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Gitmo Secrets - Undiscovered Treasures

Updated on August 21, 2016
Austinstar profile image

Lela earned a B.A. degree in Journalism from Sam Houston University in Huntsville, TX. She has been writing for the online world for years.

Spanish Galleons From the 16th Century


Cuba - 1492 to 1511

Diego Velázquez de Cuellar was the governor of Havana. He was also Hernán Cortes' boss. The Spanish government ruled through Cuellar, a bloodthirsty man who had enslaved Cuba's 100,000 Tainos (natives of the island)

As the Taino died off, the Spanish ships brought slaves from Africa to continue working the coffee, sugar, and tobacco fields as well as building the infrastructure of Cuba.

During the 16th century, the Catholic Church had more power than the King and Queen of Spain. It is the Church more than any other faction that demanded gold, silver and other treasures from the New World. The greedy church sought power through riches plundered from the indigenous peoples of Cuba, the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

Spanish treasure ships were known as 'Flotas'. Velazquez oversaw the deployment of some 30 to 90 ships per convoy commissioned by Spain's Casa de Contración (The House of Trade). These ships were armed to the hilt and sailed in convoys, each protecting the other. The convoys operated from 1566 to 1790.

The North coast of South America was known as the "Spanish Main". Empty ships arriving from Spain began their trip at the East coast of South America and sailed from that point around the Caribbean, eventually docking in Havana. In Havana, the treasures were tallied and recorded. The ships were then sent back across the Atlantic to delivery to whomever had commissioned the expedition.

Some ships had enough treasure to offload in Panama. The goods were then ported across the isthmus for loading on the Pacific side. These ships then transported goods for trade across the Pacific to the Philippines. And the reverse happened as the ships took on cargo shipped across the Pacific from Manilla bound for Spain.

The Spanish Main

show route and directions
A markerMargarita Island, Venezuela -
Margarita Island, Venezuela
get directions

One of the first stops for Spanish Ships. They looted Pearls from Margarita Island.

B markerCartagena, Columbia -
Cartagena, Bolivar, Colombia
get directions

One of the second stops along the route.

C markerPortobelo, Panama -
Portobelo, Panama
get directions

The rich port of Portobelo, a collection of silver was obtained here.

D markerHavana, Cuba -
Havana, Cuba
get directions

The last stop in the clockwise wheel of the Spanish Main. From here ships usually went back to Spain.

Portuguese and Spanish Trade Routes 16th Century


Cuba's Graveyard of Treasure Ships

It is estimated that there are hundreds of sunken ships from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries lost and recoverable from the clear blue waters of the Caribbean surrounding Cuba. Spanish records indicate that 13,000 vessels passed in, around, and through Cuba carrying gold and silver plundered by Hernan Cortes and other Conquistadores.

Havana was the official port for record keeping and supplies before sailing off to Seville, Spain. The Archives of the Indies are maintained in Seville, and it is one of the first places to go to start a search for missing treasure ships. Some of these ships carried important artifacts from the Aztec, Inca, and Mayan civilizations.

Two large treasure fleets were well known. The Tierra Firme and the Nueva España both contained over 100 ships each.

Some of the plundered booty listed and found:

  • gold bullion
  • silver coins - The infamous pieces of eight each equal 25 grams of silver. They were minted into coins called pesos.
  • silver ingots of various weights
  • gem quality stones and pearls
  • emeralds from Columbia
  • pre-crafted jewelry from native artisans
  • crystal wine decanters
  • amphorae - sealed containers of dyes and other items
  • cannons
  • ballast
  • anchors
  • astrolabes
  • pistols
  • perfume bottles
  • ceramics
  • billiard balls
  • other trade goods such as volcanic glass

Pirates abounded in the Caribbean area and Spanish galleons were a tasty target for British and French buccaneers.

Both pirate ships and treasure ships often went to a watery grave. Hundreds of ships litter the sea floor in the deep water harbor of Havana, and around the outer shores of Cuba. Cuba has been relentlessly aggressive in denying salvage rights to anyone.

