Wreck of the Concepción

The fateful final voyage of a treasure-laden Spanish galleon.

By Ben Stubenberg ~ Original Painting by Richard McGhie

Strewn across the long barrier reefs and shallow banks that encircle the Turks & Caicos lie more than 1,000 shipwrecks. Each one comes with a unique yet kindred story of crew and passengers staring down death as relentless waves drag their helpless vessel over hull-ripping coral. Some manage to hang on long enough to ride out the storm before the ship breaks up and make it to shore. But for many more, it’s one last gasp of air before the sea pulls them under to a blue-water grave.

Every so often, however, a wreck stands out with a tale of transcendent irony. A voyage of the doomed cursed by the plunder they carry. A desperate reckoning of the soul as mortality beckons. Such is the case of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de la Pura y Limpia Concepción, one of the richest treasure ships of all time.

Local artist Richard McGhie painted this image of the Concepción in stormy seas.

On April 21, 1640 the Concepción set sail from the Bay of Cadiz, Spain, as the Capitana (Flagship) of the La Flota de Nueva España (The New Spain Fleet), a convoy of 21 ships bound for Vera Cruz, Mexico. In the months before, the Concepción had been refitted with new masts, sails, anchors, deck space, and 36 bronze cannons. They transformed the ship from a nao (large merchant ship) to a formidable galeón that carried 500 passengers that included noblemen, servants, fortune seekers, friars, and bureaucrats. Stowaways too bribed their way onto the ship, trying to remain invisible. Also on board were hundreds of penned up animals, barrels of wine, and crates of supplies—all to fortify and expand the settlements in the colonized lands in the Americas.

The more privileged passengers took up quarters in the lavishly decorated superstructure or “poop decks” at the stern, towering four stories above main deck. They included the new Viceroy for Mexico and and three bishops who brought with them religious relics, including, purportedly, a thorn from the crown of Jesus Christ and the severed finger of St. Andrew. As added protection, a magnificent statue of the Virgin Mary, the patroness of the vessel, was fastened with bolts to the poop deck for all to see.

The fleet kept close together during the crossing and a sharp lookout for Corsairs or pirates who appeared menacingly on the horizon from time to time. On June 24, all ships made it to the port of Vera Cruz, a stifling hot and humid town on the Mexican coast and the gateway to what the newcomers called New Spain. Soon after arrival, the fleet commander, known as the Capitana-General, died, probably of yellow fever. That elevated Admiral Juan de Campos to the new Capitana-General on the flagship Concepción. The shuffle also promoted Don Juan de Villavicencio to the rank of Vice Admiral or Almiranta on the smaller galleon San Pedro y San Pablo. Villavicencio at just 37 years old was already an experienced veteran of many Atlantic crossings. De Campos, by contrast, was more a businessman than a mariner.

Fateful delays

The ships stayed anchored for a year to await the arrival of mule trains and boats carrying tons of silver mined by enslaved Native Americans and Africans in Mexico and Petosi (now Bolivia), along with gold bullion. They also waited for another caravan making its way overland from Acapulco, this one hauling jade, silks, spices, fragile porcelain pots, and other luxuries from China brought across the Pacific by the Manila fleet.

When the valuable cargoes arrived, haggling merchants traded the supplies from Spain for the silver and other valuables that were loaded onto the Concepción and the San Pedro y San Pablo for the voyage back to Spain. The Concepción  alone took in at least 100 tons of silver, possibly as much a 140 tons, filling it up to the gunwales. No galleons with treasure had made it back to Spain in 1640, causing great anxiety for shipowners, merchants, and the Spanish Crown. Spanish King Philip IV in particular desperately needed his royal fifth (quinto real) cut of the treasure to pay his armies to keep the wars going with the Dutch and French. But as coffers emptied and time dragged on, bankruptcies loomed for all.

