The mission of the treasure fleets or flotas that once sailed between Spain and the New World was two-fold. Ships leaving Spain transported supplies and reinforcements to New World colonies.
Upon their return, they brought treasures, bars of silver and gold for the realm, as well as goods to be sold at market.
The trip took between six and eight weeks to complete, one-way, and followed routes established by Christopher Columbus and Ponce de Leon — among other early explorers. On the voyage from Spain, ships followed the African coastline, passing between the Canary Islands before turning west and sailing to the modern day Dominican Republic.
On the trip home from the New World, the fleets roughly paralleled La Florida until, generally speaking, captains sighted Bermuda. Bermuda was used as a beacon of sorts from which vessels turned east to make the Atlantic crossing.
The route made the best use of the favorable currents of the Gulf Stream discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513.
The trek was inherently dangerous. Captains were continually reminded that navigating the currents, shoals and coral reefs of the Bahama Channel could prove suddenly treacherous. European sailors, unfamiliar with the great storms that grew from the warm waters of the West Indies, had to learn when the best time of year to head home was. The lessons took time, trial and error and, more importantly, never proved to be absolutes.
Of course stormy weather was only part of the problem. In addition to the tricky navigating and the sometimes sudden blow of hurricanes, there were pirates. French pirates, for instance, liked to keep closer to home, waiting off the coast of Spain to attack the flotas on their way home. To respond, in 1522 Spanish officials began sending armed ships out to meet the fleets at the Azores. Their orders were to escort the fleets safely back to Spain. The service was paid for by taxing the merchant ships transporting their goods.
By 1526, ships bound for the colonies were required to travel in convoys because, while it was no panacea, traveling in packs helped to dissuade some pirates from attacking. However pirates, like sharks, are opportunistic predators by nature and attacks continued to happen. When General Pedro Menendez commanded the Spanish Fleet of 1554 from Vera Cruz to Seville, Spain, French pirates attacked. The general won the fight and delivered the fleet safely home, an event that helped to solidify Menendez’s standing as a respected sailor and military officer.
Subsequently, Menendez was assigned to command the fleet carrying King Phillip II to England in 1554 when he sailed off to marry Queen Mary. When French forces plundered and burned Havana in 1555, Phillip II consulted with the Council of the Indies, which consisted of between six and 10 members and enacted the laws governing Spain’s colonies in the Americas between 1524 and 1834. After the consultation, General Menendez was given the order to study the logistics of traveling between Spain and the New World.
It was not until circa 1565 that an official series of regulations regarding the operations of treasure fleets was established. The rules were culled from both 50 years of Spanish history and the personal recommendations of General Pedro Menendez de Aviles.
On the basis of Menendez’s recommendations, Havana was established as the official rendezvous point for the fleets. In addition, the primary Spanish ports-of-call in the West Indies were to be fortified. Patrols by Spanish warships would also be intensified in both the Caribbean and Atlantic waters. Also, regularly scheduled, heavily guarded escort ships would be assigned to accompany the two fleets deployed every year — the New Spain and the Tierra Firma.
Both the New Spain and the Tierra Firma fleets brought treasure back to Spain, but while the New Spain fleet was generally accompanied by two ships of war, the Capitana, which led the fleet and the Almiranta, the warship that brought up the rear of the convoy, the Tierra Firma fleet needed more protection. The Tierra Firma, more heavily laden with gold and silver, was escorted by an average of six warships. The ships assigned to the Tierra Firma fleet became known as the galeones, the galleons.
Merchant vessels forced to travel within the fleets that crossed twice a year might have been one of 60 vessels traveling across the Atlantic; they did not appreciate the arrangement as it meant that the markets would all fill up at the same time.
The flooding nature of goods drove prices down and while merchants voiced their objections, they fell on deaf ears. Both the control and the security of the fleets were the primary considerations. Traveling in packs was determined to be the safest way to make the crossing and punishment awaited captains who failed to comply.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.