Mystery of the world’s most valuable shipwrecks

The Merchant Royal was known as ‘the El Dorado of the seas’, and traded with Spanish colonies between 1637 to 1640. As well as its golden and silver, the vessel sank while carrying nearly 500,000 pieces of eight and other coins – making it one of the most valuable wrecks of all time

Merchant Royal

Lost : On board at the time of its sinking was a trove 100,000 lbs of gold, 400 bars of Mexican silver and almost 500,000 ‘pieces of eight’, or Spanish dollars

The remains of the Merchant Royal are known as one of the richest shipwrecks ever. The ship set sail from the New World in 1641 laden with 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 Mexican silver bars, and thousands of precious gems—in total, a haul thought to be worth $1.3 billion today. The ship got caught in a storm and was thought to have gone down somewhere off the coast of Cornwall, England.

The lost wreck became known as the “el Dorado of the seas” due to the enormous value of its cargo, and over the years numerous treasure hunters have searched fruitlessly for its final resting place, which remains undiscovered. In 2019 fishermen snagged what is thought to be the anchor from the Merchant Royal, but to date the dangerous conditions and extreme depths at which the wreck is thought to lie have meant it has remained unclaimed.

Flor de la Mar

lost treasure map

Flor de la Mar is considered to be one of the greatest treasures still lost at sea. The ship was used for the Portuguese India run and was the largest carrack built at the time at 400 tons. The ship made a few runs and each time was filled with struggles as the ship sprung leaks and was delayed for months for repairs. In 1506 the ship was stuck for ten months having to constantly be repaired until it was found in February of 1507 by the 8th India armada. The ship was then quickly made seaworthy by a large crew and then the Flor de la Mar and her captain were annexed into the armada. In 1510 the ship assisted in the conquest of Goa and in 1511 the conquest of Malacca.

Despite being wrought with problems the ship lasted longer than most ships that India built which typically only offered three to four years of service. It was however, dangerously unseaworthy when it was fully loaded which was largely the reason why it was only able to complete one India run. Despite knowing this Afonso de Albuquerque, a Portuguese general and governor of Portuguese India, wanted to show King Manuel I the treasures that India offered. So, the Flor de la Mar was used for a return voyage to Portugal in 1511 and was laden down with a hull full of treasures. On the 20th of November 1511, the ship was caught in a storm in the Strait of Malacca. It sank and many of the crew and all her treasures were lost.

Afonso de Albuquerque managed to survive by using a makeshift raft and was able to tell of the ship’s demise and the treasures lost. The ship was said to be carrying 200 coffers of precious stones which diamonds ranging in size from half inch to the size of a man’s fist. There have been numerous attempts and disputes over trying to recover the ship. Robert Marx, an American treasure hunter, has spent $20 million trying to find and recover the wealth lost in the wreck. Many historians credit the treasure of the Flor de la Mar to be the most elaborate treasure ever lost at sea.

San Miguel

In 1715 the War of Succession had drained Spain of its funds. The country was going bankrupt and in desperate need of money. So a treasure fleet departed from Havana, Cuba to fill the Spanish coffers with treasures from the New World. Twelve ships were sent loaded with silver and other treasures in July of 1715. However, the fleet was hit by a hurricane and eleven of the ships sunk on July 31st, 1715. 1,000 people died, 400 of which were slaves but some crew members were able to survive in boats and they were able to lead a salvage mission to recover some of the treasures from the deep. The Spanish were able to recover about half of the treasure and over the years more of the treasure has been salvaged and seven of the ships have been found. The ships sunk near present-day Vero Beach, Florida and from time to time artifacts from the wreckage still wash up on shore.

What interests treasure hunters today is the San Miguel, one of the 11 ships lost in the storm. It is believed that since the San Miguel was the fastest ship of the fleet it may have gone ahead of the rest of the fleet the day before the storm hit. Being the fastest of the fleet the San Miguel would have been given the most treasure since it would have been the most likely to outrun pirates and make it home to Spain. Therefore, finding the San Miguel could mean finding one of the largest shipwreck treasures in history.

One treasure hunter seeking the ship believes that the San Miguel may have headed for Amelia Island in order to escape the storm and some artifacts found near the island seem to confirm his hunch. Treasure hunters have been scouring sandy floors around Florida’s beaches and islands in order to find the ship which some estimate has a value of over $2 billion.

The Culture Ministry has charted the 681 vessels sunk between 1492 and 1898, including the Santa María, the largest of Christopher Columbus’s three ships on his first voyage across the Atlantic

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