Plagued by diplomatic niceties, their Lordships did nothing when they received Hamilton’s intelligence. The war of the Spanish Succession was over, and they themselves had observed mourning for the Spanish Queen who had died a few months before. Now King Philip was planning to marry again and was busy soliciting wedding presents for Elizabeth Farnesse, Duchess of Palma. It would be the marriage settlement, their Lordships concluded, that was coming from Havana: if this was the best Hamilton’s costly spies could do then it was about time his accounts had a through audit. A resolution was passed to that effect.
All the same, Lord Hamilton’s espionage service was on to something much bigger than a marriage settlement. Spain’s annual tribute from the new World now amounted to about 90 and 120 million (francs) a year. But because of the war the Spanish Government had cancelled all sailings from the Americas to Spain for two years. Now a plan, seemingly safe from attack by buccaneers and privateers, had been evolved. They would send two separate fleets to the New World. These would load up at separate ports -- Vera Cruz and Cartegena – and then meet at Havana. From here they would sail for Spain in a giant combined armada with a heavy naval escort, bearing the accumulated wealth for the last three years.
The Cartagena Fleet, commanded by Captain General Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza, arrived first in Havana, heavily loaded with silver and gold coins from Santa Fe de Bogota, chests filled with Colombian emeralds from the Muzo mine, and gold jewelry from Peru. By mid March, Echeverz was ready and waiting for the Vera Cruz Fleet, commanded by his friend and superior, Captain General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla. Ubilla’s cargo was enough to awe any commander. The holds of his ship were stuffed with gold bullion and silver ingots. But he was stuck in Vera Cruz, awaiting the arrival of pack-mule trains overland from Acapulco, Spain’s outlet to the Pacific and the markets of Manila and Canton. With each successive week of delay the mint in Mexico City delivered yet further consignments of coin and specie.