Colorful Cargo at the McLarty Treasure Museum

A deeper dive into the 1715 Spanish fleet reveals the exotic origins of treasures beyond silver and gold

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A model of the Urca de Lima, one of the ships of the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet, is on display at the McLarty Treasure Museum in Vero Beach. Photo by Kelly Rogers
A model of the Urca de Lima, one of the ships of the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet, is on display at the McLarty Treasure Museum in Vero Beach. Photo by Kelly Rogers

Sometimes the greatest treasures are hidden in plain sight.

We know that well on the Treasure Coast, where salvage experts like Mel Fisher and his family are renowned for their amazing finds, and where there are still occasional stories of the glimmer of gold seen through the waters. Likewise, the origin stories of the treasure are hidden in plain sight. We all know about the 1715 hurricane and the shipwreck of the galleons. But what happened before the storm? The treasure of our coast had an intriguing journey even before it ended up on the Spanish ships that would prove bound for Davy Jones’ locker.

Mel Fisher spent six years salvaging the wrecks off the Treasure Coast. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Mel Fisher spent six years salvaging the wrecks off the Treasure Coast. Photo by Kelly Rogers

When the Treasure Fleet set sail from the great port of Havana, Cuba, it was carrying goods that came from South America and even from as far off as Asia. Did you know that Chinese porcelain was part of the cargo? Today, delicate blue-and-white ware can be seen at the McLarty Treasure Museum in Vero Beach and Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum in Sebastian. Park Services Specialist and archaeologist Corey Kerkela of the McLarty Treasure Museum explains that these exotic items were carried across the Pacific by a separate fleet before they ended up on the Spanish Main (the body of Spanish colonial territories in the mainland Americas).  

“Chinese goods were shipped across the Pacific to Acapulco and then taken by donkey to Veracruz,” says Kerkela. The ships of the Pacific fleet were known as Manila galleons because they sailed from Manila in the Philippines, which had been explored by Magellan; subsequent voyages had led to the discovery of a route called the North Pacific Gyre, which made use of powerful currents to shorten the time involved in traversing the world’s greatest ocean. This course supplanted the famous “Silk Road”—the overland route that had brought Chinese goods to the West since ancient times, and which had been made even more famous by the adventures of Marco Polo. 

Among the lesser-known cargo carried by the galleons is Chinese porcelain. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Among the lesser-known cargo carried by the galleons is Chinese porcelain. Photo by Kelly Rogers

“As ships got more efficient,” Kerkela explains, “there was no longer the need for the overland route. What’s the use of going up through Samarkand and all those places when you can sail home?” Camel caravans trekking across the desert gave way to mighty ships crossing the blue Pacific.  

Today, experts identify the porcelain artifacts from the Treasure Fleet as Kangxi ware, named for the Qing Dynasty emperor during whose reign they were made. Kangxi porcelain is valued for its brilliant coloring, referred to as “underglaze sapphire blue,” and for beautiful imagery of bamboo, pines, flowers, and landscapes. The challenge, of course, was keeping these fragile works of art intact during the long voyages. Often they were packed in mud, which would then dry into a sturdy protective shield. If the Treasure Fleet had made it back to Spain, the humble dried mud would have been split open to reveal the precious and beautiful blue-and-white porcelain within. Of course, that was not to be. 

Corey Kerkela, park services specialist and archaeologist based at the McLarty Museum, is a wealth of information on the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Corey Kerkela, park services specialist and archaeologist based at the McLarty Museum, is a wealth of information on the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet. Photo by Kelly Rogers

Gold and silver are more familiar cargo items for Spanish galleons; indeed, what would a Treasure Fleet be without them? Yet here, too, there are exotic stories behind the journeys of the artifacts. Gold and silver flooded into the Spanish Empire when the conquistadores, with their firearms, overran the Inca dominions; along with the differences in technology, the Inca were in the midst of a civil war at the time of the attack, distracting them from the impending threat. 

