The
Nautical
Archaeology
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Nuestra Señora de la Concepción (1641)

Ricardo Borrero and Filipe Castro

 Introduction

Country: Dominican Republic

Place: North Hispaniola, Near Puerto Plata

Coordinates: 

Type: 600 ton nao armed and fitted as a galleon to be Capitana and later Almiranta

Identified: Nuestra Señora de la Pura y Limpia Concepción

Dated: 1641

History of the shipwreck

Nuestra Señora de la Pura y Limpia Concepción was a 600 ton nao built in La Habana, but fitted and armed as a galleon in Spain. Concepción was built in 1620 as a merchant ship and was later refitted reinforcing the decks and adding the fore and aft castles and 40 bronze cannons. On April 24th  of 1641 she sailed from Cadiz as Capitana of the New Spain Fleet. She carried onboard the new Viceroy for Mexico, the Duke of Escalona, who carried with him holy relics as protection for the voyage, including a thorn of Christ’s crown and a finger of St. Andrew (Peterson 1980). She arrived safe to Veracruz, where she stayed one year suffering some damage while she was at anchor. She was not repaired yet, but Philip IV was requiring funds to support the war against the Dutch and the French. According, to Peterson (1980) the vessel was actually repaired, but this was done in a rush. However, she sailed as Almiranta. The vessel was overloaded carrying half of the treasure of the king as well as unknow quantities of private goods. Reaching La Habana, her Captain Juan de Villavicencio pleaded for some time to repair the vessel, but it was already September and the permit was denied by the admiral. After some days at sea, she was about to sink and some authors assert she returned to La Habana for some fast repairs before setting sail being hit by the sea again near to St Agustin, where a tempest developed and a wave reached the height of her poop lantern. Water entered through the portholes and after many successive waves she started to spit the caulking of the stern. According to Walker (1987), while the sailors worked in the pumps, the passengers payed to a statue of the virgin which was attached to the poop deck, but broke loose and got lost at sea making the people on board lose their fade on survival.  The main and fore masts were broken, two anchors, three boats, various merchandises and some people got lost at sea (Borrell 1980).

The fleet was dispersed and at least three ships sank. The position of Concepción was not known to clear to the pilots, but rigging a jury sail on the damaged foremast (or the mizzen mast, depending on the source) a decision was made by Villavicencio and the pilots Bartolome Guillén and Mathias Destevan Arte to sail south in search of Puerto Rico or the Bahamas, but they hit a reef about 60 miles north of la Hispaniola. Some artillery pieces and cargo were thrown to the sea in an attempt to make the vessel lighter, but the reef ripped the bottom apart. The stern got trapped between two coral heads. A single longboat carrying 32 important passengers and high-ranked officers, including the Vice-Admiral Villavicencio was saved. The boat sailed four days to the south until they saw the west of Puerto Plata, but as nobody was there, they continued the coastal navigation until Montecristi. From there they were taken to Santiago and then to Santo Domingo (Borrell 1980: 391).

The rest of the people on board defied the sea using 8 sailing rafts that were made with ship timbers. The two biggest rafts followed the directions of the pilots, according to whom they were wrecked in La Anegada. They wanted to reach Puerto Rico. The remaining 6 rafts sailed to the south. Some of them arrived to the north coast of la Hispaniola. 25 men remained on board in the stern castle and unloaded part of the gold and silver and placed it on top of the reefs to make easier its later recovery. Once the vessel fully wrecked, these 25 men decided to build a raft, but just one of them reached dry land (Borrell 1980). Walker (1987: 102) assert nothing else was heard from more than a half of the 490 men that sailed from La Habana. Borrell (1980) asserts 194 out of the 532 people on board were saved.

Team

After many unsuccessful attempts of the Spaniards to recover the treasure, 45 years after its sinking, financially backed by the Duke of Albermarle, Captain William Phipps and his associates recovered from the wreck more than 25 tons of silver and some gold. According to Walker (1987) Phipps made a previous attempt supported by king George the II of England, but he did not find anything and he was accused of misusing a Royal Navy Vessel. However, he found his way out of condemnation and did not give up until he found the shipwreck, despite the fact that the new monarch James II denied him his support. Four divers worked on the wreck during forty days using only breath power during the first two weeks. After that two additional sloops arrived from Bermuda carrying more divers and a “tub”. The silver rescued by Phipps arrived England in a vessel named James and Mary. Moved by his previous success, Phipps returned to the site in the following year and realized the site was being exploited by many small vessels. After the Duke of Albermarle died, a lawsuit broke between his heirs and other investors. Phipps, who was born in Maine, New England, became the first American to whom knighthood was granted (Borrell 1980). He was also appointed governor of Massachusetts in 1692 during the first French and Indian war. However, after many misfortunes he died in prison in London at the age of 44.

