Study on a Shipwreck Silver Bar recovered from Nuestra Señora de Atocha
A research by Augi Garcia
The tragic loss of the Atocha and
her rediscovery :
Señora de Atocha was without question one of the most valuable treasure wrecks
ever found. The story of her tragic loss in 1622 is matched by the tragedy and
contention that surrounded her rediscovery three and half centuries later. The
Atocha was barely two years old when on September 5th, 1622, a strong hurricane
wrecked her and five other ships of the 1622 Flota along the Florida Keys. Close
to her sank the Santa Margarita. Both ships had been built expressly as convoy
escorts for the Spanish treasure fleets. Reportedly built of sub-standard
materials, on her first voyage the Atocha had sprung her mainmast and leaked
badly. Arriving at Portobello, Panama, in the summer of 1622, the repaired
Atocha was designated the Almiranta, or second in command, of the treasure fleet
returning to Spain. She embarked silver and gold shipped from the mines of
Bolivia and Colombia, together with 48 passengers returning to Spain. Departing
Panama on July 22, 1622, the treasure fleet called first at Cartagena and then
north for Havana, arriving in Cuba on August 22.
her official manifest, Atocha carried 35 tons of silver (as 901 ingots and
255,000 coins) plus 161 pieces of gold—a cargo valued at one million pesos. Much
smuggled treasure was also on board. Despite the threat of hurricanes at that
time of year, the twenty-eight-ship fleet sailed six weeks later than planned,
on September 4. The next morning, a hurricane hit and the ships were driven
north towards the Florida Keys. Twenty-one of the ships passed to the west of
the low-lying islands, but Atocha, Santa Margarita, and four others did not.
the morning of September 6, Atocha was dashed on a reef off Key West and sank in
55 feet of water. Only her mizzen mast remained visible. Five survivors from the
ship's complement of 260 were rescued by the merchantman Santa Cruz. The Santa
Cruz returned to Havana, and officials immediately prepared to recover what they
could from the wreck. Divers quickly located the wreck of the Atocha, but
discovered that her hatches were still fastened and could not be forced without
explosives. Before they could return, the mizzen mast snapped off in another
storm, and the ship’s location was lost.
Fast-forward nearly 350 years, and in 1970 a treasure hunter named Mel Fisher
formed a company called Treasure Salvors to look for the Atocha. The ship's
first artifacts came up in 1971. Over the next four years the company recovered
about $6 million worth of gold and silver bullion and coins, as well as a large
number of artifacts including rapiers, muskets and small arms, storage jars, and
more. But clearly the ship itself, and its “Motherlode”, had not been found. On
July 13, 1975, Dirk Fisher, Mel’s son, located five of the ship's bronze guns
lying in 39 feet of water. A week later diving was suspended when Dirk, his
wife, and another member of the crew drowned after their dive boat capsized at
the site. Mel grieved but did not abandon his search. The next five years
revealed little new material from Atocha, although in 1980 Treasure Salvors
divers located the nearby remains of the Santa Margarita, which they salvaged
for two years. The search for Atocha struggled on until July 20, 1985, when the
Salvors found the hull of the ship, piles of silver ingots, and chests of
silver. The “Motherlode” at last!
The Atocha Silver Bar :
Over 900 silver bars appear on the Atocha’s manifest. The majority were the
property of individuals. Many of the bars were mined and processed in upper Peru
(at Potosí or Oruro). Each ingot was formed by pouring more than 80 pounds of
silver into a casting mold. As soon as the ingot cooled, it was struck with a
serial number, the same one that would be listed on the ship’s manifest. The
assayer would next remove his "bite" to test to the purity of the silver. The
purity of bar, typically more than 99%, was then stamped on the bar with a ley
or fineness number. Each bar cast for an individual was subject to 20% royal
tax. Several tax seals or “quintos” were struck into the bar indicating that the
tax had been paid. Finally, monograms and other siglas were added, indicating
the owner or shipper of the bar. As the bar progressed on its journey to Spain,
other marks were sometimes added by shipmasters and other officials. The full
meaning of all these in-transit markings is not yet known.
Here are the basic specifications of the ingot under examination for this
article, Bar 767, as recorded on the certificate prepared by Fisher’s company,
Treasure Salvors, in 1985.
85A-S748 (This is Treasure Salvors’
serial number for the bar. It was the 748th bar recovered. Bar
number 748 is also its identification in the census prepared by
Craig and Richards as an appendix to SPANISH TREASURE BARS From New
World Shipwrecks, 2003.)
Atocha Manifest number
767 (This number, stamped
prominently into the bar, tells us that it’s the 767th bar made in
Potosi in 1622.)
Class Factor 1.00
(This is the highest possible rating
for a bar, being the lower next grade 0.9, 0.8 , 0.7 and so on)
35.5 by 13 by 10.5 cm
2380 out of 2400 (99.16%)
Weight in Troy Pounds
88 pounds, 8.96 ounces
Register and Page
PB128 (This refers to page 128 of the
original loading document prepared in Portobello, Panama, by the
Atocha’s shipmaster de Vreder.)
