Rio History: Flotas, the Treasure Fleets of Spain

By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS

In the early 1500s, a law was passed by the Casa de Contratacion, or “House of Trade,” which called for fleets or Flotas from Spain to sail to the colonies twice a year. In addition to letters, finery and passengers, the fleet carried manufactured goods for sale to the citizens of the New World. Sailing either from Seville or Cadiz, the fleet of heavily laden merchant ships followed a route south, along the Coast of Africa until it reached the Cape Verde Island. From here, the fleet sailed west with the trade winds until it entered the Caribbean.
Here they split into two separate fleets. The Nuevo España flota sailed to the port in Vera Cruz, while the Tierra Firma flota maintained a course that took it to the ports of Cartagena in Columbia and others in South America.

The flota system worked well for over a century. During its heyday, from the early 1500s to around 1600, the average fleet sailed with over 100 ships. A typical fleet consisted of several types of ships including the heavily armed galleons and assorted merchant ships, primarily the large nao. The only difference between it and a galleon was the amount of armament carried.

Galleons were very top heavy, weighing an average of 300-400 tons, and rode heavily in the water. They generally had three or more masts and utilized a multitude of sails. A lookout kept watch from the crow’s nest, nearly a hundred feet above the deck. His was an important job, watching for other ships or hazards and conditions in the water ahead.

Climbing up and down the rigging was dangerous. The ship was in constant motion; tossing and turning, bobbing and wallowing along at between 4 and 8 knots. That’s about 4.5 to around 7 miles per hour.

The ships were not built for speed, rather, they were designed to carry many people, anywhere from 100-300 crew and passengers and as much cargo as could be stuffed under and upon her decks. The average galleon carried 20 cannon with some of the larger carrying 40 or more guns.

Other ships sailing with the fleet included pataches, a small reconnaissance ship, and refuerzos or supply ships. The Capitana, or flagship and the Almiranta, or vice-flagship led the fleet.

On the return trip, the ships of the flotas carried gold and silver, exotic feathers, cochineal, indigo and gemstones. At certain times of the year, the fleet would sail north along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico until it came parallel to present day Kingsville, from there a new course was set for Cuba. The fleets rendezvoused at Havana Harbor in Cuba. There, the ships were replenished and outfitted for the return journey. The combined fleet sailed north, through the Straits of Florida until they encountered the Gulf Stream, which carried them past the Bahamas. At that point, the Captain of the fleet set a course for the Azores and Spain beyond.

The inherent dangers of a trans-Atlantic passage were very real. Pirates lie in wait along the route and hurricanes and sudden storms at sea took their toll. A life at sea was not always an easy one. Typically, a crew slept in the open as much as possible. In calm weather, some strung hammocks while others curled up on the gun deck, nestling between cannons for the fresh air that flowed through whenever the portholes were open. During inclement weather, portholes and hatches remained secured so the ship would not be caught unawares and have the lower decks flooded by a rogue wave. The lower decks were indescribable hellholes; dark, dank, damp, no ventilation and smelly. Insects and rats abounded. Bread soon molded and became infested with weevils. Cooking fires were used only in mild weather, as there was danger of the flames getting out of control or hot coals being tossed about by rough seas.

Bucket brigades and manual pumps had little chance of subduing a blaze like that, during 50 mph winds.
In addition to swabbing the decks there was the very real work of actually sailing the craft. Ships riggings were complicated. Every sailor needed to know the name and locations of all the ropes and sails as well as the tools needed, to repair them. Woe to the seaman who did not know the difference between port and starboard and all the other terminology used by the boatswains mate when the captain ordered the ship to change tacks and sail into the wind.

By 1640, the average sized flota had shrunk to just 25 vessels. The loss of the 1715 and 1733 treasure flota off the Coast of Florida was a tremendous financial blow to the royal coffers. By 1778, Spain officially declared free trade in her colonies.

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