Since then the wreck has been the pray of many treasure hunters from America and the Caribbean, but apparently the aft portion of the wreck has not been found yet. In recent times it was first mentioned in a French publication by Korganoof, who searched it unsuccessfully in 1952, followed by Ed Link in 1958 and Jaques Cousteau in 1968. However, it was not until 1978 when it was relocated after several attempts by a team of treasure hunters of Seaquest International Inc. led by Burt Webber and Jack Haskins. These treasure hunters reached an agreement with the Dominican government that granted them an exclusive license to exploit the shipwrecks in the Silver Bank. Thirteen additional shipwrecks were found and looted in the process of finding the Concepción.

Concepción was found thanks to the archival research conducted by Peter Earle, who independently was preparing a book on the subject and found the log book of the sloop Henry, in which’s boat the Concepción was first found by Phipps crew.

In conjunction with the detailed information on the log book, Webber payed to generate a map of the north reef of the Silver Bank (Plate Bank) using aerial photography and his team also developed a Varian hand-held cesium magnetometer which could be used underwater. Webber and his team located the remains of the treasure in two areas separated by 150 m (Stenuit 1983). Seaquest International Inc. treasure hunt took place onboard the Samana, a minesweeper that was refitted as a luxury pleasure yacht. As the vessel could not penetrate the reef, the salvage was carried using rubber boats. In the first stage of the salvage, only hydraulic jacks and saws were used to break the corals. Later on, explosives were employed as well.

Cargo

To our knowledge there are no inventories of all the artifacts raised, sold, lost, conserved, currently in museums, etc.

Navigation Instruments

Three astrolabes were found on this site, numbered 40, 41, and 42 in the astrolabe inventory. Several pairs of dividers were also found on this shipwreck.

 Health and sanitation

Wooden goblet, silver gilt perfume vial, bronze mortar and pestle, silver basin (shaving and washing), wooden comb.

Food related goods

Glazed earthenware food jar, metate to grind corn, wheat and cassava, bones (cow, fish, pig, fowl, turtle, manatee), square glass bottle with pewter screw top on a wooden case, silver serving spoon and fork, earthenware, silverware (small pitcher, sugar lid, salt and pepper containers), olive jars, chocolate service, round box to store sugar and species, silver spoons and forks.

Numismatic

Coins of Reales dating from 1600 to 1641, including pieces of eight, four and two coined in Cartagena, Santa Fé, México and Potosi. 76% of the coins were made between 1639 and 1641. 40 cupper maravedis coined in Spain. Some of the coins coined in 1621 and 1622 in Cartagena and Santa Fé are very rare as it was thought before that these places did not start to coin until1623.

Fun and games

Finger cymbal, wooden game counter (“Poker chip”), clay pipes.

Other 

Seal of a church officer (goats standing against trees facing each other), small silver bell, jet higa, silver (coins, bulk and worked), jewelry, smugglers chest with false bottom, silver base for coconut gobbler, tobacco sticks, cochineal, Ming porcelain (Set of cups identified as Ch’en Hua), indigo plant, candlesnuffers, candelabra, an ivory statue, Puebla polychrome ceramics with fruit decorations.

Ballast

William Phips crew reported to have cleaned all the ballast from the bow to the main mast. The presence of Ballast stones was still reported in spread locations on November 27th of 1978 by Webber’s “Phips II expedition”. No description has been found.

Guns

Wired musket shot, bar shot, lead musket and pistol shots, hilt of rapier

Hull remains

Phips crew reported to have cleaned all timbers from the bow to the main mast. Timbers were also reported by Webber and even by the last team of treasure hunters led by Tracy Bowden.

References

Borrell, Pedro. April 1980. El Rescate del galeón Concepción en aguas dominicanas. GeoMundo.

Bowden, Tracy. July 1996.  “Gleaning Treasure from the Silver Bank” NGM. 190 (1): 90-105.

Earle, Peter. 1979. The Wreck of the Almiranta’. Book Club Associates.

Peterson, Mendel. 1980. Treasure of the Concepcion. New England Aquarium, Boston.

Stenuit, Robert. 1983. Recent views of ‘The Wreck of the Almiranta’. IJNA 12(1):75-80.

Walker, Bryce S. 1987. Tales of Sunken Gold and hunters of the Depths. Smithsonian.