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.
Eventually, however, the mule, with their silks, ivories, and blue and white Kang Hs’I porcelain trailed in, and Ubilla met up with Echeverz in Havana in the first week of May 1715. They planned to replenish stores and water and sail a few days after making rendezvous. But because there had been no plate fleet for the last three years, there was a mountain of cases awaiting shipment in Havana. Every merchant set out to wield his maximum weapons in influence and bribery with both the two convoy captains and the pleasure loving and imperious governor, the 90 year old Don Casa Torres.
The governor had a substantial personal stake in the fleet, and since there was little or no room left, he and some friends chartered a French cargo ship, the Grifon, captained by Antoine Dare, a wily veteran of the Caribbean to whom the finger points as being Hamilton’s informant. Ubilla and Echeverz refused to accept Dare’s vessel in their convoy and matters dragged on before they finally yielded to the governor. But, the final delay was caused by Philip of Spain himself.
He decided to marry the Duchess of Palma, and she agreed to go through with the ceremony but declined to consummate the marriage until she was decked with the jewels of her choosing. Urgent word had been sent to the New World, and these last minute deliveries held up the golden armada yet again. When they arrived they proved to be as sumptuous a wedding gift as any queen could desire, even if they were also the death warrant of 10 ships and more than 700 of the men who sailed them.
Details of the jewelry are scrappy, but we know of odd items; a heart built up of 130 matched pearls, an emerald ring weighing 74 carats, a pair of earrings each of 14-carat pearls, and a rosary of pure coral the size of small marble. There were eight chests in all, and they stowed in Ubilla’s personal cabin. With the morning tide of Wednesday, July 24, after many delays, the Plate Fleet hauled in their great cast iron anchors catching the morning breeze and slipped slowly past the El Morro Fortress which guarded the approaches of Havana. Quickly the Gulf Stream gathered them into its friendly embrace, and with the current and a fair wind they were making almost six knots.
Leading the convoy was the Hampton Court. She had been captured from the English during the war, and having been refitted at Greenwich shortly before her loss, was in excellent trim, rather easier in the water than the Spanish ships and possessed of a reasonable turn of speed. Ubilla, as senior flag officer, had chosen her as his flagship. Just over 150 feet long. She carried 80 cannon and no bulky cargo – just treasure. Nevertheless, her all-up weight topped 1,000 tons. Echeverz brought up the rear in his massive war galleon, the Nuestra Senora de Carmen y San Antonio. Ubilla and Echeverz had therefore the front and the rear of the convoy in their charge, and each of them being careful men, had their personal storeship stationed next to them in the line. Ubilla, according to his pilot, spent more time signaling his one personal charge, the Nuestra Senora de la Regla, than he did the rest of the fleet.
Ubilla, who was senior military officer, had overall commanded. But, should there be a naval action, then Echeverz in the rear would assume command of the battle. For the voyage alone the senior freighter captain, Don Antonio de Chevas, was made "Admiral of the Freighters." His pilot and personal chaplain survived the voyage and their eyewitness reports are the basis of the following account of the tragedy.
By noon, on July 29, the fleet was almost becalmed. The sea was running a heavy and strangely silent swell but there was no wind. The clouds were the merest wisps of cirrus way down on the starboard beam, and even the sea birds, which usually swarmed around the ships a mere twenty miles from shore, had vanished. The swell grew stronger, cargo began to roll about, and de Chaves sent men below to secure it. The night passed slowly, the rolling of the ships creating distrust and apprehension among all hands.
The next morning - it was Wednesday and they had been a week at sea -a cheerless one. The sun never seemed to rise at all, "but stay throughout that day as though behind a muslin cloud". By noon the ships of the armada were called to close station; visibility had become so bad that Ubilla signaled that each ship’s poop lantern was to be lit to guide each other. In the afternoon it grew quite dark, the wind came again, first from the southeast, then moving round slowly until at nightfall it was gusting out of the east-north-east at up to 70 knots. The waves rose savagely, the water crashing down on decks, carrying away deck cargo, spars, and cordage. "It was so violent," the chaplain recalled, "that the water flew in the air like arrows, doing injury to those it hit, and seamen who had ventured much said they had never seen the like before."
By nightfall, the wind, not the captains, was in full command – it was gusting now to over 100 knots. Ubilla lost his mizzenmast, and the fleet was wildly scattered, and the noise was deafening. But above the screaming winds was another more awesome and frightening sound, the breakers on the reefs which line the Florida coast. On all the Spanish ships men prayed as they wrestled to try to cut lifeboats free from the debris lettering the decks. All were now resigned to shipwreck, and the priests piping "Hail Mary’s" made little or no impression on either their flocks or the elements.
All this time the wily Antoine Dare in the "Grifon" was playing a hunch. He hadn’t liked the official course in the first place, and wanting a little more weather room, had craftily steered a course half a point more easterly. As it turned out, he had just enough room to ride it out, and when the summer dawn broke just after 3:00 a.m., his was the only ship left afloat.
First to hit the deadly reefs was Ubilla’s flagship, the Hampton Court. Dismasted, her rudder carried away, she could make not even the vestige of a fight. She struck at 2:30 on the morning of July 31. The reef ripped the bottom right out of her; then her superstructure parted from her hull, and the poop and aft deck were cast up on a fifty foot wave. She was tossed around for a few seconds – just long enough for Ubilla and 223 of his crew to be washed off and pounded to death on the rocks. Then the poop, once so splendid a sight at the Greenwich dock that Van de Velde felt compelled to sketch it, was spewed up high and dry on the beach.
The storeships were all caught on the rocks. Echeverz’s war galleon broke up, drowning him and 124 of his crew. His son, who commanded his storeship , met a similar fate. The lighter ships capsized and sank in the surf, though two were luckier than the rest. The deck of one of the two Navios – huge, 100 cannon floating gun platforms – detached itself from the hull and floated most of the crew onto the beach, while a chartered ship, "La Holandesa", was cast bodily up on the dunes over a hundred yards from the waters edge.
The survivors clambered up on to the beaches, but for two more hours the hurricane screamed around them, sucking many of the weaker back into the water. When daylight came, the wind had ceased, and the survivors began to take stock of themselves and their position.