The 1733 Shipwrecks off the Coast of Florida

In 1733, the Spaniards were one of many European nations that were exploring, conquering and trading in the New World. Havana was the centre of Spanish commerce, at the time, and ships would use it as a port to rest and stock up on supplies before the long journey to Spain. On Friday 13th July, 1733 a fleet of 17 ships left Havana to undertake this voyage. The ships were led by El Rubi Segundo, a 60 cannon warship, which was under the command of Lieutenant-General Rodringo de Torres.

1864_Johnson_Map_of_Florida_-_Geographicus_-_Florida-johnson-1864There were two other large warships in the fleet, the Almiranta El Gallo Indiano and the Rufuerzo El Infante. All the ships, except the Royal Scoutship of His Majesty King Phillip VI, El Nuestro Senora del Populo, were packed to capacity with goods and provisions, both trading cargo and supplies for the crews, and armed to protect the fleet against piracy.

On the day after their departure, when the ships had arrived in the vicinity of the Florida Keys, the wind shifted abruptly and increased in velocity. The Lieutenant-General realized that a hurricane was approaching and ordered the fleet to return to Havana. He advised that they sail as close as possible to the wind to increase their chances of getting there. Unfortunately, his command was not given in time to save the majority of the ships and by the 15th of July many of them were either wrecked or sunk and much of their cargo lost.

After the storm, one of the vessels, Senor San Joseph aka El Africa, being completely unaware of the fate of the other ships stopped along the way to make repairs and went on to arrive in Spain safely. Four of the vessels made their way safely back to Havana. The survivors of the other 12 ships gathered in small groups on the surrounding islands, and built shelters from the debris that they were able to recover.

The_Wreck_of_the_BirkenheadThe officials in Havana acted quickly and realizing that the fleet would have gotten caught in the hurricane, sent other vessels out to assess the loss and search for survivors. Shortly after, a small boat arrived in Havana and reported seeing a large ship grounded near ‘Head of the Martyrs.’ More rescuers were sent specifically to this area. In total 9 rescue vessels with supplies, divers and soldiers were dispatched to take care of the survivors, recover any cargo that they could find and protect it as best as they could. Any of the wrecks that were unable to float so that they could be towed to Havana, were burnt to the waterline to allow the divers immediate access.

Salvaging of the fleet’s cargo continued for years, and in an ironic turn of events after it was completed more gold and silver was recovered than had been originally listed as on board. The area was searched again in the 1960s and it is believed that most of the remaining wreckage was found, even though nobody could properly identify it.

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