Whose Treasure?

In the clash over shipwrecks yet to be found, the past still haunts.

By Ben Stubenberg

“There is no way of getting away from a treasure . . . once it fastens itself upon our mind”
Joseph Conrad

Few ventures capture our attention or fuel the imagination more quickly than the prospect of finding sunken treasure from some long-lost shipwreck. The romance and excitement of chests filled with gold, silver and jewels suspends reality and feeds a visceral fantasy.
For today’s treasure hunters who roll the dice and bet it all on the chance of finding the mother lode, the allure of it all is much the same as it was for pirates, salvagers and wreckers of yore. That allure, however, comes at a price—the dark side of the quest that pits a growing number of treasure hunters against a small, determined band of underwater archeologists and preservation activists. For these implacable foes of treasure hunting, it’s a give-no-quarter, take-no-prisoners struggle to save our common heritage and marine environment and determine who, if anyone, gets to keep the wealth hiding below the waves.

This photo shows the portside anchor from the wreck of the HMS Endymion on Endymion Reef off Salt Cay.

With guesstimates ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 shipwrecks around the hull-ripping reefs of the Turks & Caicos, these Islands have long been a destination for both treasure hunters and underwater archeologists. Blue Hills had a history of “wreckers”—townsfolk who looked for ships cracking up on the reef to reap salvageable material. And whispered tales tell of Islanders who found gold and silver coins and even a gold chalice encrusted with rubies washing up on the beaches. Indeed, TCI sits squarely along the early Spanish colonial shipping routes from Central America, Mexico, Hispaniola and Cuba. Hundreds of galleons laden with treasure sailed by and sometimes onto our reefs, along with navy, merchant, fishing, pirate and slave ships.
The ships that went down took with them more than gold, silver and precious stones, however—they entombed people on a final voyage and a story that never
got told. Anchors, cannons, daggers, bells and leg irons that once held captive humans for sale lie scattered on the ocean floor. They are all that we have, and all of it treasure in the most profound sense. For each wreck gives us a corridor to the past, a portal to a chain of events that led to a fateful day on the sea long ago.
Whether a blacksmith’s hammer, a trader’s sundial or a young lady’s necklace of pearls, each artefact found lets us touch what they touched before their rendezvous with death just beyond our sandy shores. And every bar of silver, paid for in blood, lends its own silent testimony of unspeakable cruelty. As such, these treasures yet to be found elicit one of the most human of cravings: What happened, and why?

Silver provenance
In 1545, Spanish colonists exploring the high desert of the Andes near what is now Potosí, Bolivia, asked a native Incan forced into their employ, Diego Huallpa, to climb a towering hill of red dirt. They had heard stories of an Incan shrine at the top and wanted to know more. Huallpa did reach the shrine, called a huaca, at the 15,800 ft (4820 m) summit and took a piece of it down with him. Along the way, he fell and braced himself by digging his hand into the soft dirt and pulled out a stone imbedded with a large chunk of silver. What he found turned out to be the biggest silver deposit of all time.
The discovery sparked a massive mining industry to extract the silver ore and smelt it into thousands of bars or mint it into hundreds of thousands of “pieces of eight.” With the invention of the mercury amalgamation process in the 1570s, silver could be separated from rock much quicker, thus dramatically increasing production. Families in control of the Potosí operations became billionaire equivalents of their day, while stoking the treasury of Spain.
By the early 1600s, Potosí had grown to the fourth largest city in the world with a population of 160,000, most of them forced labour Andean Indians and African slaves. Few lived long. Inhalation of mine dust filled with silica, mercury vapour and fumes from the smelters, along with accidents and sheer exhaustion, killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
For 200 years, Spanish colonists extracted more than 40,000 tons of silver from the mountain they named Cerro Rico (Rich Hill). The lnca people gave Potosí a different name in their Quecha language: “Mountain that eats men.”
The wealth derived from Diego Huallpa’s chance stumble would transform Spain from a poor, struggling country on the margins of Europe into a military and commercial superpower. The gamble made by the newly installed monarchs Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1492 to invest in the dubious Christopher Columbus expedition to reach the fabled kingdoms of the East by sailing west paid off—even if Columbus arrived instead at an immense continent neither he nor anyone else could have imagined. (See “Columbus Landfall: Making the Case for Grand Turk,” Times of the Islands Fall 2017.)

