In the 1600’s when Spain was exploiting all the riches of the New World which had been “discovered” and claimed by guys like Columbus, Pizarro, and Balboa, the gold from Panama, Peru and elsewhere was shipped to Panama City, then known as “The Richest City in ThE World.”
From Panama City the treasure would be carted in mule trains, sometimes as large as 150 mules, across Panama to Portobelo to await the arrival of the Spanish Treasure Fleet that would carry the loot across the Atlantic to Spain.
Some of the most amazing discoveries, like Mel Fisher’s discovery of ATOCHA in 1985 are ships from the Spanish Treasure Fleet that were lost at sea. The remains of the ATOCHA, some of which are pictured above, have yielded treasures worth $50 million including 40 tons of gold and silver, 114,000 of the Spanish silver coins known as “pieces of eight”, gold coins, Colombian emeralds, gold and silver artifacts, and 1000 silver ingots. Large as it was, it is estimated that this was only half of the treasure that went down with the ATOCHA.
The Spanish colonies in the new world were also served by merchant ships. In 2011 divers discovered the wreck of a Spanish merchant ship that traveled in the 1681 Treasure Fleet. The ENCARNACION [“Incarnation”] was built in Veracruz, Mexico, for the Spanish empire, and assigned to the Treasure Fleet. In late 1681, the ship was caught by a terrible storm just off the coast of Panama, close to the entrance into the Chagres River, near where the entrance is today of the Panama Canal. The ship sank in less than 40 feet of water and sat there undisturbed for more than three centuries.
Although the wreck was discovered in 2011 it has taken until now to positively identify the ship and determine its origin, route, and cargo. The bottom half of the ship’s hull remainsl intact, including wooden crates containing cargo. The ship would take goods from Latin America to Europe and then return with European products to be sold at ports along this route.
In November 1681, fleet sailed from Cartagena to Porto Bello and en route encountered a hurricane, got lost in the storm, and ended up among dangerous reefs off the Caribbean coast of Panama.
“It was the night of the 29th November, when the disaster began to unfold. Despite continuous gale force winds, several of the vessels successfully weighed anchor and so saved themselves from potential disaster. But not all were so lucky. During the storm, the BOTICARIA came aground on the reefs, with the hull holed she eventually went down after a full three days of struggles. The fate of the BOTICARIA would later be seen as somewhat fortunate compared to its sister ship, the EL NUESTRA SENORA DE LA SOLEDAD, which had been destroyed during a head on collision with rocks, killing the owner and many of his crew.
Although we do not have the exact date upon which the ENCARNACION went down, it now seems likely that this occurred on the 3rd of December when disaster struck the fleet yet again. This time, as they neared the mouth of the Chagres River, a location also known as Punta de Brujas (‘The Witch’s Point’). Historical records record that two further ships were lost to the churning sea near to this point – the CHAPERON and the TARTANA. It would now appear that the ENCARNACION went down with them.
The remaining parts of the ENCARNACION were discovered by a team of researchers searching for the shipwrecks of Captain Henry Morgan´s fleet of five vessels, wrecked on route to a planned sacking of Panama City, in 1670. The team from the Meadows Centrer for Water and Environment of the Texas State University made this surprising discovery when their metal sensitive sensor equipment made them aware of an undersea anomaly.
“These ships were the backbone of the Spanish colonies,” archaeologist Fritz Hanselmann told the National Geographic. It is quite possible that without them, the Spanish Economy would never have been what it once was. These Merchant Ships made it possible for the Spanish Court to sustain itself during the time of fierce colonization and greed for wealth and power.Charles II, King of Spain, who ruled during the time of the ENCARNACION.
Hanselmann also commented that apart from being in a very good condition, it contained a number of items which had been identified in its cargo including wooden barrels, wooden boxes, sword blades, scissors, mule shoes, nails, ceramics and more. The ship’s hull had been coated in a specific material called Granel. This substance, which is a permanent ballast, was used by the ship builders of the past to keep a vessel steady in the water. It now seems that it also inadvertently helped to keep the wreck in a good condition.
“In addition to what we can learn from the artifacts, the hull remains will inform us about Old World ship construction techniques using New World materials,” project archaeologist Melanie Damour said in a statement.
The Encarnación has finally allowed naval historians to fill in many of the blanks regarding 17th century Spanish ships of the New World. During the time of heavy European capitalization, these ships were keeping Europe’s economy going. Spain was forever looking to expand its reign over new territories and in doing so, the new demand for increased trade made the ships take longer and more dangerous routes, sailing for greater periods and bringing with it more risk of falling victim to piracy or being shipwrecked by storms. [Lilith Bright, ANCIENTORIGINS.COM]