Ships in this particular area had many reasons for their demise.

  1. Pirates and treasure ships would often fight it out.
  2. Mutineers managed to ground a few ships.
  3. Coral reefs tore holes in the bottoms of the wooden ships.
  4. Hurricanes and other storms got the rest.

Cuba has contracted with at least one salvage company, Visa Gold, out of Canada. Their prospects were ruined by investors expecting outrageous returns. The Cuban government claimed half of all saleable artifacts that were salvaged. One quarter of the funds went to equipment and maintenance. The remaining quarter value was not enough to sustain good returns on speculative investors, so they dropped out.

The Peso Called "piece of eight" Reales


Possible Shipwrecks Located in Cuban Waters

Date of Shipwreck
Name of Ship and Registry
Possible Location
Palemon - Spanish brigantine
North coast, Cuba
USS Maine - US Warship
Havana Bay
La Madalena - 250 ton Sp. Galleon
Santa Marea de San Vicente
San Salvedor
Santa Maria de la Merced, Sp. Caravel
NW shore of Cuba
Francisco Pizarro, Rodrigo Colmenares, Sp. pinnaces Sp. ships
West end of Cuba
unknown Sp. caravel
Cienfuegos, South coast, mid center of Cuba
San Anton, Spanish
Cienfuegos, South coast, mid center of Cuba
ship of Sebastian de Ocampo
Cienfuegos, South coast, mid center of Cuba
ship of Bernaloino Talavera
Cienfuegos, South coast, mid center of Cuba
Unknown ship
Manzanillo Bay
Unknown date
ship of Juan de Rojas
Near Pico Turquino
Jesus Nazareno and Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe
East of Havana

You Can Search for Spanish Treasure on the Atocha Wreck

© 2014 Lela


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    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Please come back here and let me know what you find out! I think the balls were made of Mahogany wood.

    • profile image

      sheilamyers 3 years ago

      Astinstar: Thanks for responding to my question. If I get the time, I'll have to see what else I can find out about those balls. I get curious about the silliest things.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Hi Jama! For the purposes of the book I am writing, the prison there has little or nothing to do with my story. There is a lot more to Cuba and Gitmo than that for sure.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 3 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Austinstar, Gitmo has become so identified with the prison at the U.S. base there that one forgets its previous history. Thanks for reminding us!

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      I believe there was a Soviet nuclear sub delivering nukes to Cuba. This is what caused the missile crisis!

      The caves are fairly extensive. There are some youtube videos available about cave diving in Cuba.

    • pointblank009 profile image

      pointblank009 3 years ago from Buffalo

      I see. Just how big are these caves, were there Soviet subs lurking around Cuba during the Missile Crises?

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      point - Cuba is an island in the Caribbean surrounded by salt water. But there are fresh water cenotes (caves) suitable for diving in the interior of the mostly limestone land mass. It is very similar to Cozumel and the Yucatan Peninsula if you have ever been there.

    • pointblank009 profile image

      pointblank009 3 years ago from Buffalo

      Good history, great job @Austinstar. I supposed the Maine remains a sore spot for the US. I was wondering how deep were the waters around Cuba, and is it salt or fresh water?

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      I was surprised at the billiard balls too! Apparently, a set of them were found during one salvage operation. It did not mention what they were made from.

    • profile image

      sheilamyers 3 years ago

      I love reading about history and so enjoyed your article. Sometimes I read something that makes me ask questions I don't think other people even think about. In the list of "booty", you mentioned billiard balls. I'm sure pirates would steal anything they could get, but was there something special about these billiard balls that caused them to be put on an official list? I'm guessing that since everything else on the list could be very valuable, perhaps these balls were made from at least some semi-precious material.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Thanks, Jodah. These hubs are research for a book I am writing. And like you say, I am learning a lot!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      What an interesting read. I love these history type always learn something new. This was no exception. Voted up.