L. de Arriola to SELF (Lorenzo de
Arriola perished with the Atocha in 1622.)
oP1622 (The letter prefix P with small
o above it is believed to stand for the foundry of Potosí.)
Comments on the markings:
1. Three tax stamps or quinto marks: The three quintos on this bar seem
to have been carefully aligned in a 90-degree-angle relationship that no one has
explained. All the dies used for the quintos have been and should be assigned to
Philip IV, Phillip III having died in 1621, but one of the quintos here shows an
ordinal III. This is not certain, but apparently an impression of the last “I”
was lost due to the way the die was impressed on the bar.
“V” mark: V is the mark of Jacove de Vreder, the silvermaster for the
Spanish Silver Fleet of 1622. De Vreder was a Dutchman of Jewish origin, also
known as Jacob de Vreder. De Vreder died in the wreck of the Atocha. De Vreder
had a junior helper aboard the Santa Margarita, but he, de Vreder, was Master of
the all treasure in the Fleet, shouldering personal responsibility for logging
all treasure being transported. If a bar displayed his mark (V), it was properly
registered, not contraband. Bar 767 has de Vreder’s mark to the left.
Assayer's bite: Here we see the so-called “double scoop” assayer’s
bite. Once the assayer tested the purity of the silver removed in the bite, the
assayed silver was kept as a fee for the process. The double scoop bite or
“bocadillo” is found only on bars made and assayed at the Potosí mint. Both the
assayer and an assistant had to work together, using a special tool, to scoop
out the peanut-shaped sample of silver.
Date and foundry(?) mark: On the census prepared by Craig and Richards
as an appendix to SPANISH TREASURE BARS From New World Shipwrecks (2003) we
counted only 33 bars out of 901 that have the mark oP1622. That's only 3.6%. It
is clear that the date 1622 with the "oP" is very rare. While it is believed
that the P with the small o above stands for Potosí, it should be noted that
monograms like this usually stood for names that ended with the small,
superposed letter, like Pedro, so perhaps the attribution to Potosí is incorrect
(P with small i above would be more standard), and it may even stand for an
individual rather than a place.
“M” mark: A small M stamped near the center of the bar tells us that
the assayer of the bar was MEXIA, who is also known from a few other Atocha bars
bearing his stamp. Dr Alan Craig in his book about Atocha bars describes this
assayer mark as rare.
Owner’s monogram (AR) for Lorenzo de Arriola: Prominently displayed and
deeply engraved on the right side of the bar is the monogram of its owner,
Lorenzo de Arriola. Arriola was a rich merchant who had over 66 bars loaded at
Portobello, Panama, for the Atocha’s voyage to Spain. Sixty-six bars were
approximately 6% of all the bars shipped on the Atocha. It is surprising perhaps
that Arriola put so much wealth in one ship. Arriola personally accompanied the
bars that he was shipping on the Atocha, and he was among those confirmed dead
in the sinking (according to documents in the Archivo de Indias).
How Arriola managed to acquire the wealth that 66 silver bars represent, we are
not sure. He was involved in several businesses, but quite likely he had some
connection with the slave trade in Peru. He was registered in contemporary
documents as a vecino de Potosí. That means a “neighbor” or official resident
with all rights and privileges. He had lived for at least 10 years in the
Viceroyalty of Peru by 1622. The slave trade, supplying workers to the mints at
Potosí and elsewhere, was one of the most lucrative businesses in 17th-century
Peru. Few wealthy businessmen shunned its easy money.
“EA” mark:In addition to Arriola’s monogram, the bar has a well-carved
second monogram composed of the letters E, A, and possibly L or I. This monogram
is in the upper left corner of the bar. We do not know who or what this mark
Lorenzo apparently obtained this bar directly from the mint at Potosí. From
there it was transported by llama to coastal Arica, then from Arica to Perico,
Panama, by ship, and then across the Isthmus to Portobello by mule, where it was
loaded on the Atocha. Somewhere along this route the bar acquired this second
“EA” monogram, but none of the marks registered on the Atocha manifest seem to
match this EA. From the way it is displayed it appears this mark stood for an
agent or trans-shipper of some sort, but the manifest says that the bar was
shipped by Arriola to himself, and we know that Arriola in fact died on the
Atocha accompanying his bars to Spain, so a trans-shipper was clearly not
Another thought is that EA could be the mark of the ex-owner. This seems
implausible since when the bar arrived in Spain and was to be claimed, how would
it be verified who was the true owner of the bar if multiple owner and ex-owner
marks were on it? Rival claims could be made. The marks of ex-owners were
quickly effaced to forestall this confusion.
also been suggested that perhaps EA was the payee of a bar Arriola was sending
to Spain to pay a debt. But there is no documentary confirmation of this
transaction in particular, or of this way of marking bars being transferred to
theory is that EA could be a variant form of the monogram of A. de Aguirre, cut
into the bar in this fashion to avoid marking the over the "quinto" tax mark.