“After the conquest of the Inca, the Spanish found there was lots of gold in South America,” explains Kerkela. “There were walls of gold in Cuzco,” the Inca capital. “At first, the Spanish just melted down the walls.” Another account concerns a golden chain twice the length of Cuzco’s greatest public square. Furthermore, the Inca used gold and silver to fashion sculptures of llamas, alpacas, and other animals that were important to them, as well as human figures. These sculptures were often found in temples and mountain shrines. 

This gold cup on display at Mel Fisher’s Museum was recovered in 1997 from the Cannon Wreck, one of eight wreck sites confirmed to be associated with the 1715 fleet. Photo by Kelly Rogers
This gold cup on display at Mel Fisher’s Museum was recovered in 1997 from the Cannon Wreck, one of eight wreck sites confirmed to be associated with the 1715 fleet. Photo by Kelly Rogers

Curiously, the Inca never used gold as currency. They valued precious metals—gold was “the sweat of the sun” and silver “the tears of the moon.” However, rather than trading gold, they viewed it as the personal property of the emperor, who was associated with their sun god. To Europeans, however, gold and silver were money, and the conquistadores considered themselves rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Many precious items were melted down. A surviving artifact at the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum, however, may reflect the Inca background of much of the galleons’ cargo: a silver plate with carvings of condors. The regal condor, an enormous bird of the high Andes, was revered by the Inca and other South American peoples. 

A gold, emerald, and diamond cross was found in pieces in 1996. Photo by Kelly Rogers
A gold, emerald, and diamond cross was found in pieces in 1996. Photo by Kelly Rogers

Nevertheless, the conquest was in the 1500s, and by the time of the 1715 fleet, the wealth of the cities had already been plundered. Thus, Kerkela says, the gold and silver of the Treasure Fleet was largely from mining. “There was a mountain of silver called Potosi, and the silver was brought by horses and mules to Lima and then sailed up to Panama.” Even centuries before the Panama Canal, he points out, “Panama was always the shortest and easiest way to get across.”

Another treasure of the galleons was actually insectoid in origin. The cochineal, a relative of the mealybug, is the source of a bold crimson pigment. A related species had been used in the Middle East and Europe for centuries as a source of red pigment; however, the cochineal of Latin America provided a particularly flamboyant color that became highly prized when it was shipped back to the markets of the Old World. 

Before the conquest, the Inca had used cochineal for their valued textile arts; indeed, when the Inca surveyed the wealth of their empire, fine textiles were rated more highly than jewels, and the tradition of textile arts continues in Peru and Ecuador today. It may seem surprising to think of a crimson dye derived from insects being shipped back to Spain amid gold and silver, but cochineal dye was indeed among the treasures of the fleet.

This intricately carved silver plate may be of Inca origin. Photo by Kelly Rogers
This intricately carved silver plate may be of Inca origin. Photo by Kelly Rogers

Among the most beautiful treasures aboard the galleons were the deep green emeralds from the mines of Muzo, in what is today Colombia. “Muzo emeralds are the richest in the world,” Kerkela says. “Cartagena, Colombia is an amazing city—they have an emerald museum and a gold museum.” To this day, reaching the mines of Muzo is an adventure, as it calls for trekking across fog-shrouded Andean paths and then descending to the lush jungles and tropical vales where the fabled emeralds can be found. Imagine making the journey by llama or donkey!

A silver cruet salvaged from the Cannon Wreck in 1994 was probably used in the Catholic communion ritual. Photo by Kelly Rogers
A silver cruet salvaged from the Cannon Wreck in 1994 was probably used in the Catholic communion ritual. Photo by Kelly Rogers

As residents of the Treasure Coast, we know about the 1715 fleet and the quests of the famous salvagers. Yet the story behind the treasure adds to its allure and fascination. Tales of gold fever, war and intrigue, the wealth of empires, and perilous journeys across land and sea all lie behind the treasures of our coast. 

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