Just before departing Vera Cruz for a stop in Havana, de Campos switched the Capitana of the fleet from the Concepción to the San Pedro y San Pablo. The decision appeared to be triggered by the deteriorating condition of the Concepción’s from shipworms that had worsened while at anchor for a year in warm tropical waters. Villavicencio, now in command of the Concepción, forcefully pointed out that the ship would need to be repaired in Havana before it could make it back across the Atlantic. In making the switch, de Campos also made a fateful decision to transfer the inexperienced senior pilot, Bartolomé Guillen, to the Concepción.

The fleet set sail for Havana in late July. The leaking and slow moving Concepción  took a long 35 days to reach Cuba’s bustling capital city on August 27, 1641. That date put the ships a full week after August 20, the last day Spanish shipmasters deemed it safe to depart Havana to avoid hurricanes. The ships remained in port another 17 days to take on more passengers and allow Villavicencio to caulk the seams of his ship. But he still did not feel the repairs were sufficient for safe passage. He petitioned de Campos for a further delay, but to no avail. De Campos, well aware of the crown’s urgent dependence on the treasure, wanted to get underway and brooked no more postponement.

De Campos’s anxiousness to set sail, however, was also driven by a more self-serving motive. La Flota de Nueva España was supposed to be joined by another fleet, La Flota Terra Firma, on its way north from Cartageña to Havana with its own treasure of precious metals and jewels. But that fleet’s Capitana-General was equal in rank to de Campos and held in much higher regard for successfully raiding an English settlement in what is now Nassau. If the fleets traveled together, de Campos would have to share the glory of delivering the treasure to the crown with a much more popular and accomplished Capitana-General. His ego and jealousy would seal the fate of the Concepción and all the ships in his flotilla.

The hurricane

Deep into hurricane season, La Flota de Nueva España finally departed Havana on September 13, heading northeast toward the Florida Straits to catch the Gulf Stream back across the Atlantic. But less than a day out, the Concepción  sprang a serious leak that put the ship at risk of sinking. Villavicencio signaled with a lantern that his ship must return to port. That required all the other ships to turn around as well so that the Concepción  didn’t sail solo and risk attack by pirates. Back in Havana, Villavicencio unloaded the galleon of its massive treasure cargo and hundreds of passengers to lighten the ship and bring it above the waterline to plug the leaks. The fleet set sail once more on September 20, now a month after the final date set for fleets heading back to Spain.

Eight days out off the coast of Florida, a major hurricane struck. For two days, violent winds and waves battered the ships of the fleet and almost capsized the top-heavy Concepción. Mast snapped, water poured into the portholes, and cannons were thrown overboard. Priests led the terrified passengers and crew in prayer and took confessions from everyone. All anxiously looked for some sign of a reprieve, but the storm continued to rage. At some point, the statue of the Virgin Mary broke loose and disappeared into the churning ocean. The shock of losing the ship’s patron saint induced deep despair that the end was truly nigh.

When the storm cleared, the sailors worked the hand pumps around the clock to bail out water. They cut away the mast and rigged makeshift sails on remaining spars to try to gain some control of the ship. The damage to the rudder, already too small for the size of the ship, made steering difficult. The crew spotted some ships from the fleet in the distance, including the flagship San Pedro y San Pablo, just as beaten up as the Concepción. But they all disappeared from view after a day.

Using an astrolabe, the pilot Guillen attempted to determine the ship’s latitude. The navigation instrument worked by taking measurements from the height of the sun or the polar star over the horizon. His calculations showed the ship could be somewhere near St. Augustine, north of the Bahamas, or maybe near Bermuda. The chronometer for determining longitude had not yet been invented, so they did not know how far east they were from Florida.

Villavicencio decided that the Concepción’s best hope was to try to make it to San Juan, Puerto Rico, that lay somewhere to the south. For weeks, the crippled vessel lumbered in a southeasterly direction. Along the way, unsanitary conditions contaminated the dwindling supply of food and water that hadn’t washed overboard and began to sicken people.

