SUSAN R. PARKER: Wreck set off chain of events

Author’s note: The second International Conference on the 1715 Plate Fleet was held in St. Augustine on March 16-17. This is an excerpt of my presentation.


Spanish Florida Governor Francisco de Corcoles de Martinez wrote to the crown from Government House on Aug. 19, 1715: “I inform Your Majesty that on the 7th day of this month of August (1715) a boat (falua) entered here through Matanzas Inlet under the command of Cavalry Captain Don Juan Mancano, who brought me two letters that Admiral of the Fleet Don Francisco Salmon wrote to me on the 4th of this month of August, to inform me that the fleet and galleons were all [lost.] In addition to the annual subsidy, the archbishop was ordered to retire the debt of past-due situados for Florida (years in arrears). This would boost the funds arriving in and for Florida for several years among the palm groves of Ais in a recent hurricane.” (Ais was the Indian name for the area of Sebastian Inlet.)

Corcoles was referring to the wreck of the annual Spanish fleet (flota de Indias) headed for Spain from the Americas. This fleet is often referred to as the Plate Fleet. It departed Havana on July 24, 1715, and would not put into port until reaching Spain — or that was the plan. The fleet never reached Spain.

The letters to Gov. Corcoles from the wreck’s location requested help in the form of food and other supplies. Corcoles responded by providing axes, poles, munitions, food (flour and corn) for two months, and soldiers to assist with the salvage of the cargo. One of the reasons for the Spanish crown to pay to maintain St. Augustine was to provide help to Spanish shipwrecks, but any help for that purpose was drawn from the ordinary allocation of food and other supplies. Gov. Corcoles was straining his resources with the assistance.

Although St. Augustine’s food supplies became depleted quickly, the upside was that the fleet did not carry the royal budget (situado) for Florida and St. Augustine. The procedure in place in 1715 was for Florida’s purchasing agent to go to Puebla de los Angeles (Mexico) to pick up the cash and to purchase supplies for the protection of St. Augustine and to maintain its soldiers. Before this, Mexico City had been responsible for providing the situado for Florida. In 1702, King Felipe V moved the responsibility for the Florida subsidy from Mexico City to Puebla de los Angeles (Mexico) to be paid by sales taxes collected by the archbishop. The reliance on Puebla was a change for Florida, but a continuation of a long practice of Spanish monarchs. The monarch received funds and in-kind payments from many sources. The king could assign his incomes to be paid directly for some purpose that would benefit Spain and the crown.

The annual income to the archbishop of Puebla from the sales tax was 140,00 pesos, while the annual obligation of the Florida subsidy was 80,000 pesos. The bishopric could well afford the new procedure. But that did not mean that it pleased the archbishop. In addition to the annual subsidy, the archbishop was ordered to retire the debt of past-due situados for Florida (many years in arrears). He would be paying the debts of another jurisdiction. Although the archbishop probably felt possessive of the money generated by his sources, the king saw the money as belonging to the crown.

The back payments would boost the funds arriving in and for Florida for several years. It was fitting that treasuries in Mexico would directly bear the burden of maintaining the military presence of St Augustine and Florida. After all it was Mexican (and Peruvian) silver that was carried by the fleets that sailed by following the Gulf Stream. What is important for us and to St Augustine 300 years ago was that the money to support Florida did not sink with the flota vessels in 1715, for the Florida situado was not part of the fleet’s cargo.

For St. Augustine, it was much more likely that a situado ship bringing supplies, letters, news and directives directly from Mexico would sink in St. Augustine’s dangerous inlet. The other likely scenario was seizure of the ship carrying the situado goods and cash from Mexico to the Florida capital, as had happened three years before the 1715 fleet disaster. In the spring of 1712, English vessels seized a situado ship bound for St. Augustine.

Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.