When pirates scoured the Treasure Coast
“I am a free Prince and I have as much authority to make war on the whole World as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea and an army of 100,000 men in the field.” — Black Sam Bellamy, 1717
The Nuestra Señora del Carmen y San Antonio, originally HMS Hampton Court, is shown in this painting days after the hurricane of 1715. It grounded on the east coast of Florida and was the only one from the Spanish treasure fleet to beach relatively intact.
Eighteenth-century explorers faced pirates during voyages and thieves plundering the riches of the lost 1715 fleet along our shores
BY ALLEN BALOGH
One man. One crew. One ship can take on the entire British Empire without a hiccough or regret. However grandiose Bellamy’s assertion may sound today, it was not without sincerity.
Engaging as their legends are, the true story of the pirates of the Treasure Coast was even more captivating; it is a long-lost tale of tyranny and resistance, a maritime revolt on the seas. The foundation of the British Empire was shaken by these rogues.
At its center was the Pirate Republic of Nassau, Bahamas, a den of 2,000 thieves awaiting catastrophes and ships to prey on. At their zenith they succeeded in severing Britain, France and Spain from their New World empires, cutting off trade routes, stifling the supply of slaves to the sugar plantations of America and the West Indies and disrupting the flow of business between continents.
There was no GPS, no iPhone, no weather radar service out of Miami, only a compass and a sextant to determine the angle of a glaring sun or twinkling stars and the horizon in front of them. And one must appreciate the tenacity in sailing to a location where X marked the spot. What gutsy, insane men these were just hanging on to the sides of their ships. These remarkable navigators sailed thousands of miles over the open ocean through unknown territories.
MAGNIFICENT 1715 FLEET
In the eighteenth century, the nation-states of Spain, England and France had insatiable appetites for New World riches. The New World spanned South America through the Caribbean and into northern Florida. Geographically, it was known as the Spanish Main. After loading their New World riches, the Spanish galleons would meet in Havana, Cuba, before sailing for Europe. The threat of pirate attack was real, so there was safety in numbers. The fleet sailed from Havana through the Bahamian channel and eventually along the coast of Florida. As a matter of course, and fortunate for historians, the king and queen’s cargo was detailed on the ship’s manifests. The gold of the Aztecs, the silver of the Incas and the gems of the Mayan were in great demand in Europe.
Every year, Spain commissioned two fleets to sail to the New World. One, the Galeones de Tierra Firme, or the Ships of the Mainland Fleet, sailed to Cartagena at New Granada — modern Colombia, South America — where the galleons took delivery of gold, emeralds, pearls and silver from Peru’s fabled mines in Potosi.
Capt. Gen. Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza was the commander of the Tierra Firme fleet. In the winter of 1714, he was delayed in Cartagena, waiting for silver and gold being delivered by llamas over the Andes Mountains from Bogota. Echeverz departed Cartagena, riding low in the water, and sailed heavily back to Cuba. He arrived in Havana in mid-March and waited for the Plate Fleet, which had more treasures and was still in Mexico. Chests filled with uncut Colombian emeralds arrived from the Muzo mines and were placed on the docks of Havana Harbor. By the time the ships were ready to depart, an overabundance of silver and gold weighed the ship down into the waters of the harbor.
Echeverz’s flagship, Nuestra Senora de la Carmen, was laden with gold bars, doubloons, silver and 72 cannons. The Nuestra Senora del Rosario, a massive 155-foot vessel, followed close behind for protection and served as a fighting vessel with more than 50 cannons. Nuestra Senora del Rosario also carried an equal amount of chests of wealth. A third galleon, Senora de la Concepcion, carried hundreds of chests of coinage as well. Senor San Miguel, La Holandesa, and La Francesca brought up the rear of the fleet, serving as passenger and supply ships. In most likelihood, the three vessels carried contraband to avoid taxation in Spain.
The Plate Fleet carried gold bullion and silver from Veracruz, Mexico. Chinese porcelain and silk from Emperor K’anghis of the Manchu Dynasty were added to the manifests. A mule train carried the cargo over the deserts of Mexico to the ships docked at Veracruz.
Cochineal red and indigo blue dyes were brought aboard near Acapulco. Capt. Gen. Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla was the commander of the Flota de la Plata, or Plate Fleet. He oversaw a combined fleet of 11 ships.
Ubilla’s galleon, Nuestra Senora de la Regla, carried 1,300 chests of nearly three million silver coins and fifty cannons. Gold coins, chests of uncut emeralds, pearls and Chinese porcelain rounded out the cargo. Ubilla’s protective ship, Santo Cristo de San Roman y Nuestra Senora del Rosario, carried a thousand chests, each chest containing three thousand coins. A supply ship, Santissima Trinidad y Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, also known as Urca de Lima, carried 81 chests of silver coins and 50 chests of worked silver. A dispatch ship, Nuestra Senora de la Nieves, carried 44,000 pieces of silver. The trailing frigate, Mariagalonte, carried supplies and armaments.
By the summer of 1715, the patience of King Philip V of Spain had worn thin on the delivery of the treasure. Pressure from the king would force the departure from Cuba of 2,500 passengers and $14 million in gold, silver, gems and Chinese porcelain.