At about 22º N latitude, east of Grand Turk, Guillen claimed that Puerto Rico must be due south. He called on Villavicencio to set the course accordingly. But Villavicencio, who plainly had no confidence in the pilot’s capabilities, countered that Puerto Rico was further east. A contentious argument broke out between the two officers until the pilot invoked his right per Spanish maritime regulations to overrule the captain when navigation disputes arise. A frustrated Villavicencio, knowing the rules, ordered that a silver basin with water brought to him. In front of the weary crew and sullen passengers gathered on main deck of the struggling ship, he literally and symbolically washed his hands of responsibility. The ship’s fate was then in the hands of the pilot Guillen.

Wreck on the reef

In calm water on the night of October 31, the eve of All Saints Day, the Concepción’s hull scraped against a reef and came to a shuttering halt. The ship had jammed between two giant coral heads shaped like mushrooms rising from the seafloor. Called Abrojos, they appeared as flat rocks just above the water at low tide. Some were the size of a living room, some as big as a football field that stretched out for miles. Guillen’s new calculations put the ship about 20 miles (32 km) north of Anagada Island in the Virgin Islands and east of Puerto Rico. In fact, the pilot’s new assertions were wildly off the mark. The ship wrecked on what is now the Silver Bank (Banco de la Plata), 85 miles (136 km) north of the Dominican Republic and 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Grand Turk.

The crew tried to tow the Concepción away from the coral heads using a longboat that had somehow survived intact. They almost succeeded, but waves drove the ship back in. The bow of the ship split open and began submerging. The stern with its lavishly appointed superstructure rose above the surface, as around 450 desperate survivors crammed into the remaining space. Villavicencio ordered rafts to be built that could take them to Anagada, which he also believed to be the closest island, notwithstanding his disdain for the pilot. But a widespread belief that cannibals lived there caused some hesitation, even as options were quickly running out.

While preparing to evacuate the wreck, Villavicencio and other officers turned their attention to how best to protect the treasure. To our 21st century ears, such a consideration amidst great suffering and imminent life- threatening danger comes across as rather unsettling. In the 17th century, however, securing the treasure for the Crown had the same priority.

In the midst of a thunder and lightning storm on the third night after running aground, fights broke out that killed several people. Villavicencio tried to stop the violence with reassurances that everyone would get off the ship, and that he would be the last to leave. But by then his authority had collapsed, replaced by panic and anarchy. At that point, Villavicencio and 31 officers and noblemen clamored into the remaining longboat to get away. Accounts differ on how Villavicencio actually came to be on the boat. He would later claim that he tried to stay on the ship, but that one of his officers pushed him to the water where he was pulled into the boat unconscious.

The hundreds still on board ripped planks to finish a dozen rafts. In chaotic groups, they set out on the sea with most heading south. Some of the rafts sank so low in the water that sharks swam into them and fed on the people hanging on. After three or four days, the rafts that didn’t sink washed up on the north coast of what is now the Dominican Republic, as happened with the longboat carrying Villavicencio. Even after reaching land, the ordeal of the survivors was far from over. They still had to trek through the jungle or along stretches of empty beach with little food or water to find help.

About 30 survivors took their chances and remained with the Concepción, hoping to be rescued. As the ship continued to disintegrate, they unloaded as much silver as they could and piled it onto the flat top of a coral head that could serve as a marker for rescuers. The pile was so high they could walk on what became essentially a platform above the water at high tide.

The irony is not lost. The silver bars brutally and forcibly extracted and refined by the enslaved to pay for endless European wars and make fabulous fortunes for merchants and shipowners lost their anticipated value. Instead, they acquired a much higher transformative value as slabs that staved off death for another day. When the Concepción  totally broke apart, they too escaped on a raft. Of the last 30 to leave the wreck, only one, a Native American, lived to tell the story.

Searching for the Concepción 

Of the more than 500 passengers and crew on the Concepción, fewer than 200 survived. The pilot Guillen made it to land, but knowing the likely fate of long imprisonment or execution that awaited him, he disappeared, never to be heard from again. Spanish officials first learned about the wreck when Villavicencio and the survivors from the longboat straggled into Santo Domingo famished and in rags. They had walked 170 miles (272 km) over mountainous terrain guided by locals. More survivors would follow. Spanish officials questioned them about the location of the wreck to mount a search and recover the silver. But no one could pinpoint the location. Word got out quickly among pirates and opportunists, and for years they scoured the reef for signs of the wreck and the chance to become rich beyond dreams. But none of them found it either.

