From August to December 1654, the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas (Our Lady of Wonders) waited in Cartagena, Colombia, for a cargo of silver that would never arrive. Unbeknownst to the ship’s crew, its supply vessel, the Jesus Maria de la Limpia Concepción, had sunk on a reef off Ecuador that October.
Only after the Concepción’s silver was salvaged and stowed on the Maravillas, alongside the galleon’s own fresh load of silver coins and bars, did the Lady of Wonders embark on its journey home to Spain. At the time, ships sailing between Europe and the Americas had to pass through the Bahama Channel, a shortcut between Florida and the Bahamas’ then-unmapped reefs. There, on January 4, 1656, the galleon lost its bearings.
Sailing as the vice-flagship of the Tierra Firme (Mainland) fleet, the Maravillas was rammed by its flagship and violently collided with a reef. The vessel sank like a stone, weighed down by its double cargo—the wreck of a wreck.
Today, the 891-ton Maravillas is the sunken crown jewel of the Bahamas, an island nation abounding in shipwrecks. Long exploited by treasure hunters, the 17th-century galleon is now being surveyed scientifically for the first time—an endeavor showcased in the Bahamas Maritime Museum, a privately owned institution slated to open in Freeport, Grand Bahama, on August 8.
“The Maravillas has never seen the right level of archaeological respect,” says David Gibbins, a marine archaeologist and bestselling novelist who is not involved in the ongoing excavations. “Past teams indiscriminately used smash-and-grab tactics. Everyone thought the ship, the wreck, was destroyed forever.”
Exploring the Maravillas
Over 40 miles off the Little Bahama Bank, a group of scientists headed by philanthropist and explorer Carl Allen tows magnetometers (navigational devices that measure magnetic fields) across miles of seabed. Every find is plotted, from a shard of pottery to a cannon; currents are modeled, and seabed geology is assessed. Up in the air, an Icon A5 aircraft searches for scattered wreckage. Beneath the waves, a Triton submarine plummets down to 650 feet, eyes peeled for sections of the Maravillas that may have slipped into the abyss. Even with all hands on deck, the work is slow and painstaking.
Throughout history, the waters surrounding the Bahamas have been an infamous playground for treasure hunters. Founded by Allen in 2016, Allen Exploration (also known as AllenX) is the first team to study the Maravillas with scientific rigor. Allen, a multimillionaire who made his money through a plastics business, also owns a fleet of yachts and the Bahamian island of Walker’s Cay.
In 2019, the Bahamian government granted AllenX a license to explore the wreck, ending a moratorium on shipwreck salvage expeditions that had been in place since 1999. The company owns and operates the soon-to-open museum, which features finds from the Maravillas, as well as displays on local history and culture.
The Maravillas was built in the province of Guipúzcoa, today part of the Basque Autonomous Community in northern Spain, during the 1640s. It was named after a 13th-century sculpture of the Virgin Mary that was housed in a Carmelite convent in Madrid and famed for its miracles. The ship featured two decks, a chapel for mass and a golden lion figurehead. Stowed in its cargo hold were royal and private consignments and smuggled treasures.
Some 650 people—a mix of travelers, merchants and crew—were on board the Maravillas during its final voyage. After the ship was wrecked, enormous waves broke it into pieces. Most of the passengers grabbed hold of floating debris and drifted away, never to be seen again. About 150 clung to pieces of the hull still above the water, only to die from exposure or be eaten by sharks. By sunrise on January 5, only 45 remained alive.
Previously, many scholars believed the Maravillas had been salvaged into oblivion. The Spanish Empire had no intention of leaving a royal ransom sitting on the ocean floor. Between 1656 and 1679, Spain sent ten expeditions to salvage the wreck site. English, French, Dutch and Bahamian ships tried their luck with the wreck in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Modern treasure hunters hit the site hard between the 1970s and early 1990s. Over three centuries, around 3.5 million pieces of eight and an undisclosed but significant number of silver bars were salvaged.