But as can be seen on other Atocha bars, this was not a concern. Many Atocha
bars show marks that extend over the quinto tax stamps. Aguirre was a
businessman who shipped bars on the Atocha from Havana, but no connection with
Arriola is known. One final theory proposes that the bar was a tax payment for
slave transactions in Peru: The King was owed a tax on every such transaction.
The bar was being sent to the King in Spain to pay Arriola’s taxes. The bar
would have had at least two names on it: the man paying the tax (Arriola) and
the official who registered it as a tax payment. If the bar was a tax payment,
this would also explain why no averia payment was due or marked on the bar. The
averia was a royal tax on shipments going to Spain. It was marked as a diagonal
line on the bar, indicating what part of the bar was owed as an averia payment.
If it was a bar being sent to the King as a tax payment, it would be exempt from
The travels of the bar:
Every year the Armada del Mar del Sur (South Sea Fleet), composed of three or
four big galleons and a few small sailing ships, left Callao, the port of Lima,
on a 1,340-mile voyage to Panama.
galleons were heavily loaded with merchandise, much of it silver bullion and
coins, that had arrived at Lima only shortly before from the southern Peruvian
ports of Arequipa and Arica. Arica in particular was the preferred coastal
terminus of silver coming from Potosí, 120 miles to the southwest and 14,000
feet higher in elevation! Today both of these coastal cities lie in Chile.
journey of 63 miles between Perico, the Pacific port of Panama, and Portobello,
the Atlantic terminus, was extremely dangerous. After two days on mule back, the
convoy would arrive at Las Cruces or Venta de Cruces. There it would be divided
into two groups.
The first group would embark on the muddy, mosquito-infested waters of the
Chagres River. Sailing against the current in large, clumsy pirogues hollowed
from the trunks of giant trees, the boatmen would struggle upstream carrying
their 2-ton cargoes. Often part of the cargo was lost overboard or ruined by the
sun or the torrential rains.
Eventually, if luck was with them, they reached a shark-infested Caribbean
estuary defended by the great fortress, El Castillo de San Lorenzo. Sailing
under its protecting guns, the convoy then continued its journey along the coast
toward Portobello. Treasures and trade goods finally arrived at the King’s
Warehouse in Portobello Harbor, to be stored there until the Treasure Fleet left
second group, carrying the most valuable cargo, especially the gold and silver,
went overland. The steep and narrow trail sometimes disappeared altogether under
the luxuriant tropical vegetation. Silver bars and sacks of silver coins were
strapped on the back of mules, sure-footed animals trusted for the rough trip.
Long mule trains were wrangled across the Isthmus by Negro slaves.
walked in Indian file, with the team leader keeping a strict eye on the
muleteers, who were always regarded as potential bandits or traitors. There was
additional danger from “maroons”, fugitive blacks who lived in the forests and
lurked near the towns. Maroons were said to lie in waiting to carry off the
womenfolk when they came to draw water or wash their linen beside the river!
They also served as informers and guides for the English, who forever coveted
Spanish gold and silver.
Despite its peril, this road served the Spanish well for more than three
centuries. Many treasure trains passed along it as they moved treasure from Peru
and the Pacific to the Atlantic and eventually Spain. The wealth of Spain
depended on keeping this little road open and secure. It became known to all as
El Camino Real—the "Royal Highway."
the perilous route of Lorenzo de Arriola’s silver bar, which had traveled safely
a very long way: from Potosí overland to Arica, from Arica by ocean to Perico,
from Perico overland by mule to Portobello, and from Portobello by sea to Havana
via Cartagena. Only the trip from Havana to Spain remained.
Unfortunately, after so many months of traveling and such a great effort from
men and animals, this silver bar was not destined to complete the final leg of
its journey to Spain. A furious hurricane awaited the Atocha in the Florida
Straits. The ship and all its treasure went to the bottom. The bar settled into
the coral sands of the Florida Keys, untroubled by its new home amidst shifting
sands and currents, patiently waiting 363 years to resume its travels.
- Allen, Paul C. PHILIP III AND THE PAX HISPANICA, 1598-1621: The Failure of
Grand Strategy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
- Craig, Alan K. and Richards, Ernest J. SPANISH TREASURES BARS FROM NEW WORLD
SHIPWRECKS. West Palm Beach: En Rada Publications, 2003.
- Grigore, Capt. Julius Jr. COINS & CURRENCY OF PANAMA Iola, Wisconsin: Krause
- Mathewson R. Duncan, III. TREASURE OF THE ATOCHA, Sixteen Dramatic Years in
Search of the Historic Wreck. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1986 (first American
Sedwick, Daniel and Frank 1995. The Practical Book of Cobs. Orlando: Private
printing. 4th edition 2007
Written and published by Augi Garcia all rights reserved. This article and its
pictures can not be published without the written permission of the author.
Many thanks to Daniel Sedwick (Final Edition and Research) , Duncan Mathewson
(Research) , Philip Flemming (Edition), Dr. Alan Craig (Research) and Ernest
Richards (Research), all of whom helped with editing or research.
-Reproduction of the articles in whole or part is strictly prohibited without
written permission of the author/s.
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