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Nuestra Senora de Atocha

Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a treasure under the sea

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The Tierra Firme flota, which was made up of twenty ships, left the Havana port of Cuba on their way for Spain on September 4 th, 1622.  These ships carried the wealth of an empire along with crew, soldiers and passengers.  The next day, the fleet was hit by a hurricane as it entered into the Florida straits.  By the next morning eight of the ships were on the ocean floor scattered from the Marquesas Keys to the Dry Tortugas.

The Nuestra Senora de Atocha (“Our Lady of Atocha”), a heavily armed galleon, sailed as Almirante (rear guard).  For added protection, the Nuestra bore the name of the holiest of shrines in Madrid.

The Atocha was carrying a vast treasure from Columbia, Peru, and other regions of South America – likely to have been acquired through dubious means – consisting of 24 tons of silver bullion in 1038 ingots, 180,00 pesos of silver coins, 582 copper ingots, 125 gold bars and discs, 350 chests of indigo, 525 bales of tobacco, 20 bronze cannons and 1,200 pounds of worked silverware.  As the ship went down into the water at a depth of 55 feet, rescuers tried to get into the drowned hull but found that the hatches were tightly battened.  The site of her loss was marked but on October 5 th, a second hurrican appeared and destroyed the wreck.  Spanish salvagers searched for the Nuestra Senora de Atocha for 60 years, however they never found it.   

Nuestra Senora de Atocha Treasures

A tiny portion of the hoard of treasures that were eventually found in the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. Credit: Mel Fisher Treasures.

The mission to find the Atocha and her treasure became the fixation of a chicken farmer turned deep-sea diver named Mel Fisher, who searched doggedly for the treasure for 16 years from 1969.

Over the years, Fisher and his crew recovered small pieces of treasure, which ignited hope that they were getting warmer; and they were. In 1973, Fisher found 3 silver bars which matched the weights and tally numbers found on the manifest of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha.  Then, two years later, Fisher's son found five bronze cannons that were identified to be cargo of the Atocha.  However, in a tragic turn of events, Fisher’s son and wife, and Rick Gage, were killed just days later when one of the salvage boats capsized. 

A Colombian gold bar

A Colombian gold bar of 20.75 kt struck at the Peña-Randa foundry 1621-22. Recovered from the wreck site of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. Credit: 1715 Fleet Society

Despite the tragedy, Fisher and his crew perservered with their lifelong mission to recover the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. In July of 1985, Kane Fisher sent a message to his father's headquarters, "Put away the charts; we’ve found the main pile!" Ecstatic crew members described the find as looking like a reef of silver bars. Within days, the shipper’s marks on the bars were matched to the Atocha’s cargo manifest, confirming Kane’s triumphant claim. At long last, the wreck’s "motherload" had been found -- and the excavation of what was widely referred to as the "shipwreck of the century" began. 

In addition to numerous riches, researchers recovered exceptional navigational instruments, military weapons, tools of various trades, ceramic pots, dishes, and even preserved seeds and insects, shedding light on life in the seventeenth century.

Since Mel Fisher’s amazing find in 1985, artifacts worth around half a billion dollars have already been brought to the surface, making it among the most valuable shipwrecks ever discovered. The artifacts from Atocha are now part of the Mel Fisher maritime Heritage society Museum's collection.  A portion of Atocha's lower hull was examined and recovered and stored in a lagoon at the Florida Keys Community College making it accessible to researchers.  The most valuable part of the ship (the stern castle, where the captain’s cabin would have concealed the most precious cargos of all) has yet to be located.

Featured image: the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. Image source: Globedia

Sources:

The Nuestra Senora de Atocha - Mel Fisher’s Treasures

The tragic loss of the Atocha and her rediscovery – Daniel Frank Sedwick LLC

Sunken Treasure of 1622 Set for Philadelphia Auction – The Wall Street Journal

The Nuestra Senora de Atocha – Wikipedia

By Susan Ardizzoni

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