Without accurate records for both the historic and modern salvages, exactly what was lifted and what was left behind is educated guesswork. AllenX’s experts discovered that some Spanish treasure hunters went to great lengths to conceal their sunken bonanza. One Captain Iriarte hid gold from his 1657 salvage and was sentenced to death by hanging. In 1661, the Spanish crown sued Juan Somovilla de Tejada and Gaspar de los Reyes Palacio for failing to declare one million pesos recovered from the wreck. Over the centuries, countless happy-go-lucky divers stuffed their breeches with coins from the site.
“AllenX reversing the past’s disrespectful quarrying of the wreck comes as a relief,” says Gibbins. “Finally, we can look forward with hope to some science answering research questions long thought dead and buried.”
To search for surviving traces of the wreck, AllenX used magnetometers, which identified 8,800 metallic hits (spots of potential interest) across a search area covering 11 by 5 miles. Clusters of cultural debris soon emerged: shards of Spanish olive jars and Chinese porcelain, iron straps used to rig cannons on gun decks, glass wine bottles, sword handles, silver coins, tobacco pipes, and jewelry. Together, the finds serve as a sunken porthole into the tail end of the Golden Age of Spain, a flourishing of art and exploration that spanned roughly 1500 to 1681.
According to James Sinclair, director of marine archaeology for the AllenX Maravillas project, the researchers are delving into the mystery of the ship’s demise by thoroughly mapping all of their finds. “This isn’t just forensic marine archaeology,” he says. “We’re also digging into former excavations, working out what previous salvage teams got up to, where and why. So much data has been lost from this ravaged wreck. It’s time to reverse those trends.”
The wreck’s rare treasures
Held annually since 1566, the Tierra Firme’s yearly sojourns to the New World had one main goal: to fill the fleet’s ships with riches from Latin America’s gold, silver and emerald mines, as well as copper, tobacco and Venezuelan pearls. Mined first by Indigenous peoples and then by enslaved Africans, these precious metals and gems helped fund the Franco-Spanish War, which began in 1635 and ended in 1659.
Though gold and silver “were a large part” of the Maravillas’ voyage, Allen says he feels a “greater connection with everyday finds than mass-produced coins. We’ve discovered artifacts that connect with the crew and passengers. … Everything you touch, from a musketball to a piece of jewelry, links with the past to people like you and me.”
A remarkable find made by the AllenX team is an almost 2-pound, 6-foot-long gold filigree chain crafted from circular flat and tubular links and decorated with rosettes. A similar chain appears in a portrait of Philip IV of Spain, who was on the throne when the Maravillas sank. The jewelry’s ornate appearance hints that it was commissioned by an elite client—perhaps even a royal one.
During the 17th century, merchants sometimes used individual gold chain links as currency. “This, however, cannot be said of the Maravillas’ chains,” notes Beatriz Chadour-Sampson, a jewelry historian and curator who has examined photos of the finds. “These are of high-quality craftsmanship, almost certainly made in Spanish Manila in the Philippines, possibly by Chinese craftsmen.”
Chadour-Sampson adds, “Such chains are a rare survival, as almost all were later melted down to be refashioned.”
The star finds from AllenX’s three years of underwater surveys are tiny jewels, no more than two inches long, found on top of dead coral reefs. “Exploring the debris field veering away from the Maravillas’ strike point”—where the boat was wrecked—“is a mixed feeling,” says Allen. “The sea bottom is barren. The colorful coral that divers remembered from the 1970s is gone, poisoned by ocean acidification and choked by shifting sand. It’s painfully sad. Still lying on those dead grey reefs, ... here and there, are sparkling finds.”
Uncut emeralds and amethysts, neither of which are listed on the Maravillas’ Spain-bound cargo, are especially common. Spanish galleons returning from the Americas often carried contraband at least 20 percent above what was declared, and sometimes as much as 200 percent over. Smuggling was a national sport.
