Why Spain Is Seeking to Catalog All of Its Historic Shipwrecks

A deep dive into the archives yields hundreds of long-forgotten journeys

Santa Maria
19th-century engraving depicting the Santa María, the ship used by Christopher Columbus. Alamy

For four centuries, Spain’s prodigious naval power built an empire that stretched around the globe. But not every military or merchant voyage ended well. In the first analysis of its kind by a former colonial power, Spain’s Ministry of Culture has identified 681 shipwrecks in the Caribbean and along the southern Atlantic coast of the United States. They date from 1492, when Christopher Columbus’ Santa María hit a sandbar near modern-day Haiti, to 1898, when the U.S. Navy sank the Plutón off the coast of Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

Carlos León Amores, an archaeologist, led a research team that spent five years sifting through Spanish archives to identify the doomed vessels, less than a quarter of which have been precisely located. More than 90 percent foundered in storms; only about 2 percent were sunk by pirates or rival navies. More than 50,000 people perished, some of them enslaved Africans.

The ships carried diverse cargoes, from food and weapons to religious objects, but it’s the glittering products of Spain’s New World colonies that have long attracted interest from historians and fortune seekers. Already the government’s unpublished list is being called “the world’s largest treasure map.” But León Amores cautions that Spain is actually trying to stymie treasure hunters by laying claim to its “underwater cultural heritage.”

It’s not the first official shot across the bow. In 2012, Spain won a lawsuit against a U.S. salvage firm, which was forced to return 17 tons of gold and silver coins discovered in the wreck of the frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, sunk by the British near Portugal in 1804. Spanish authorities are currently embroiled in a dispute with the Colombian government and another U.S. firm over the 1708 wreck of the galleon San José, which carried gold, silver and emeralds that could be worth billions.

Still, the value of centuries-old wrecks is more than monetary. Each ship that sank between the Old World and the New is evidence of the beginnings of globalization. The real treasure is a better understanding of this powerful economic force that continues to shape the world today.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.