However, fate had a different destination for these ships, their crew and passengers. Hundreds soon faced death; innocent grandparents, women and children were about to sail into a horrific hurricane.
HURRICANE FROM HELL
Ubilla and Echeverz had a contemptuous relationship, each in command of separate fleets.
At the entrance to the harbor in Havana was the ship Le Griffon, a French Royal Navy frigate, 132 feet long with a beam of 35 feet. The French warship was under the command of Capt. Antoine d’Aire. The 500-ton, 48-gun frigate was formidable, serving 40 years of service at sea. D’Aire was on a special assignment from the king of Spain to collect 49,000 silver coins from the governor of Veracruz for the usage of two ships, the Apollon and the Triton. To avoid sabotage, Ubilla insisted that the French flag-flying ship return with the Spanish Fleet and placed d’Aire in front of the flotilla.
Time and again, pressure was exerted on Ubilla to leave as soon as possible. He had no choice. King Philip V was desperately in need of an influx of cash, not to mention the lavish dowry for his unyielding new wife. Reluctantly, Ubilla gave orders to sail in hopes of not encountering severe weather. On July 24, 1715, the Spanish Treasure Fleet left Cuba as the Combined Armada of 1715.
Ubilla and Echeverz’s galleons were massive as they left Havana Harbor. Six treasure galleons made up the body of the fleet riding low in the water from the weight of the gold and silver. Two more fighting galleons brought up the rear. Dozens of heavy bronze cannon were concealed behind their gun ports to protect the $14 million in gold and silver. The nation-states of King Philip V and his new bride-to-be were going to be ecstatic with the arrival of the fleet.
On July 31 at 2 a.m., the hurricane struck with all of its fury as the winds shifted to east-northeast. Ubilla and Echeverz shouted commands that couldn’t be heard by everyone. The last remaining sails were taken down; some captains tried to anchor as others took cover. The anchors failed to hold, and the ships’ hulls were shredded on the jagged reefs. On deck, no man could breathe the suffocating mixture of wind and water. In the blackness of night and storm, water poured into the holds. The priests on board gave last rites and the passengers offered confessions. For those washed overboard there was little hope. The seas picked up the massive galleons and flung them time and again against the first reef, then the second reef. Another round of waves turned the galleons on their sides or upside down as they tumbled toward the shore.
Soon it was over. Ubilla and Echeverz drowned in the swells of waves. Ubilla’s 471-ton flagship, Nuestra Senora de la Regla, had the bottom torn off at the reef and sank in 30 feet of water. One of the rear galleons vanished under a wave, while another, the 450-ton Santo Cristo de San Roman, capsized in the surf a few miles south of the Regla and came apart, the protective ship of the fleet coming to rest in twelve feet of water, 700 feet off shore.
Imagine galleons climbing waves that were 40 or 50 feet tall, the crewmen scaling the rigging to avoid giant combers, others clinging onto the masts. The sails shredding as winds reached more than a hundred miles an hour, bits of heavy rigging crashing onto the decks, trapping crew and passengers alike. The hatches were opening with cannon rolling out onto the decks, crushing the passengers with some falling into the foamy ocean. People and cargo thrown out of the galleons like toys, vanquished completely beneath the waves.
All the destroyed ships were miles apart from each other and the bodies of hundreds of passengers littered the beaches along with the wreckage. Fewer than half of the 2,500 men, women, and children made it to the beaches alive. They crawled in terror through stinging rain and darkness to shelter themselves amid the sand dunes.
The survivors set up camp in the palmetto bushes behind the dune lines. There was no food, water or medical supplies. Then more threats came upon them unexpectedly; disease-carrying mosquitoes, snakes and the primitive Indians. Some of the Ais Indians helped the survivors while others proved to be cannibals.
The sun finally peeked through the disappearing, black menacing clouds. The rays glistened off the choppy waters exposing the massive carnage and wreckage. More than a thousand souls perished by sunrise. And more than $14 million in silver and gold had been scattered over the reefs and vanished into the Atlantic Ocean off the Treasure Coast.
D’Aire of Le Griffon had refused the orders of Ubilla. At the first signs of heavy wind, he had abandoned the Spanish Fleet and skillfully tacked in a different direction, heading to the northeast. D’Aire made it back to Brest, France, on Aug. 31, safe, unscathed and unaware of the fate of the others.
At front and center of “The Golden Age of Piracy” were Henry Jennings, Charles Vane and Sam Bellamy. Like many pirates, all three men started as privateers during the War of the Spanish Succession. However, they had a hard time adjusting to the peace that followed the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Jennings and the other privateers found themselves jobless, as the treaty made allies of nations that were once enemies.
Jennings, Vane and Bellamy each would not hesitate to increase his own reputation at his colleague’s expense.
Jennings was famous for one plunder, the 1715 Spanish Fleet of 11 ships that sank off the coast of Florida after the devastating hurricane. Like a shot out of a cannon, word spread throughout the Caribbean islands and the Americas that silver and gold lay on the seafloor.
