National Geographic : 1965 Jan
beach. only matted debris. But what of the coin I had just found? Had the storm bared a new trove offshore? I looked at the pounding sea. One thing I had noticed about the coins I picked up: none was dated later than 1715. A friend told me of a flotilla of Spanish ships carrying S14,000,000 in treasure that had been driven on reef and shore by a hurricane in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral (now Cape Kennedy) in the year 1715. Thus I first heard of one of the greatest disasters to befall the annual Plate, or Silver, Fleet sent out by Spain to bring home the wealth of the Indies. John Taylor, a captain's clerk in one of the guard ships assigned to protect William Phips during his epic salvage, described the Plate Fleet system in flowing language: "The King of Spain, whose dominions are now extended from the east to the west, whose kingdoms are full one third part of the known world, whose treasures in his western domin- ions are rich and durable mines of gold and silver ... without bottom or a seeming end, from whence flows the wealth of Spain, by which the pomp, state, frontiers of that king dom are maintained and defended, yearly sends his . .. mighty ships of Spain into Amer ica, which moving road bring him home his annual treasure of gold and silver...." Spain sent two fleets annually to the New World. One, the Galeones de Tierra Firme, or mainland fleet, sailed to New Granada present-day Colombia-where it picked up gold, emeralds, and pearls at Cartagena, and later silver from Peru's fabled mines at Porto belo on the Panamanian Isthmus. The other, the Flota, or fleet, of New Spain, sailed to Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. There it took aboard silver, cochineal and indigo dyes, as well as goods of the Orient-porce lains and silk-which came to Acapulco, on Mexico's Pacific Coast, in the annual galleon Beside the heaving Atlantic, a treasure seeker searches the beach with a mine detector. The appara tus emits a high-pitched whine over metal objects as small as fishhooks; it has pinpointed ships' spikes, cannon balls, cutlasses, and coins by the hundreds. "My first investment in salvage equipment was a SI5 surplus military mine detector," says author Wagner, "and I still use it, especially after storms have reshaped the sands. Usually my only companions are formations of pelicans that fly over, wheel, and look down at me with seeming perplexity." Silver pieces of eight, called cobs, look like bits of green stone following a 250-year bath in brine. Coin at left shines again after hydrochloric acid dissolved the thin coating formed by the action of salt water on copper, a hardening agent in most silver coins.