The Spanish Treasure Fleet sailed from Havana in July, 1733. A day into the journey, as the 20 ships were nearing the Florida Keys, the winds shifted and began to blow ferociously as the Fleet found itself in the path of a rapidly approaching hurricane. Becoming aware of the severity of their situation, Captain General Rodrigo de Torres, in command of the Fleet aboard a ship called El Rubí Segundo, ordered his ships to sail back to Havana. His decision came too late, and by the end of the day, all but one of the ships had been forced into sharp reefs and sand banks along the 80 mile stretch of the Florida Keys.
After the lone surviving ship returned to Havana, salvage crews were sent to recover as much as possible from the shipwrecks. After several years of work on the sites, the Spanish salvors had recovered more goods than had been listed on the manifest, which provided clear evidence of rampant smuggling.
Despite the large amount of cargo recovered by the Spanish in the years immediately following the disaster, much of the treasure remained submerged. In 1938 Art McKee, the father of modern treasure diving, began exploring a shipwreck site that turned out to be the location of El Rubí Segundo. Continuing his work through the 1960’s, McKee and his team found enough incredible gold, silver, and porcelain artifacts to open a museum in the Florida Keys. Recovery operations on the 1733 Fleet shipwreck sites continue to this day.
The Porcelain City of Jingdezhen
During the reigns of Chinese Emperors K’ang Hsi (1662-1722) and his son Yongzheng (1723-1735), the city of Jingdezhen was the largest center of blue and white porcelain production in the world. At that time, it was home to around 500 kilns and a population of one million people, most of whom were involved in the production of porcelain. One piece of finished fired porcelain would have passed through the hands of 60 workers.
Blue and white porcelain from this era is considered aesthetically the finest ever produced. Renowned for its clarity of color and masterfully drawn decoration. Scenes depicted on these pieces include garden, mountain, and river landscapes, as well as themes from Chinese mythology. The artisans did not sacrifice attention to the finest of details in their compositions; close observation reveals lotus blossoms, dragons, ornately plumed birds, ships, and emblems representing longevity (bamboo), good fortune (peony), wedded bliss (butterfly), and more.
Manila Galleon Trade
Though the Spanish had already established rich mines in the New World, they had not forgotten the original intent of the Columbus expedition in 1492, which was to find a Western passage to India. Beginning in the 1570’s Spain began sending one or two galleons per year from Acapulco into the vast uncharted expanse of the Pacific Ocean, bound for Manila, where goods from China and South East Asia were brought to market. Due to favorable sea conditions, the three month long west-bound journey was typically a relatively straight forward expedition, however, the return journey back to Acapulco was fraught with typhoons and other perils resulting in frequent navigational errors and numerous shipwrecks. The ships that returned from Manila sent their ample cargoes of silk, spices and fine Chinese porcelain to Veracruz, on the Eastern coast of Mexico for shipment back to Europe via Havana, Cuba.
As the imports from this new trade route became available to the world, Chinese porcelain became an extremely fashionable item to own. For the Europeans, these items were the most sophisticated way to display knowledge and appreciation for Asian art and culture.