The treasure’s route
Everything depended on getting the silver out of the Americas and back to the mother country as efficiently as possible. To do that, the Spanish built a complex and extensive transportation network. Long trains of llamas and mules hauled the bars and coins from Potosí to the sea port of Callao near Lima. Boats took the silver north up along the Pacific coast to the village of Panamá (now Panama City). Another long mule train transported the valuable cargo on the even more arduous journey north across the isthmus of Panama along a 60 mile (96 km) jungle path known as the Las Cruces Trail.
Since most of the mules would die in route from the strain of their 200 lb (91 kg) loads, the mule train operators brought at least as many spare mules with no loads to replace the ones that didn’t make it. After three weeks, they arrived on the Chagras River on the Caribbean side where they placed the treasure into small boats for the journey to the ports of Nombre de Dios and later, nearby Porto Belo.

On the other side of the world, galleons from the Spanish ports of Seville or Cadiz prepared to set sail for a voyage across the Atlantic to what they called the New World. At the convergence of ships and mules in Nombre de Dios and Porto Belo, the coastal settlements grew from near ghost towns to 5,000 to 6,000 traders, sailors, soldiers, minstrels, magicians, scoundrels, cooks, priests, prostitutes and mule skinners, all looking to party hard and profit big.
Once loaded, the galleons sailed to Havana where they would meet up with other ships from Vera Cruz, Mexico and Cartageña, Colombia, also laden with treasure. From there, massive flotilla convoys departed with great fanfare, sometimes as many as 60 ships, to protect the treasures from attacks by pirates or foreign navies.Often, the flotillas would head out in September, the middle of the hurricane season, a phenomena not well understood by Europeans in the 1500s or 1600s, that would take a devastating toll.
Initially, the galleons sailed southeast along the coast of Cuba into the Old Bahama Channel. That took them along the perilous reefs of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Later, with the discovery of the Gulf Stream, ships would also head northeast into the equally reef-treacherous New Bahama Channel south of the Florida Keys and let the current pull them into the Atlantic and most of the way to Spain.
Government revenue collectors eagerly awaited the arrivals so they could assess a 20% share of the treasure, known as a quinto real or royal fifth—a cut which the Spanish crown relied upon to finance empire building and never-ending wars in Europe for dominance and power. Some 17,000 galleons departed the West Indies for the voyage back to Spain, but 10% or more never made it. Each lost vessel provoked a crippling shortfall of funds for the monarchy and investors. Without other developed industries to tax and underpin the economy of Spain, a cycle of desperate dependency on the arrivals of treasure ships set in to keep the kingdom from sinking deeper into debt.
Most of the roughly 1,700 galleons lost to storms, attacks, bad navigation or bad luck met their end in the Western Caribbean and Lucayan archipelago between Florida and Northern Hispaniola that encompasses TCI. And almost all of those wrecks remain undiscovered along with their cargo, including silver bars and pieces of eight from a red dirt hill in faraway Potosí that brought so much grief and sorrow for the most unworthy of causes.

A typical Spanish galleon sails across the Atlantic Ocean towards the “New World.”

