Maritime Art

The Capture of the Spanish Silver Fleet Near Havana, 1628

By D. Van Bremden

In 1628 the Dutch and Spanish had already been at war, with the occasional truce, for sixty years. What initially had begun as a war for Dutch independence in northern Europe had by this stage spilled out into the Atlantic. During this period the Spanish empire funded itself with treasure mined in south America and carried back across the Atlantic. These treasure fleets operated for two and a half centuries, largely unmolested. This engraving depicts one of the rare times when a treasure fleet was intercepted.

That year Dutch West India company sent a significant fleet of more than 30 ships to the Caribbean to capture one of the treasure fleets. Piet Heyn was placed in command. The son of a sea captain, Heyn was brought up to life at sea.

The Spanish in the Caribbean became aware of his intentions and kept their ships close, in the safety of their ports at Cartagena and Veracruz. Their defensive policy came undone when Heyn sent part of his fleet back to Europe and the Spanish mistook the movements of those few ships for his entire force. Believing themselves safe, the Spanish treasure fleet set sail, a total of eleven merchantmen and four galleons. Heyn had been cruising off Havana, knowing full well that, if the Spanish did sail, they would have to cross his path.

The Spanish treasure fleets at this time were poorly run. This particular fleet was under the command of Juan de Benavides, a corrupt official with no experience of seamanship let alone naval warfare. His ships were overloaded and unprepared. They were, in fact, so overloaded with cargo and passengers that the sailors were unable to operate the ships’ guns. Unwilling and unable to fight, Benavides ran for Matanzas Bay, fifty miles to the east of Havana.

There, Heyn’s ships fell on the Spanish in one of the most serious disasters ever to befall the Spanish empire. All of the Spanish treasure ships were captured or destroyed. Hitherto the occasional ship had been lost to storm or the enemy, but this was the first and only time in the history of the Spanish treasure fleets that an entire shipment was lost. The Dutch secured 90 tons of gold and silver. Not only did the Spanish lose their treasure but also around a third of all of the ships then involved in the Atlantic trade. The Spanish Empire’s reputation as a maritime power able to defend its empire was also severely damaged.

The Society for Nautical Research has published a number of articles on the history of Dutch and Spanish seapower in this period, the Spanish treasure fleets, and also the way that the English were involved in the shifts of Atlantic maritime power.

The Galleon San José, Treasure Ship of the Spanish Indies from 1991 explores the history of the treasure galleon, San José, noteworthy for the amount of treasure with which she was loaded and for her demise in a catastrophic explosion during an attack by a British squadron under Commodore Wager in 1708 off Cartagena in what is now Colombia. Now her remains have become a target for treasure hunters, for whom information on her cargo and dimensions are significant factors.  The author and her husband located in the Spanish archives the rules by which Spanish vessels were built. These are tabulated, together with those for several other vessels, and various factors about ships and shipbuilding are discussed. They have determined the exact measurements of San José, where and when the ship was built, correcting errors in earlier accounts of the San José. 

The Expedition of Blake and Mountagu in 1655 focuses on the political intrigues and machinations behind the operations of the fleet commanded by the Commonwealth General at Sea Robert Blake, through the correspondence of his assistant Edward Mountagu. It follows the activities around Spain and Portugal as well as the visit to Algiers, an attack on Malaga, and ends with Stayner’s destruction of the Spanish Plate Fleet, although more treasure was sunk than captured and the majority seized did not reach London. Mountagu returned to London, prior to Blake’s action at Tenerife.

Key to Dutch success in this period was Dutch seamanship and shipbuilding skill. The article To Outsail the Dutch explores how, by the middle of the seventeenth century Dutch men-of-war were superior to those of the English. Much attention was given to the art of shipbuilding and to the need for competing with the Dutch in the development of speed, roominess and sailing qualities. The Great Neptune, completed by about the end of December 1623, was, except for the East Indiamen, one of the largest English merchantmen of her time. The Great Neptune was built on traditional English lines with heavy armament as her principal feature.


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