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2017-12-07

A brief history ... The story of treasure hunt & a collector's 'Blood Coin'

By Raymond V Carter, research historian ©2017

On the morning of Sept. 6, 1622, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha was caught in a ferocious hurricane and lost at sea, including the 260 souls on board and its mighty treasures — gold, silver, and emeralds. The bulk of the half-billion dollar treasure was found by Mel Fisher, president of Treasure Salvors, Inc., and his diving partners after first spending $20 million and 16 years searching for it. Fisher and his team started out hunting for the shipwreck over 100 miles from where they would eventually discover the Atocha.
After researching at the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain, Fisher moved the search team to the location that would later earn the nickname, "The Bank of Spain." In less than a year, the team located the Atocha's anchor and on July 20, 1985, discovered the treasure that had lain hidden on the ocean floor off the Florida Keys for more than 360 years.
I visited with Craig Husar and Jim Naylor of the Atocha dive team in April 1996, and they invited me to go on a dive at the Atocha shipwreck site (for the cost of $50,000). To be fair, the price included keeping the first “souvenir” a diver found at the shipwreck. I wasn’t a certified diver and couldn’t get certified by the time of the dive-invitation date, so I missed that opportunity. But I did purchase a piece of the Atocha treasure. It was an 8 Reales silver coin minted at the Potosi Mint in Peru, between 1576 and 1586 by assayer, Juan de Ballesteros. (By the way, I do keep this treasure in a bank vault.)
The coin has an interesting history. It traveled by mule train from Potosi to Lima, Peru, and from there, by the Spanish South Seas Fleet to Ecuador, and then on to Panama. After landing, it traveled by mule train to Portobello, Panama, then by Spanish ship to Cartagena, Columbia, and then on to Havana, Cuba. In Havana, King Phillip II's treasures of gold and silver ingots and coins, fist-sized emeralds and other treasures were collected for the trip to Spain. This particular 8-real coin ranges from 92 to 98 percent silver, with impurities of copper and platinum.
I named this coin in my collection “The Blood Coin’ because of the high cost of lives associated with this coin’s history, before it came into my hands. First, the Spanish mines in the Viceroyalty of Peru (present day Bolivia) were mined with Peruvian/Inca slave labor. No telling how many slaves died to get the silver out of the ground.
Then, there were the 260 people who drowned when the Atocha sank on its voyage back to Spain. The Atocha sank in 60 feet of water. The only two survivors were crewmembers that were tied to the crowsnest, which stood above the ocean waters after the ship sank. After being rescued, the survivors were taken back to Spain, where they were accused of stealing from the king, tortured into admission, then put to death.
The loss of life associated with the coin continued into contemporary times, too. While Fisher and his family were hunting for the sunken treasure, three more lives were lost. Fisher’s oldest son, Dirk, his daughter-in-law, Angel, and a diver named Rick Gage drowned during a nighttime boating accident on July 20, 1975. The salvage boat they were sleeping on capsized from a water leak caused by a defective bilge pump. They all drowned — 10 years to the day before the treasure of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha was finally found.