Wreck of the Concepción
One of the most famous and richest of the lost galleons that treasure hunters did find was the 40 gun Nuestra Señora de la Pura y Limpia Concepción. With 500 passengers and crew and packed to the gunwales with 100 tons of silver from Potosí and other mines in Mexico and Colombia, the Concepción departed Havana on September 28, 1641 as the Alimirantra or flagship of a flotilla of 21
Just one day out, the convoy ran into a full-blown hurricane that sank or grounded all the ships except the Concepción. De-masted, overloaded and badly leaking with a rudder too small for effective steering even in the best of conditions, the Concepción drifted southeast off the coast of Cuba through the Old Bahama Channel toward the Turks & Caicos. The captain wanted to get to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to refurbish the ship, but the pilot/navigators forcibly over-ruled him, which they had authority to do in such situations. However, even among the largely inexperienced pilots, raging arguments ensued over whether to chance it back to Spain, as well as the ship’s actual location.
After three weeks, another storm struck, jamming the stern between two huge coral heads 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Grand Turk. But the ship did not sink immediately. Desperate to stay above the water as the ship was breaking up, the crew and passengers hauled out the silver bars and stacked them on the reef to build a platform. In the end, the painfully extracted and purified silver meant to create mega-fortunes for investors and prop up a kingdom served as nothing more than steps to stand on and stave off death.
Fewer than 200 lived to tell the harrowing story of starvation, drownings and shark attacks. The ship’s officers escaped in the only longboat, while the remaining survivors built makeshift rafts from the ship’s planks and paddled their way to what is now the Dominican Republic 80 miles (128 km) to the south.
Now called the Silver Banks (Bancos de la Plata)—at times claimed by TCI but under the control of the Dominican Republic—the 42 mile (67 km ) long reef has attracted some of the most die-hard treasure hunters of all time, starting with William Phips, a shipbuilder–merchant from Massachusetts colony. With backing from the King of England and guided by a survivor of the disaster, Phips found the wreck after many attempts in 1687, 46 years after it cracked up. Using Lucayan Indians and possibly African slaves as divers, the Phips venture hauled out a vast fortune of 68,511 lbs (31,076 kg). At least that’s the declared amount. Rumour has it that Phips buried part of the treasure on a cay in the Turks Islands.
It would be almost another 300 years before another treasure hunter, Burt Webber from a farm town in Pennsylvania, would re-discover the Concepción. He had searched relentlessly and unsuccessfully for years until a London School of Economics professor who was writing a book on the Concepción referred Webber to documents in Kent Archives, Maidstone, England. There, tucked away in obscurity for centuries gathering dust, was the log book of Phips’ salvage ship Henry of London with an accurate location of the Concepción that had eluded every other treasure hunter since Phips.
What Phips missed and Webber found in 1978 was the stern of the ship encrusted in coral that also happened to hold most of the silver not thrown on the reef to
build the platform. Webber would chop away some 300 tons of coral to extract from the wreck even more silver than Phips.

