The Spanish Treasure Fleet

Much of Spain's exploration of the Americas centered on the desire to find gold and silver. These precious metals were valuable because they were used to make coins, which were the basis of most of Europe's monetary systems. Before the arrival of American treasure in the six-teenth century, European trade was fed primarily bygold from the Sudan. But Portuguese expeditions along the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf of Guinea between 1460 and 1470, and the establishment of direct trade relations between Portugal and the East Indies at the beginning of the sixteenth century, diverted the route of Sudanese gold away fromthe Mediterranean and caused a great scarcity of gold in Europe. This was supplied in part by the German silver mines, which enjoyed a period of relative prosperity between 1470 and 1530, coinciding with the shortage of precious metals. From 1530, however, this shortage was unexpectedly eased when American treasure began to replace the old sources of supply and gave Europe an immense stock of money, the origin of grave alteration in prices, especially in Spain, the country where the treasure arrived and from which it was distributed.

The influx of treasure consisted almost entirely of silver. The basic Spanish silver coin was the 8-reales piece or "piece of eight", which came to be called a peso. Because of its high silver content, pesos were widely accepted in Europe. This was important because Spain had virtually no industry of its own and had to buy manufactured goods from other European nations. In this way, the silver and gold Spain mined in the Americas made its way throughout Europe and impacted the global economy. The colonies that Spain founded in the New World became the world's largest sources of precious metals. Spain quickly established a policy whereby colonists in the Americas could only trade with Spanish merchant ships. Since early colonists depended on Spanish merchants for basic necessities including food, tools, domestic animals, and weapons, Spain's trading monopoly was very profitable.

Spain's New World monopoly became a source of tension with other European countries. The French viewed the treasure as an irresistible target and began attacking Spain's ships as they made their way into Spanish ports. These attacks were conducted by privateers, private ships that were licensed by the French government to try to seize Spanish ships. If successful, the privateer kept a portion of the seized treasure, and the French government took the rest. Using this system, France (and eventually England) was able to covertly claim some of the New World treasure without openly attacking Spain. To minimize these threats, Spain organized a defense for its merchant ships. In 1522, the government sent a fleet of warships into the Atlantic Ocean to escort the returning merchant ships into port. The government paid for the escort by requiring merchants to pay a tax on the goods being protected.

In the 1530s, Spain conquered the Inca Empire in present day Peru and added huge amounts of gold and silver to its coffers. Not surprisingly, France expanded efforts to seize Spanish treasure by licensing privateers to operate far into the Atlantic Ocean instead of concentrating on waters near Spain. In 1537, a year when French privateers captured nine treasure ships, Spain sent several royal warships all the way to the Caribbean to escort the treasure ships home. This convoy of merchant ships and warships is considered the first true treasure fleet. This system of merchant ships sailing in groups protected by warships helped the Spanish bring home large amounts of treasure. In 1545 the Spanish found the richest silver deposits yet discovered in the Americas on a mountainside in Peru. This find ensured the growth of the Spanish empire and made silver the most important precious metal coming from the Americas.

As New World trade continued to increase in the early 1550s, Spain struggled to find ships that not only could carry large quantities of cargo and sail well, but also could defend against attacks. The galleon, perfected during this period, soon became the standard ship used in the treasure fleets. An average galleon was about 100 feet long and 30 feet wide. It had three or four masts, two or three decks, and two to three dozen cannon. While galleons could carry large amounts of cargo and weapons, they were top-heavy and hard to maneuver. Merchant ships called naos, which were basically unarmed galleons, made up the bulk of the fleet and carried cargo, treasure, and passengers. Other ships traveling in the fleets included pataches, which were smaller vessels used to communicate between ships, and resfuerzos or supply ships that carried food and regular cargo.

By the 1560s, the treasure fleet system was well established and centered on two fleets - the Tierra Firme and the New Spain - sailing to the New World each year. Some years the two fleets left Spain as one large convoy and others they left separately. They followed the same course to the Caribbean, but while the Tierra Firme fleet proceeded to South America, the New Spain fleet went on to Mexico. After rejoining in Havana, the combined convoy sailed back to Spain.

Each fleet consisted of at least two heavily-armed galleons and two pataches as well as between 10 and 90 merchant naos. The largest galleon, the Capitana, carried the captain-general who was first in command of the fleet. The smaller galleon, the Almiranta, carried the admiral who was second in command. Because these ships were the most heavily armed, they carried all of the Crown's treasure. During the second half of the 16th century, at least 60 ships traveled in a convoy. Six or more galleons often traveled with the Tierra Firme fleet because it carried the most treasure (from Peru). Because it was more heavily armed, this convoy became known as the galeones (galleons). The New Spain fleet came to be called the flota (fleet).

In the mid 1560s, a third fleet, called the Manila Galleons, began sailing between the Spanish colony of the Philippines and Acapulco on the west coast of New Spain. In the Philippines, exotic Far East products such as spices, porcelains, silks, and ivory were loaded onto ships and taken to Acapulco. Here the goods were transported by pack animals to Veracruz where they would join the New Spain flota's treasure. Although the journey from Manila to Acapulco took from four to eight months and was considered the most difficult navigation in the world, the financial gain outweighed the risks.

By the 1570s, about five million pesos' worth of precious metals made the trip to Spain each year. Silver accounted for at least 95% of the total by weight. By the end of the 16th century, colonists were demanding more manufactured goods such as textiles, weapons, glass, and paper. Since Spain did not produce these goods in large quantities, merchants had to buy more and more foreign products to send to the Spanish colonies. This, in turn, made Spain more dependent on treasure from the Americas.

The treasure fleet system reached it height between 1590 and 1600. During this period, about 16 million pesos' worth of precious metals came from the New World mines each year. Then, over the next century the system began to slowly decline. Disputes over religion, territory, and trade caused Spain to fight various wars against the English, Dutch, and French for much of the 17th century. The treasure fleets were always a major target for Spain's enemies. The huge financial strain of wars and shortages of goods and ships made it hard to maintain the annual schedule. As Spain's debts increased, colonial mines began producing less silver and gold, attacks on ships increased, and other European nations began to colonize the Caribbean. At home, Spain's economy was declining, as was its shipbuilding industry. By the mid 17th century, more than two thirds of its ships were built in foreign countries. Also by this time, the average number of ships in a fleet had fallen to 25.

After 1700 there was little improvement in the treasure fleet system. A major reason for this was that Spanish colonists began buying goods from English, Dutch, and French merchants at cheaper prices. Accordingly, the demand for goods from the Spanish treasure ships decreased, and Spain's trading monopoly weakened. War with the Dutch and English in the early 18th century created a huge strain as did another war with the English in the 1730s. During these periods, small fleets sailed sporadically at best and sometimes not at all. The loss of the 1715 and 1733 fleets to hurricanes took a toll as well. In the 1760s and 70s only six flotas sailed to Veracruz. The treasure fleet system finally ended completely in 1778 when the Spanish Crown declared free trade all over her American colonies. After that, individual ships traveled back and forth to the Americas, but regulated convoys ceased to exist.

Although Spain's dominance of the Americas ultimately came to an end, it left a lasting legacy. From the 16th to the 18th century, Spanish mines in Mexico and South America produced more than 4 billion pesos' worth of precious metals. This equaled roughly 80 percent of the world's silver production and 70 percent of gold at a time when these precious metals were the most widely accepted international currency. The wealth generated by New World trade spread throughout Europe, ultimately shaping the world economy and fostering the European settlement of the Americas.

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