylvania, to capture Santo Domingo. He failed in this effort, but was able to keep the Treasure Fleet in port, and they did not go to Spain that year. The English did not return empty handed, because they were able to capture Jamaica. For the next couple of years, no Treasure Fleets sailed to Spain, for fear of capture by the English. In 1656, the English navy, under the command of Robert Blake, captured the Treasure Fleet off the coast of Spain. Blake captured the Treasure Fleet the next year, off of the Canary Islands. In 1668 and 1671, Henry Morgan commanded expeditions in Panama and Maracaibo.
Spain's power continued to decline, as the French started to move into the Caribbean in the 1660's with the capture of the western side of Española. In 1683, French buccaneers' attacked Veracruz and carried off over 800,000 pesos in silver and other merchandize. In 1697, French regulars and buccaneers' attacked Cartagena, and the people of Cartagena paid 8,000,000 pesos to spare the city.
Spain's power was further eroded with the decline in silver production. The silver production at Potosí peaked to about 9,000,000 pesos per year in 1600. After that, the production started declining for the next 100 years. By 1700, the total production of silver in the New World was down to 11,000,000 pesos, from a high of 16,000,000 pesos one hundred years before. At the same time, exports of silver to Asia was up to 4,500,000 pesos a year, further diminishing what was shipped to Europe.
In 1698, Spain was now politically, financially and strategically weak. The War of Spanish Succession, finally brought about the collapse of the Spanish Empire.
In 1739, the English fleet, commanded by Admiral Edward Vernon, captured Porto Bello, and attacked Cartagena. In 1748 the British attacked the Treasure Fleet, off Cuba, capturing and sinking several ships. One ship, that was grounded, was blown up by its crew, scattering 10,000,000 pesos all over the place.
In 1761, the Treasure Fleet, from Nueva España, arrived in Spain with 16,000,000 pesos. In 1762, Britain declared war on Spain, and King Charles III, was eager to flex his muscles, which was a mistake, since the British Navy, was now the most powerful navy in Europe. The Seven Years' War was a disaster, with England capturing Havana and Manila in 1762. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763, further weakened Spain, and strengthen England.
After 1763, Spain renewed its efforts to improve the defenses of the colonies. Instead of depending on local militias, used to defend the colonies, Spain now used Spanish troops to man the garrisons. This was used not only to control foreigners; but, also to better control the extraction of precious metals and merchandise from its colonies. As a result of these changes, silver production rose to 12,000,000 pesos a year in the 1770's and almost 30,000,000 pesos by 1780. Spain also tried to restore the Treasure Fleets and the convoys, in the 1760's, but this enterprise failed.
When the American War of Independence started between the American Colonies, and England in, France sided with the American Colonies. Spain tried to keep out of the war, although it favored France. Once the Treasure Fleet arrived safely in 1779, King Charles III, joined the French, in their battle against the British. Even though the American Colonies were able to defeat the British with the help of the French and the Spanish, they were not able to take advantage of England's weakness. Under the Treaty of Versailles, in 1783, Spain was able to regain Florida and Minorca
After the war, Spain continued its reforms, and removed all trade barriers in the colonies. All of the rules that helped keep the colonies totally dependant on Spain, were rescinded. It was the hope that free trade, would encourage more trade with Spain. In the Pacific, Spain turned over the management of the Manila Galleons to a private company in 1785. In 1790, Spain closed the Casa de Contratación, and this also terminated the Treasure Fleets.
|Panama History||Home||Reference: "The Spanish Treasure Fleets" by Timothy R. Walton; Pineapple Press, Inc.|
Bruce C. Ruiz
October 17, 2001