Treasure redefined
Webber’s excavation of much of the remainder of the treasure of the Concepción, along with other high profile treasure discoveries in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with undersea discovery entering pop culture. In particular, TV shows like The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau introduced the world to undersea wonders that had largely been a mystery. Advances in scuba diving also gave many more people the opportunity to see for themselves what lay beneath the surface, stimulating more interest in wrecks. Crucially, voices of nautical archeology came to the fore, bringing scientific understanding and heightened appreciation of the fragility of wreck sites that sharply animated debate about rights, heritage, and ownership.
A broad consensus emerged that wrecks and treasures of all kinds needed protection from swashbuckling treasure hunters with little interest in heritage, only the gold and silver. After all, once a wreck site is destroyed or looted or even disturbed, that’s it. With the clues gone, all humankind loses forever the full story of what happened and why. That connection with our past that might have enriched, if not defined, the present gets permanently erased.
While the wreck of the Concepción served as an example of treasure hunters plundering a site to get rich, the wreck of the Trouvadore in TCI waters represented a quite different find. A slave ship on its way from West Africa to Cuba, the Trouvadore ran aground while evading capture off East Caicos in 1841. It carried no jewels or bars of silver. But what the Trouvadore lacked in financial wealth, it more than made up for in heritage. The 193 slaves on board found tenuous freedom by running into the bush on Middle Caicos. Several would die of thirst and starvation and one got shot. All 20 crew members made it off the ship too. Still intent on earning a healthy profit from his human cargo, the slave ship captain wanted to secure another ship and round up the remaining escaped slaves to take them the rest of the way to Cuba. British authorities in Grand Turk stepped in and sent the crew to Cuba, but not the now-free Africans. Instead, they were apprenticed to jobs and integrated into TCI society.
In 1992, researchers found documents and artefacts in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC that pointed to the wreck of the Trouvadore off TCI. Underwater archeologists made several dives beginning in 2004 to a wreckage they had found off East Caicos, but could not identify it. Not until 2008 did underwater archeologists, working with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), confirm that the wreck was indeed the Trouvadore, thus adding a crucial element to the story and the journey 167 years later.
Finding the ship that dramatically changed the destiny of the slaves on board and shaped the early TCI settlement galvanized a greater national sense of identity with a history unique from other nearby island nations. The connection with the past was no longer abstract but real and tangible. And the blood of those shipwrecked men and women long ago almost certainly courses through the veins of Turks & Caicos Islanders today.
Hundreds if not thousands of other ships, however, sank without a trace. They took with them their own compelling piece of history—of who we once were, with all the flaws and folly, cussedness and courage. Only a fragile page from a large book in the Library of Seville might show an entry with the names of the ship and captain and the freight on board, their fate unknown for hundreds of years.
Until, that is, when on a bright sunny day, the acoustic pulses of a side scan sonar dragged behind a motor boat suddenly reflect back “loud” and “soft” signals on a laptop. The signals create a 3D topographical map of the ocean floor, indicating types of material and texture of what’s on the bottom. Pieces of what looks to be a wreck appear. Excited, the crew switches out the sonar for a missile-shaped magnetometer to drag behind the boat. Designed to detect magnetic anomalies, a magnetometer can indicate the presence of concentrations of ferrous metals, such as an iron anchor. It also creates another image on the laptop with GPS locations of the ferrous metal found.
Scuba divers splash overboard to get a better look, taking with them handheld metal detectors so precise they can pick up gold and silver as well as iron. On the seabed, they make out a trail of rocks that looks like ballast stones once placed at the bottom of the hull for stability—strong confirmation of an old wreck. The shape of the stones gives clues to the ship’s nationality that can help confirm identity—rough cobblestone suggests a Dutch vessel, rectangular brick indicates British and smoothly rounded stones that shipbuilders took from stream beds in the Pyrenees clearly specify Spanish.
For underwater archeologists, the layout of the wreck and cargo strewn over the ocean floor area is as important as the artefacts themselves. Position provides context that amplifies site analysis and interpretation. Typically, underwater archeologists exploring a wreck site carefully lay down 1×1 or 2×2 meter squares of PCV pipes or rope in a grid that can be mapped and studied. From the quiet abyss, they piece together a narrative of the ships and people that once traversed these waters, how they lived and died.
Drawing on this rendering of what may have happened (enlivened with a little imagination), we can feel the fear of those onboard as a storm slams the ship against the reef. The ocean gushes into the hold, trapping hundreds of passengers and crew. Water rises, the lanterns go out and panic breaks out as darkness takes over. Screams through the blackness make no distinction of rank or status among officers, crew, merchants, misfits and slaves fighting for their lives. Nor is there any division between tyrants, priests, fortune seekers and families. A democratisation of demise takes hold, as the doomed make desperate bargains with their God for one more chance to hold on until daylight. Some rip away their jewellery and throw off their coats stitched with bits of gold and silver they intended to hide from tax authorities in a final effort to cleanse themselves of sin. Accepting the end and perhaps divine punishment, they confess wrongdoings and plea for mercy. Waves pound the weakened, worm-infested hull harder against the coral until the ship breaks up and slips off the reef. Each man and woman takes their last gulp of air before the sea engulfs and pulls them down with the wreck to the silence of the deep.

This heavily concreted carronade was located during the Ships of Discovery 2008 expedition to learn about the slave ship Trouvadore.

