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Capitana (Jesús María de la Limpia Concepción), sunk in 1654 off Chanduy, Ecuador

This wreck was the largest loss ever experienced by the Spanish South Seas (Pacific) Fleet, of which the Jesus María de la Limpia Concepción was the capitana (“captain’s ship,” or lead vessel) in 1654. Official records reported the loss of 3 million pesos of silver (2,212 ingots, 216 chests of coins, and 22 boxes of wrought 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!

Obviously overloaded, technically the Capitana sank due to pilot error, which drove the ship onto the reefs south of the peninsula known as Punta Santa Elena, a geographic feature the pilot thought he had cleared. Twenty people died in the disaster. For eight years afterward, Spanish salvagers officially recovered over 3 million pesos of coins and bullion (with probably much more recovered off the record), leaving only an unreachable lower section for divers to find in our time. Ironically, the main salvager of the Capitana in the 1650s and early 1660s was none other than the ship’s silvermaster, Bernardo de Campos, whose fault it was that the ship was overloaded with contraband in the first place!

The wreck was rediscovered in the mid-1990s and salvaged (completely, according to some) in 1997. After a 50-50 split with the Ecuadorian government in 1998, investors placed most of their half of the more than 5,000 coins recovered up for sale at auction in 1999. Almost exclusively Potosí 8 and 4 reales, the coins were a healthy mix of countermarked issues of 1649-1652, transitional issues of 1652, and post-transitional pillars-and-waves cobs of 1653-1654, many in excellent condition and expertly conserved.

As an interesting footnote, the very coins salvaged from the Capitana by the Spanish in 1654 were lost again on the Maravillas wreck of 1656 (see next), and some of those coins salvaged from the Maravillas were lost again in the wreck of the salvage vessel Madama do Brasil off Gorda Cay (Bahamas) in 1657. Furthering Spain’s woes was the destruction of another treasure fleet in 1657 by English marauders (fresh off a victory in the Bay of Cádiz) off Santa Cruz on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands.


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