The treasure that sank the Spanish Empire: 400-year-old shipwreck reveals haul of gold, silver, pearls and even parrots

The stunning treasures from a sunken Spanish galleon have been revealed for the first time after the ship was rediscovered nearly 400 years on from its wreck in the Gulf of Mexico.

The loss of the Buen Jesus y Nuestra Senora del Rosario along with seven other ships destroyed the Bank of Madrid – and even contributed to the collapse of the Spanish Empire.

Now deep-sea divers believe they have found its wreck 400m deep, with 17,000 objects on board revealing that it was carrying gold, pearls – and even parrots.

Treasure: Some of the 27 gold bars recovered from the wreck of Buen Jesus y Nuestra Senora del Rosario


Unique: These pearls are from a rare species of oyster found in seabeds off the coast of Venezuela


Precious: The loss of the treasure, such as this chain weighing half a kilogram, devastated Spain’s economy


Galleon: This image of 16th-century Seville shows a ship similar to that lost in the Gulf of Mexico


The discovery unveiled today gives a fascinating glimpse into the sometimes unexpected treasures which made the colonial economy run.

The wreck site, around 400 miles from the Florida Keys, contains 39 gold bars, and nearly 1,200 silver pieces of eight.

More unusually, the site features more than 6,600 pearls being exported to Europe from the coast of Venezuela.

The gems came from a type of oyster which was unique to South America but which was nearly extinct by the early 17th century thanks to over-exploitation by colonial traders.

Bullion: A gold bar stamps with official marks certifying its purity and taxation status


Vessels: These ceramic jars and tableware were used to furnish the doomed ship on its voyage


Precious: A selection of the jewels and precious stones being transported from the New World to the Old


Cash: Silver coins apparently mined in the colonies and taken back to Spain to prop up the ruling power


Certificate: A stamp reading ‘en rada’ operating as a sort of guarantee of the gold’s origin


And it was not only wildlife to suffer from the oyster trade – 60,000 Caribbean natives are believed to have died while diving for pearls on behalf of the Spanish.

In addition to the precious metals and jewels, two bird’s bones were found at the site, thought to have come from a blue-headed parrot.

The parrots made popular pets because of their bright plumage and ability to mimic human speech, but this is the first time the remains of one have been found in a shipwreck.

Another glimpse of everyday life in the early modern world comes from a tortoiseshell comb for lice apparently made by a member of the ship’s crew.

Jar: The artefacts found by the Odyssey expedition have not been seen for nearly 400 years


Astrolabe: This was used to navigate by the stars but did not help the ship avoid a devastating hurricane


Riches: But the empire was deep in debt and the wreck of its ships contributed to its downfall


Examination: An archaeologist holding silver retrieved from the wreck 400m deep in the Gulf of Mexico

The Buen Jesus y Nuestra Senora del Rosario was one of a fleet of 28 Spanish merchants hit by a hurricane on September 5, 1622.

Eight were sunk, killing 500 people on board and hiding their treasure for nearly four centuries.

The Spanish economy had been relying on the boost it would have received from the ships’ arrival, and the disaster contributed to the eventual downfall of the formerly all-powerful colonial empire.

To the rescue: The Seahawk Retriever moored over the site of the shipwreck


Delicate: Cutting-edge technology was used to retrieve the valuable treasures from the seabed


Handle with care: Team members examine containers full of ceramic jars from the Buen Jesus


Machinery: This filtration system designed to sift small finds was specially designed for the expedition


Find: The site of the shipwreck is around 400 miles away from the Florida Keys


Dark legacy: An early modern engraving of African slaves at work in the silver mines of Peru


Excavations at the site of the wreck have been going on for more than 20 years, using deep-sea technology developed by British engineers to drill for oil in the North Sea.

They were carried out by Odyssey Marine Exploration, whose president Greg Stemm told The Times: ‘This is the major find of our time.’

The objects excavated from the Rosario are going on display at the company’s headquarters in Florida.

Oceans Odyssey 3, a book on the shipwreck and its contents, is published today by Oxbow Books.


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