Clashing mindsets
Who profits and what gets protected depends on who does the exploring and provides the funding. In the words of underwater archeologist Dr. Donald H. Keith, president of Ships of Discovery and a frequent writer for Times of the Islands: “To say that treasure hunting has firmly established itself as a largely criminal activity is to be minimally observant. Modern treasure hunters make money by defrauding their ‘investors,’ not by finding treasure.” Dr. Keith, who has spent decades researching TCI wrecks, including the Trouvadore, and since 2012 serving as president of the Turks & Caicos Museum Foundation, adds a distressing observation, “Treasure hunters abound in the TCI—it’s archaeologists who are rare.”
Marine biologist, TCI naturalist explorer, and co-founder of Big Blue, Mark Parrish, minces no words either. “Treasure hunters look after no one except for themselves and should be banned. As intriguing as it is to bring up a dagger or a coin or a cannon from a wreck, the inevitable damage that results to our already dying reefs through blasting of sand or dynamiting the coral only hastens the demise of the natural environment that we all depend on for our own well-being.”
Treasure hunters, of course, have a different take. Using less contentious descriptions of themselves like “underwater explorer” or “ocean researcher,” they point out that they have leveraged everything they own and raised millions of dollars from others to bring up heritage, as well as treasure. “Why can’t all sides benefit,” they contend, “by sharing the wealth for the good of both society and investors? If not for us and our initiative, know-how, funding and risk, nobody would get anything and the treasure would still be under the sea, disintegrating and gone forever.” They are also open to having a monitor on board and handing over a good part of any find, particularly the historical artefacts, for a museum that can generate tourism revenue for the benefit of the country.
That’s not enough for the underwater archeologists and activists. Their concerns are not entirely misplaced, as some treasure hunters in TCI waters are alleged to have extracted from the wreck without permission and even used dynamite to blast away the coral.
The Molasses Reef wreck south of Providenciales is a case in point. The name of the ship is not known, nor is the exact year it sank, though artefacts recovered suggest that it is from the early 1500s. This could make it the oldest European wreck found in the Americas and a priceless discovery. The remnants recovered by Dr. Keith and others formed the basis for the National Museum on
Grand Turk and Providenciales. But the site has been battered and plenty from the wreck looted for personal gain.
Nicholas Budsberg, Ph.D candidate at the Nautical Archeological Program, Texas A&M University believes, “We can’t expect to reach a mutual understanding between archeologists and treasure hunters when keeping and selling treasure is still on the table. Profiting from the artefacts has to be taken out of the equation.” He also points out that many shipwrecks are unmarked graves and that anyone investigating a wreck may also be possibly interacting with the remains of people from different time periods and cultures. “Few today would say it’s OK to let someone treasure hunt in a graveyard, or a battlefield, or a mass burial site any more than anyone would allow their great-great grandmother to be exhumed to claim and sell any jewellery she was wearing.”
Mr. Budsberg, who is also a founder of the US non-profit Shipwreck Institute for Education and Local Development, warns that many treasure hunters pose as archeologists in an effort to blend in and look less suspicious while they loot a site. However, he leaves the door slightly open for non-profit companies to generate income ethically from wreck excavation if those involved shed the “I want to get rich” mentality and focus on heritage and education.
Thorn Capron, TCI native entrepreneur and maritime investor, argues that “A new generation should not be blamed and constrained forever for the sins of previous treasure hunters, particularly when the previous treasure hunters were not from the Turks & Caicos Islands. If I go into this business, I want to do it right and preserve heritage as much as anyone—after all, this is as much my history, our history. Whatever we find does a lot more good on land, and it can be done right. Properly excavated, curated and presented, the finds can become a major tourist attraction. Moreover, TCI could position itself to become an international centre of underwater archeology tied to a major university that attracts top professors and students from around the world. We could be the place for applying the latest techniques and technology to ethically find and protect historic wrecks of all kinds.”
TCI National Museum Director Michael Pateman, who has lectured on underwater heritage protection at UNESCO, states, “I believe that archaeologists and treasure hunters must both be willing to compromise their positions and come to a middle ground.”
