This wreck of La Capitana became the largest loss ever experienced by the Spanish South Seas (Pacific) Fleet, of which the Jesus María de la Limpia Concepción was the Capitana or lead vessel in 1654. The vessel weighed 1,150 tons, was 122 feet long and had a beam of 40 feet. Carrying 60 guns, this was the flagship of the Viceroyalty in Peru. On October 26th, 1654, the pilot, Miguel Benitez, was confident the ship would clear the reefs at Punta Santa Elena and continue on to Isla de Plata. At 11PM that night breakers were spotted, but by that time is was too late to maneuver and by daylight the ship had hit the reef three times and lost its rudder. There was already 8 feet of water in the hold and everyone was exhausted. Later testimony from the crew noted there was difficulty getting the anchors down because there were piles of unregistered cargo stored on the foredeck and on top of the anchor cables. On this dreadful morning people began to panic and some of the wealthier passenger began scheming and paying the boatswain to get them ashore. Some passengers tried loading their pockets with gold and silver and swimming to shore. Twenty people died in their attempt to reach safety. By high tide, Captain Sosa was able to maneuver the Capitana closer to shore and ground her in shallow water. For greater access to the treasure and other valuables below deck, they burned the ship to the water line.
Official records reported the loss of 3,000,000 pesos of silver, augmented to a total of as much as 10 million pesos when contraband and private consignments were taken into account. By comparison, the entire annual silver production in Peru at that time was only about 6-7 million pesos. This implies that the Concepcion was carrying almost 1½ years of production by the Spanish!
For eight years afterward, Spanish salvagers officially recovered over 3,000,000 pesos of coins and bullion. Captain Sosa recovered 1,500,000 Pesos and a later salvor recovered another 2,000,000 pesos. This caused a major scandal because only 3,000,000 pesos were recorded to be on board the ship. Later estimates put that total around 10,000,000. Ironically, the main salvager of the Capitana in the 1650s and early 1660s was none other than the ship’s silver master, Bernardo de Campos, whose fault it was that the ship was overloaded with contraband in the first place! The unreachable lower section held on to the remaining treasure for divers to find in our time.
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