In 1687, 46 years later, William Phips from New England came across an old survivor of the Concepción. With funding from a London syndicate of investors and the backing of King James II, as well as incredible luck, he managed to find the wreck. As in the first extraction of the gold and silver decades before, Phips used enslaved Africans and Native Americans to do the hard and dangerous work to recover treasure. These enslaved may have numbered as many as 60 skilled free divers who brought up several tons of precious metal up from the sea floor.

Without these divers from Bermuda, Jamaica, Barbados, and the Dominican Republic, Phips would not have retrieved much, if anything. Europeans at the time had none of the aquatic capabilities, such as five minutes of underwater breath holding, required for such an operation. The haul made Phips a vast fortune and got him knighted by the King, who also appointed him Governor of Massachusetts Colony. Interestingly, during his tenure as Governor, he created a special court in 1692 to handle the infamous Salem witch trials.

Almost 300 years would pass before the Concepción was rediscovered in 1978 by American treasure hunter Burt Webber. Using magnetometers and scuba gear to find what Phips missed, Webber managed to bring up gold and silver valued at US$13 million. This time, the recovery was made under the watchful eye of the Dominican Republic Government, that also received a substantial share of the treasure. UK/TCI also has a long standing claim to the reefs that include the Silver Bank where the wreck is located. The claim of jurisdiction remains unresolved to this day.

Many treasure hunters like Phips and Webber became popular heroes in their day for the bold, adventurous expeditions that also made them multi-millionaires. Today, however, the reputation of treasure hunters has tarnished as preservationists and nautical archeologists portray them as reef destroyers, heritage stealers, and little more than grave robbers.

Governments still permit recoveries of treasure off their shores, but under strict guidelines and direct observation. Reflective of modern times, the reefs of the Silver Bank where the Concepción met a grim and grisly end is now a UN Underwater Cultural Heritage, World Heritage Site and protected from further exploitation.

Tarnished treasure

A “treasure hunter” handles one of the few remaining pieces of wood from the wreck of the Concepción, now a protected site.

Ships in peril have always fascinated and drawn us in. They serve as metaphors for journeys of self discovery and vulnerability, as well as microcosms of society that lend clarity to the eternal conflict between good and evil. Wrecks can also play out like Greek tragedies with a flawed captain battling forces where the outcome has already been decided by fate. The voyage of the Concepción contains these elements, but another comparison comes mind: a passage into the Heart of Darkness.

Just as Joseph Conrad’s novella about a steamer heading up the Congo River reveals the horrors of colonialism in Africa, so too does the voyage of the Concepción expose the heinous plunder of the Americas. There is no mysterious Kurtz to find, nor is Charlie Marlow’s steamer about to run aground. But the meandering vessel across the sea, unsure of where it is and laden with blood money extracted for an imperial class, reflects the same essential theme. Both are damning indictments that challenge our notions of civilization. And the shipworms infesting the leaky vessel, of course, take on their own potent symbolism of rot and demise.

Perhaps those aboard the Concepción made a connection between their fate and the cargo they carried, as they sought to cleanse their souls while the hurricane bore down. But it seems unlikely, as none were recorded by the survivors. We do know that when the dying galleon hit the reef and the game was up, Villavicencio and officials worried about how to save the treasure, not how it came to be. That ingrained ethos of avarice would continue to shape the conquest of the Americas for the next 250 years.

Pieces of that tainted silver still lie sprinkled in the sand and encrusted in coral around the wreck of the Concepción, just three hours by boat from the Turks & Caicos Islands. In the quiet of the deep, they resonate as poignant reminders of a harrowing history lingering just below the surface that never remains in the past.

Ben Stubenberg (bluewaterben@gmail.com) is a regular contributor to the Times of the Islands and a storyteller about pirates and sunken treasure. He is the co-founder of the TCI tour and swim company Caicu Naniki Vacation Adventures and the annual “Race for the Conch” Eco- SeaSwim.

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