In the Turks & Caicos Islands, the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR) is charged with finding that middle ground by approving and regulating the search and excavation of historic wrecks. As in almost all countries, TCI ordinances start with the premise that everything (except salvageable shipwrecks and cargo where there is still a claim of ownership—these are governed by other laws) within its territorial waters (200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ) belongs to the government.
TCI Ordinances require that treasure hunters, as well as underwater archeologists, go through a two-step process—first, get a permit just to search, and second, get a permit to excavate if something is found. For the second permit, the treasure hunter must disclose the location and likely artefacts and follow strict guidelines to protect the artefacts and the reefs. DECR then requires an archeological evaluation and a government monitor on the boat to watch. The parties also negotiate a division of anything found that may result in the treasure hunter getting 50% of gold, silver or jewels found, while government gets the other half, plus all of the artefacts brought up.
It might seem like a reasonable deal, but nothing in the treasure business is simple. Distrust over motive and intention runs high, only amplified by the scarcity of resources the government has to monitor and enforce the ordinances to ensure compliance.
Indeed, as detection technology continues to improve and prices fall, TCI and wreck sites all over the world will almost certainly see even greater numbers of wanna-be treasure hunters searching for lost riches, further exacerbating limited enforcement and monitoring. Leapfrog technologies make finding treasure wrecks more likely with less investment and risk, a game-changer for treasure hunting.
Multiple Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV), for example, can apply artificial intelligence to exchange data while deep underwater in real time. Emitting acoustic waves or lightwaves (instead of electromagnetic waves, essentially ineffective under water), AUV’s with different detection capabilities can communicate and collaborate with each other to more precisely identify and locate wrecks and treasure.
More portentous, if not ominous, is the proposed application of blockchain technology to locate treasure wrecks in the Bahamas. Bahamian company PO8 wants to engage people worldwide to use their powerful personal computing capacity to analyse gargantuan amounts of data collected from satellites, sonar, magnetometers, geo-mapping, weather patterns and so on in the search for treasure. Participants would be rewarded with PO8 “tokens” linked to the cryptocurrency Ethereum (similar to Bitcoin). The concept resembles the decentralised model of “miners” earning cryptocurrency digital “coins” by running algorithms on computer servers. PO8 wants to create a registry of artefacts found, but also auction off treasure for their benefit. This highly systematic approach to wreck recovery raises the stakes by an order of magnitude and will undoubtedly generate acute opposition from underwater archeologists and marine preservationists.
The battle for the treasure wrecks will only intensify as long as a large and lucrative black market exists for collectors worldwide with seemingly endless resources. That hard reality will continue to drive the unethical treasure hunters to dig up what they can when they can get away with it, very possibly on a much broader scale. The game for now appears to be stacked against government, archeologists and preservationists, all of whom have insufficient capital to stop or control the escalation of treasure hunting.
Perhaps the only way to get out ahead will be for like-minded parties to compromise, find common ground, and collaborate, including some treasure hunters willing to sign on for a higher purpose. Done right, the treasure of shipwrecks can in fact finance enforcement of ordinances and fund protection from exploitation through museums and sanctioned recreational wreck diving. An idealistic approach, but maybe the only path in view of the new onslaught of threats. Ultimately, this generation of leaders will have to decide how much the past is worth, today and 100 years from now when much of that past may be gone.
At the same time, this generation can seize a golden moment to right the past in a way not done before. Those bars of silver and pieces of eight from Potosí and other mines that ended up off our reefs have their own historic claim. They belong as much to the descendants of those who paid with their lives when forced to extract and refine the ore. They too can be honoured, not just by nods of acknowledgment of their exploitation and contribution, but by genuine restitution from the treasure they produced. Only then can any benefit we might derive today truly respect the past, and dignify our future.

Ben Stubenberg is a contributing writer to Times of the Islands with a passion for Turks & Caicos Islands history. An avid ocean man, he is the co-founder of the sports and adventure tour company Caicu Naniki and the annual Turks & Caicos “Race for the Conch” Eco-Seaswim. Ben can be reached at ben@caicunaniki.com.

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