A ruthless, educated merchant seaman, Jennings operated from Jamaica under the unscrupulous English governor, Lord Archibald Hamilton. Jennings and Vane had an unwritten agreement to split profits with him from their plunders of Spanish and French merchant ships in exchange for protection.
Jennings acquired five vessels, two ships and three sloops, 21 divers and a couple hundred pirates. On Dec. 27, 1715, Jennings and Vane arrived off the east coast of Florida in an 80-ton sloop, Barsheba. They found a poorly-defended Spanish camp right where it was reported to be, at Palma de Ayes. Admiral Francisco Salmon, whose life and the lives of half his crew were spared from his sunken ship, was second in charge of the Spanish fleet and directed all recovered treasure from the shipwrecks to be placed on the dune line, which was then defended by the few Spanish soldiers available.
Jennings was as smart as Vane was vicious. Vane, without provocation, would maim innocent women and children just to see them suffer. A true psychopath, Vane terrorized everything and everyone he encountered. Even the devil might wince and comment, “What in the hell is wrong with you?”
In the wee hours of Dec. 28, Jennings lost no time preparing his men to ambush the Spanish salvage camp at the Palma de Ayes. Three boats, with 150 men into groups of 50, rowed quietly towards the shore.
The most terrifying spectacle to greet the eyes of the frightened Spaniards was that of Vane. Greasy hair flowing, insane eyes glowering, he led one group of 50 men up the dune line. With weapons in both hands, he discharged his pistols as soon as his feet touched the shore. He reached for additional loaded pistols in his bandoleer and reloaded as fast as he could, creating as much chaos as possible in a short amount of time.
Panic struck as the Spanish troops in the encampment awoke to an invasion of misfits. The pirates swarmed over the beach like ants over bags of sugar, while the Spanish soldiers ran up the dunes and formed ranks to protect the silver, gold and emerald jewelry.
Unfortunately for the Spanish, it was a futile effort.
Over the next several days, Jennings, Vane and their crew relieved the Spanish of as much silver and gold as Barsheba could possibly carry.
It was very cold evenings on the water in January 1716. The northeast winds caused the wind to whip off the coastline. Crewmembers wore jackets made of worn sails to harvest the warmth of the setting sun.
Jennings scanned the sea; more ships were arriving and anchoring off the Treasure Coast. Jennings must have thought it was time to depart. On board Barsheba were silver coins worth 350,000 pesos. Overweight from the treasure, Barsheba set sail and lumbered along the coastline of Florida for Port Royal.
Unknowingly, Jennings and Vane just missed the big haul. Before their raid, Gen. Hoyo Solozano recovered and stowed at least four million pesos, worth $200 million today, from the sunken Spanish Treasure Fleet. Solozano sailed back to Havana, Cuba, under protection of the Spanish navy.
BANDITS AND PROTECTORS
A young rising star, Sam Bellamy, and his wealthy friend, Paulsgrave Williams, set sail for Florida as well. The Boston New-Letter carried an extensive article about the 1715 Spanish Fleet disappearing in a hurricane. Bellamy, a poor sailor, and Williams, with a lengthy heritage of wealth, left the Cape Cod area for the east coast of Florida.
Bellamy and Williams arrived a couple weeks after Jennings and Vane. They stayed safely offshore south of the Sebastian River. The sailors dropped anchor. Bellamy pulled out his spyglass and peered toward the dune line, only to be surprised.
A group of 350 pirates had beat them to the 1715 Fleet treasure site, from what is now Fort Pierce to Sebastian. And the pirates were spearheaded by the most notorious of them all, Capt. Henry Jennings and the insane Charles Vane.
Williams seemed like an unlikely candidate for piracy with wealthy parents and tanned skin, in stark contrast to his powdered blonde gentleman’s wig. His friend, Black Sam, was handsome, rugged and penniless.
Williams wanted to see the dune line for himself. He squinted into his spyglass as the glaring sun blurred his vision. There were a few dozen slave-divers and Indian divers plunging themselves into the water with heavy rocks to take them to the bottom. Bellamy and Williams watched with envy and must have thought, “Why can’t that be us?”
A remarkable amount of the Crown’s silver and gold had been recovered by the Spanish soldiers and shipped back to Havana. The remaining gold and silver lay on the bottom of the ocean unable to be retrieved.
Bellamy and Williams anchored offshore for another day. Then, on the horizon, what appeared to be a British war ship sailed directly at Bellamy. Within the hour, a British navy captain pulled aside Bellamy and Williams. In no uncertain terms, he demanded they leave the site immediately. On Jan. 22, 1716, Bellamy and Williams moved on along the coastline.
Williams and Bellamy sailed their vessel into the Florida Straits. They carefully trailed Jennings and Vane, staying always on the edge of the horizon. As they sailed, a plan grew in Bellamy’s cunning mind.
Black Sam Bellamy and Paulsgrave Williams were to double-cross Henry Jennings and Charles Vane in the sheltered bay of Bahia Honda, Cuba. With pirates, that usually doesn’t end well. But, that’s another story, for another day.
Allen Balogh is the author of Black Sails 1715 (blacksails1715.com) about the sunken Spanish galleons from a violent hurricane and the age of piracy.