The Maravillas Story
Sinking of the Capitana and Cargo Recovery
The story of the Nuestra Senora de Las Maravillas (the “Maravillas”) actually began with a Spanish galleon called the Capitana. The Capitana set sail from South America in October 1654 headed for the Pacific coast of Panama. It carried a treasure of freshly minted gold escudos, silver pieces of eight, chalices of gold and silver, and crosses encrusted with emeralds. The main cargo, however, was a 400-pound, solid-gold statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus commissioned by King Philip IV of Spain. He believed he could buy his way into heaven by presenting the gold statue to the mother church in Spain. Unfortunately, the Capitana sank eight days later in a storm off the coast of Ecuador. The treasure lay in 40 feet of water and King Philip was adamant that it be recovered no matter what the cost. Slaves and divers recovered most of the treasure, including the solid-gold statue.
Capitana’s Treasure Transferred to Las Maravillas
The treasure recovered from the Capitana was shipped to Havana, where a larger fleet was preparing to set sail for Spain. To ensure that nothing would go wrong this time, King Philip had the treasure loaded on the 650-ton Maravillas (Nuestra Senora de Las Maravillas translates to Our Lady of Miracles)
Departure and Sinking
The Maravillas was blessed by the Archbishop of Havana and set sail for Spain on New Year’s Day, 1656 along with 22 armed warships. The chief navigator was sure they had cleared the sand shoals and coral reefs of the Bahamas when all of a sudden; a reef appeared on the horizon. A cannon was fired to warn the rest of the fleet to alter their course.
Not all the ships responded to the warning and as the Maravillas came about, she was rammed head-on by a smaller ship. Water began pouring into the Maravillas’ hold and the masts of the two vessels became tangled. As the crews worked frantically to free the rigging, water continued to flood the Maravillas and she finally settled in 30 feet of water.
The crew knew the treasure had to be saved. As plans were made to recover the treasure, a storm moved in and within hours the Maravillas disappeared into the sea. Only 45 of the crew survived and the king’s treasure was lost again. King Philip IV died in 1665 without ever recovering the solid-gold statue.
On the fateful voyage, La Nuestra Señora de la Maravillas was the almiranta (second in command) of a Spanish treasure fleet headed to Spain with a cargo of gold, silver, and other valuables. It is estimated that the ship carried over five million pesos worth of gold bars and silver coins. The ship was under the command of Don Cristobal de Salinas and sailed with over six hundred souls on board.
After years of serving the Catholic Church in Peru and anxious to return home to Spain, Padre Diego boarded the Maravillas in Cartagena in the fall of 1655. Along with the other seven ships of the treasure fleet, the Maravillas stopped briefly in Havana before heading north towards the Bahamas on January 1, 1656. Three days later, the fleet encountered a ferocious storm. The ships drifted off course and into shallow reefs surrounding the Bahamas. In the pitch dark, another ship in the fleet collided with the Maravillas, splintering the planks below the waterline.
In his diary, Survivor Padre Diego wrote…
Pounding waves began breaking the ship into pieces, filling the waist of the galleon. I groped through the confusion to reach Admiral Don Matías de Orellana. “Admiral, what should we do?” I asked. His frankness was shocking. “We will be lost without remedy. Please confess all who wish to be absolved.”
Water begins to fill the galleon, so the padre climbs to the highest cabin of the sterncastle where he finds “the great lanterns of the galleon still lit, reflecting an unearthly glow against the pitch-darkness. Everyone was begging for God’s mercy.”
Padre Diego realizes that the ship is breaking up and jumps to a lower level that is awash with sea water. “As I clung to the hatch cover trying not to be washed overboard, the entire sterncastle of the Maravillas, all three decks of it, crashed in a tumbling fall, astern to starboard. The tower of breaking wood sent horrified and screaming people sprawling into the sea in every direction.”
Padre Diego clings to the hatch as he is washed overboard and spends the next day clinging to it with several other survivors before they are rescued. He is one of only forty five survivors.
Modern Salvage of the Maravillas
Bob Marx spent over ten years researching various archives to find clues to the location of the Maravillas. He finally located the bow section of the wreck in 1972 and salvaged over 1700 coins and many artifacts. Due to disagreements with the government of the Bahamas, Marx quickly lost access to the site.
The next salvage operation, carried out by Herbert Humphreys, continued into the late 1980s.
Using new electronic equipment to detect metal, the crew continued to find coins and also recovered a 100 carat uncut emerald. Despite the wealth already discovered, many believe that the bulk of the treasure carried by the Maravillas remains to be found.