Departure and sinking
In the summer of 1622, a fleet of ships including the Nuestra Señora de Atocha (the “Atocha”) and her sister ship, the Santa Margarita (the “Margarita”) began loading royal and private treasure in Cartagena, Portobello and Havana. The fleet did not set sail until September 4 – the height of the hurricane season. Less than 48 hours into the voyage, in the Straits of Florida, the fleet was scattered by a rapidly moving hurricane. The Atocha struck a shallow reef and sank in 55 feet of water, while the Margarita was grounded on a wide shoal six miles north of the Atocha.
The remains of the Atocha rested on the sea floor for over 300 years before the first indication of the wreck was found in 1971. Mel Fisher, president of Treasure Salvors, Inc., had been searching for the Atocha since 1966. In June 1971, one of his divers located a large galleon anchor, a clump of silver coins (dated 1621 and earlier), gold bars and chains, and several matchlock muskets.
1973 discovery of the cargo
It was obvious that a galleon had been found, but which one? Nothing more was found until 1973 when divers made another discovery. In addition to thousands of silver coins, they found more gold bars and also three silver bars. The Atocha’s silver cargo totaled more than 47 tons, each bar weighing approximately 75 lbs. Every bar bore a registry number, owner’s mark, and the bar’s weight, all of which were carefully recorded in the Atocha’s manifest or cargo list. These silver bars were the key to proving that the Atocha had indeed been found. Thousands of miles away in the Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, among thousands of bundles of preserved documents, were the manifests of the Atocha. It was these manifests that linked the silver bars directly to the Atocha.
Coins of the Atocha
The coins turned out to be “pieces of eight”, or silver reales and were minted in Potosi, Lima and Mexico City between 1535 and 1621. Each coin was hand-struck and depicted the coat-of-arms of the reigning Spanish monarch; the reverse featured a cross quartered by the lions of Leon and castles of Castile. The coins were issued in denominations of ¼, ½, 1, 2, 4 and 8 reales, all considered to be a “piece of eight."
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