The Nuestra Señora de Atocha
In the centuries following the “discovery” of the New World, Spain’s new American colonies made it Europe’s most powerful nation—not only because of the empire’s expanding presence across the globe, but also because of the financial boon of trade with the Indies. Rich with precious metals, stones, and valuable agricultural goods, the colonies swiftly became the backbone of Spain’s wealth and influence, producing massive revenues with substantial taxes to support the Crown and offset the costs of the hazardous expeditions that made trade possible.
While these trade voyages were lucrative and essential to maintaining Spain’s role on the world stage, they were also highly complicated undertakings, met with numerous obstacles in the form of armed raids, attacks from Dutch challengers, and—perhaps most volatile—the whims of the ocean and the climate along the “Carrera de Indias,” the commercial highway that bore the Americas’ gold, silver, and gems to Spain’s ports. Safe travel in the Atlantic with the resources of the time could only be attempted a few months out of the year. The North Atlantic suffered storms throughout the winter, and the South Atlantic was subject to prohibitive hurricanes that descended June through October. If a fleet left the port in Havana too late in the summer, it risked encountering those hurricanes; if it waited out the hurricane season and left in October or November, it was likely to sail into a winter storm upon reaching northern parts. The only time of year that made for a relatively safe journey was a late spring departure from Spain, after the risk of winter gales had passed and before the onset of the late summer hurricanes.
In 1622, Spain’s fortune had begun to turn with the early developments of the Thirty Years’ War. A year earlier, their truce with the Dutch came to an end, and they now faced the threat of combined Dutch and French belligerents. The Spanish Royal Treasury, in attempting to finance the fighting and uphold the lavish conditions to which the Court had become accustomed, began to drain its resources, eventually finding itself forced to borrow heavily to meet costs. The urgency, then, for the monetary returns of the nation’s trading fleets, was greater than ever.
Unknown painting source
In spite of this desperate need, the Tierra Firme fleet, which included the famous Nuestra Señora de Atocha, waited until the reliable month of March to embark on its journey to the Americas. However, not long after the ships arrived at ports in the Caribbean and Colombia in late June, the fleet’s commander was warned that Dutch warships were clustered on the north coast of South America. The ships of the Tierra Firme fleet, having deposited and collected the necessary goods at their destinations, made to reunite at Havana, the typical city of departure, but poor sailing conditions delayed their arrival until the end of August. Impatient to escape the threat of the Dutch warships, and with delays bringing the return journey further and further behind schedule, the commander requested permission to leave for Spain, precisely at the height of hurricane season.
On September 5, just one day after the fleet’s departure from Havana, a rapidly approaching west-moving hurricane swirled into its path. For a day and a night, the ships were battered and hurled off-course, and the Atocha, which, as one of the most heavily armed vessels, carried the bulk of the gold, silver, and gems, was flung into the waters off the Florida Keys. Despite the crew’s best efforts to pull the ship away from the dangerous Florida reef line, monstrous waves lifted the galleon and smashed its hull on the reef’s craggy coral. Torn apart by this jagged barrier, the Atocha swiftly sank to the bottom of the sea, along with its precious cargo.
The deep waters in which the wreck finally settled thwarted Spanish authorities’ expeditions to retrieve the ship’s contents, and a second hurricane that year scattered the wreckage even further, compounding the difficulties of locating—let alone salvaging—the remains of the galleon. The Atocha treasure was thus lost for centuries before the late Mel Fisher, perhaps America’s best-known treasure hunter, undertook the mission of locating the wreck and recovering its contents, an expedition that would become his most famous. The Atocha is known not only for its treasure, but also for Fisher’s heroic recovery of those lost relics. He searched the sea bed for nearly seventeen years before finally landing on the wreck and its caches of gold, silver, and emeralds in 1985. Following his discovery, however, the State of Florida claimed title to the wreck and Fisher’s findings, a claim he fought all the way to the Supreme Court. After eight years of litigation, the Court finally ruled in favor of Fisher in 1992 and awarded him rights to all recovered material from the sunken Atocha.
The Atocha wreck is now considered to have been the most valuable known shipwreck in history, in large part because of its quantities of fine quality Muzo emeralds. To examine and appraise these emeralds, Fisher selected Manuel Marcial de Gomar from among many prominent experts. Marcial served as independent appraiser and expert consultant for all of the emeralds recovered from the wreck, and as payment for his expert services, Marcial accepted from Fisher over a 25 year span a selection of these wonderful and valuable treasures from the renowned sunken galleon. Marcial then selected certain of these emeralds, directing them to be cut under his particular supervision, yielding the unique gems we see in the Collection.
Now, the Marcial de Gomar Collection includes one of the best concentrations anywhere in the world of fine historic Atocha rough and cut emeralds. Herein is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own a piece of the world-famous treasure previously lost for centuries within the remains of the galleon meant to transport it to Spain at the height of that nation’s glory.