“[This] galleon was stuffed with contraband illegally greasing the palms of Spanish merchants and officials,” Allen says. “Our [surveys are] finding that most recovered coins were minted in Mexico. But the Maravillas didn’t officially load coins in Mexico.”
In addition to smuggled loot, the ship carried personal items and rare objects ready to be sold to wealthy Europeans. Among these privately owned treasures was a golden pendant shaped like a scallop shell and adorned with the cross of Santiago, or Saint James. The pendant is backed with an Indian bezoar stone, famous in Europe for its healing properties. At the center of a second golden pendant, this one oval in shape, is a gold cross of Saint James atop a large Colombian emerald. The outer edge is framed by 12 square emeralds, perhaps symbolizing the 12 apostles.
AllenX has so far tied four finds—including three pendants—to the Order of Santiago, Spain and Portugal’s most prestigious military body. They were likely owned by high-ranking officers on the Maravillas, as the order’s knights were especially active in the sea trade. When Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, the first European to sail to India, commanded a 21-ship armada in 1502 and 1503, it sailed with eight Santiago knights. Martin de Urnieta, the shipwright who finished building the Maravillas in 1647, was also a knight of the order.
The jewelry’s scalloped shape was designed to replicate the scallops picked up along the coast of Galicia, in northwest Spain, and carried home by pilgrims who visited the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. Built by Spain’s Alfonso III in 899 C.E., the pilgrimage destination supposedly housed Saint James’ bones. During the medieval era and beyond, knights of the Order of Santiago were charged with protecting the 500-mile pilgrimage route from attack by the Moors.
“Finding so many pendants linked to the Order of Santiago in varying designs and gemstones is incredibly rare on land,” says Chadour-Sampson. “They would have been strung around the neck on gold chains to show that pious owners had made a pilgrimage to Saint James’ shrine. … They make the decks of the Maravillas feel like a floating aristocratic court mixed with the sweat of sailors heaving on rigging.”
Sharing the Bahamas’ maritime history
Artifacts recovered from the Maravillas by AllenX form the bulk of the Bahamas Maritime Museum’s collection. Carl and his wife, Gigi Allen, have also donated materials salvaged by other teams in Bahamian waters between the 1970s and 1990s and acquired for the museum.
Next to the shipwrecked wonders are displays on a range of topics, including the Indigenous Lucayan peoples, the Bahamas’ little-known role in the transatlantic slave trade, and the island of New Providence’s infamous role in the golden age of piracy. The museum worked closely with the Bahamian government to plan these exhibits.
“For a nation built from the ocean, it’s astonishing how little is understood about the Bahamas’ maritime links,” says Michael Pateman, the museum’s director. “Few know that the … Lucayan peoples, for instance, settled here 1,300 years ago. Or that the whole population, up to 50,000 people, was forced out by Spanish guns, made to dive for pearls off Venezuela and killed off in less than three decades.”
Pateman adds, “There was a dazzling Old World culture in the Bahamas long before European ships thought they found a New World.”
Under the Antiquities, Monuments and Museum Act (amended in 2011), all wreckage in Bahamian waters is the property of the Bahamian government. AllenX is keeping all of its Maravillas finds together, conserved for display or storage in the museum. None of the artifacts recovered will be sold.
The museum’s goal is to share the Bahamas’ maritime legacy with Bahamians and the wider world. Visitors can watch artifacts from the wreck of the Maravillas being conserved through a glass window in an on-site lab; a museum education program teaches children about traditional boat building and archaeological techniques.
Since 2019, AllenX has discovered a total of 18 wrecks in the Bahamas. The company’s archaeologists are still searching for the Maravillas’ sterncastle (a raised section of the ship), which probably broke off and drifted away before the galleon sank, and they plan to continue their work long after the museum opens its doors.
“I could spend my life looking for ships in the Bahamas and only scratch the surface of what’s down there,” says Allen. “There are wrecks here from the 1500s forward. And who knows what’s even earlier? These potential discoveries can help shape the story of the making of the Americas and the peoples that owned the land before colonial Europe arrived.”