Old Treasures and Shipwreck News - Santa Madre de la Consolacion
Spanish treasure ship missing since 1681 found...
By Rich McKay
Six pirate ships closed in on the Spanish treasure ship the Santa Maria De La Consolacion as the galleon sailed up the Pacific coast of South America, slow and bloated with silver, gold and gems mined in Peru or looted from the remnants of the once-mighty Incas.
The viceroy of Peru had ordered the ship to set sail against the wishes of its captain, Juan de Lerma, and despite rumors of pirates prowling the waters. The ship had to reach Panama in time for its passengers and priceless cargo to catch the Spanish fleet before it left on its annual journey across the Atlantic.
The year was 1681, a period of fierce rivalry between Spain and England, and Capt. Bartholomew Sharpe, an infamous buccaneer, was on the hunt for ships. What happened when the Santa Maria crossed paths with Sharpe was so bloody that Ecuadorans to this day call the island of Santa Clara 'El Muerto' — the dead man.
In the mid-1990s, two brothers walking along Santa Clara's sandy shores spotted something in the surf. It was black and crusty, like a couple of small flat stones stuck together. One of the brothers, giving the objects little thought, stuck them in his pocket. What they had discovered was the key to the lost Spanish galleon's treasure: The black stones turned out to be pieces of eight. The hoard, worth an estimated $20 million to $100 million, now is waiting to be excavated from the Bay of Guayaquil, about 30 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
The brothers' discovery caught the attention of Roberto Aguire, the wealthy owner of a tuna fishery, a man with ships, helicopters and enough time and money to bankroll a treasure hunt. Aguire paid the brothers for their information, then spent two years procuring permits for a salvage operation from the Ecuadorian government. Meanwhile, divers he hired recovered thousands of coins from the sea floor.
While Aguire set wheels in motion to recover the treasure, however, questions remained about exactly how much loot the ship had carried and whether it was worth the trouble and expense of salvaging. What needed to be done immediately was to establish the name of the ship, search old manifests and try to determine what had been on board. But where to start looking ?
Aguire hired treasure hunter Joel Ruth, a marine archaeologist and nautical historian with a specialty in dating and restoring Spanish coins. Ruth, through dogged, monotonous research, discovered the name of the ship. A bookish, 50-year-old diver with an African parrot named Euclid, Ruth also has a knack for mixing caustic chemicals that can erase centuries of grime from ancient coins.
He found a cryptic footnote on a copy of an old seafarer's map. 'At this Island in this year of 1681 was cast away a rich ship.'
The island was Santa Clara — El Muerto.
More digging produced another reference:
'In the year 1681 Captain Sharpe gave chase to a ship in this sea and thee was lost on fowle ground near S. Clara in her 100,000 pieces of eight besides Plate and other goods of value.' Bingo !
The Capt. Sharpe mentioned was none other than the infamous Bartholomew Sharpe. British and Spanish accounts of Sharpe's exploits survive, including what happened near Santa Clara Island.
Sharpe gave chase to the Santa Maria — 440 tons, with 26 iron and bronze cannons. Its captain, Lerma, tried to reach safe harbour, but the 'Devil Pirates,' as the beleaguered skipper referred to them, gained on his ship. The Santa Maria struck rocks or a reef. It couldn't move and took on water.
The crew and passengers scrambled into small boats and headed to Santa Clara. Lerma, not wanting the treasure to fall into the hands of the British, ordered his ship set on fire.
It burned and sank with its treasure, infuriating the pirates. They retaliated by beheading the crew and passengers — an estimated 350 people.
Sharpe's men later forced some native fishermen to dive for the wreckage. But after sharks devoured one of the divers, no one else would dive. Still, the location of the wreck was the kind of information that was noted on old maps. Ruth's research turned up repeated references to the Santa Maria until 1821. For six years, Aguire's divers have scoured the sea floor.
As of Oct. 25, more than 15,000 coins have been found in a mile-long, curved path resembling the 'swoosh' of a Nike sneaker. Divers also have found pottery, ancient muskets and signal guns.
Among the discoveries was a crate of 320-year-old iron shoes for mules. Ruth keeps one on his dinner table. Before the ship was discovered last month, Aguiire was getting ready to give up, letting his permits expire. His divers were spending more time doing maintenance on dive boats than treasure hunting.
The breakthrough came in December when an Ecuadorian fisherman flagged the divers, asking for help, Ruth said. His net was caught on something in 30 feet of water. A diver who went down couldn't believe what he saw — massive wooden beams, showing signs of having been charred, and covered by centuries of sand and seaweed. 'It's the galleon — the whole galleon just sitting there, exposed,' Ruth said.
The diver videotaped the scene and took a sample of the wood about the size of a loaf of bread. Tests dated the wood as being about 370 years old, with a 40-year margin of error. This had to be it, Ruth said; the Santa Maria was built by Spanish shipwrights in Ecuador a few years before it was sunk in 1681.
Marx said the find could be the most significant galleon discovery ever because it 'appears to be a virgin wreck. Most shipwrecks have been picked over in antiquity.'
Ruth headed to Ecuador on Oct. 2 to help with the final identification of the wreck. By then, the turbulent ocean had 'hidden her secrets again,' Ruth said in an e-mail to The Orlando Sentinel.
Where timbers and shell-covered boxes had been seen, there was nothing but bare sand. More equipment was brought in — something akin to water cannons to wash away the sand. It took 20 days to clear enough to see what lay beneath.
New artefacts, including flints from muskets with crosses etched in them, date the vessel to between 1649 and 1680. That, along with the thousands of coins scattered on the ocean and carbon-dating, is enough proof, Ruth said, to confirm the discovery is the wreck of the Santa Maria de la Consolacion.
It is still anyone's guess what the treasure will be worth. Mingled with the wreck, the crew found dredge pipes with 50 years of coral growth. It could mean the shipwreck was looted in modern time. Or it could be debris left by the U.S. military, which occupied a nearby island during World War II.
Ruth and the other treasure hunters will have to retrieve what is there and take stock. But he knows that coins from a shipwreck with a bloody history will be worth a lot more than unidentifiable metal looted from the sea.
"The story and history behind it is what makes it valuable," Ruth said. "And it's what make it worth looking for."