The Nuestra Senora de Atocha, or Our Lady of Atocha in English, was by far one of the most famous Spanish ships of all time. Sadly, it sank in 1622 in the Florida Keys. The Atocha was carrying all kinds of gold, silver, copper, tobacco, gems and jewelry at the time it was sunk. It was transporting the goods from a few different Spanish ports and was homeward bound for Spain. The ship itself was named after the parish of Atocha located in Madrid.
Unlike other sunken ship stories this one entails a series of events that kept the ship from reaching its rendezvous point in Havana with the other vessels in the fleet. The first event was in fact the delay of departure as the vessel left its dock exactly six weeks past its original scheduled departure. Due to the delay the Atocha met head on with a hurricane on September 6th, 1622 when it was only 35 miles away from Key West near the Dry Tortugas. It was forced upon the coral reefs which severely damaged the hull of the Atocha. This damaged caused the Atocha to sink relatively quickly. Sadly, most everyone drowned and only five people(3 crew and 2 slaves) managed to be rescued.
Impact of the Loss
When the news reached Spain that the Atocha had sunk, Spanish authorities sent another five vessels to go look for survivors and try to retrieve the lost fortune. Unfortunately the Atocha had sunk more than 55 feet below the surface which made it extremely difficult to retrieve any of the cargo. As if that was not enough of a problem, a second hurricane hit the area and scattered the remains of the ship all across the area.
However the Spaniards did not give up and spent years trying to recover as much as they could. They enlisted Indian slaves to search for the remains of the ship and were able to recover half of the cargo from another ship that sunk in much shallow water, the Margarita. This was not enough however and Spain was forced to borrow more money to make up for what it had lost. It was necessary to borrow money in order to fund the country’s role in the Thirty Years’ War. While Spain was able to recover a lot of the cargo from the Margarita they never found any sign of the Atocha or the fortune upon it.
Legal Battle Following the Modern Recovery
For more than 363 years the cargo that was held upon the Atocha lay beneath the waters relatively untouched. The goods were estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars which kept divers and investors in a constant search for discovery. For nearly 17 years, a treasure hunter by the name of Mel Fisher searched endlessly for signs of the Atocha. Even though investors only paid Fisher minimum wage for all his years of work, he was persistent and focused on uncovering the valuable treasure. Finally, after years of hard and endless searching, the remains of the Atocha wreck were discovered on July 20, 1985. In fact it was Mel Fisher’s son who made the official radio call stating the discovery just off the Florida coast. While the treasure was abundant many believe that the main hold of the ship is still missing. That part of the ship is estimated to hold most of the gold and rare Muzo emeralds.
Gold and Silver coins were the main find in the discovery and coins were found that dated all the way back to the early 1500’s. Before the discovery many people were unaware that such coins were even produced that early on. When Fisher finally discovered the wreck and the subsequent treasure the United States government actually laid claim to it all. The State of Florida seized all the property that Fisher had gathered and refused to let him claim it or any of his previous findings. Thankfully after eight years of litigation the issue was settled and the Supreme Court acknowledged that Fisher is indeed the rightful owner of the fortune.
For further information please take a look at the following wonderful books and dvds on the Atocha and Mel Fisher.
Further Reading and DVD’s on the Atocha