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Eric Wiberg – The 1657 shipwreck of the Madema do Brasil near Gorda Cay, Abaco

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On the night of 22 September, the Madema do Brasil, piloted by the Spaniards, and their loot struck the reefs, probably on southwest Gorda Cay. Though seven men drowned, Somovilla and about 100 of the remainder swam and crawled their way to shelter. They were to remain for months, unarmed and underfed.

GORDA Cay was named because of its round shape – in Spanish it means simply ‘fat’ – the only village, occupied by itinerant farmers from nearby Sandy Point, Abaco, was named Pumpkin Harbour. Just two miles by a mile, it is nine miles to Great Abaco, 30 to Grand Bahama, and 25 miles to the Berry Islands. Gorda Cay is also about halfway on the 9,000-mile voyage from the colonial Spanish silver mines of Potosí, Bolivia, high in the arid Andes, and Madrid. Because it sits along the critical Northwest Providence Channel, many tons and millions of pesos worth of silver, gold, chests of worked metals were wrecked there. These precious metals boosted Indians serving with the Spanish, newly arrived Eleutheran Adventurers, fishermen, the Development Board, and numerous amateur and professional treasure hunters. “The Island is small, approximately 1,000 acres in size. It was first inhabited in 1783.”

On October 26, 1654 a Spanish treasure galleon Jesus Maria de la Limpia Concepcion de Nuestra Senora wrecked off Ecuador from Peru to Panama. Much of the silver and gold was salvaged, and placed on another galleon, the Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas. This ship, en route was caught in a vicious hurricane rounding northern Bahamas. On January 4, 1656 the Maravillas collided with another ship named Nuestra Señora de la Concepción and sank in minutes on Little Bahama Bank, to be re-discovered in 1972. The Spanish aggressively salvaged the treasure, and their enemies tried. A ship from the fleet was towed into Bermuda, and the crew convinced to lead an expedition to salvage treasure.

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Treasure-hunters Roscoe Thompson and Howard Lightbourn retrieved “a 72-pound silver ingot in 15 feet of water, just off the exposed shoal. Its markings showed the bar to be the property of Spain’s King Philip IV.” They also found “three coins from the same era.”

A skilled opportunistic Spanish duo named Juan de Somovilla Tejada and Gaspar de los Reyes Palacio survived the wreck of the Maravillas, salvaged some cargo, and delivered it to Spain.

Dave Horner, in Shipwreck, states that in San Juan “a Portuguese ship, the Madama do Brasil, was in the harbour preparing to sail.” It was a merchant vessel called a frigate, não, nau, or carrack, of 400 tons, 120 feet long, 25 feet wide, with three masts, a large bowsprit, deep draft and high decks, and a few cannons. It soon was the main platform for extensive salvage of the Maravillas wreck and treasure in The Bahamas.

With the king’s approval Somovilla and Reyes returned to the site until in mid-August 1657 a sudden fierce storm sent some ships running for shelter south of Grand Bahama. Somovilla followed on the Madama do Brasil, the storm continuing fierce. It caught the Spaniards south of Grand Bahama, and sank their ship El Panito. Despite cutting down their mast, the Madama do Brasil lost its rudder. At that point, with the ship heavily laden with treasure it was impossible to manage. On the night of 22 September, the Spaniards and their loot struck the reefs, probably on southwest Gorda Cay. Though seven men drowned, Somovilla and about 100 of the remainder swam and crawled their way to shelter. They were to remain for months, unarmed and underfed.

As the Spaniards and Indian divers found and salvaged large ingots and bars of silver, 72 pounds in weight, they buried them near their camp. They survived mostly on sea grass and managed to make small boats and send them to Cuba. The first made it and they returned months later, and the second desperate boat was found by the rescuers. By then much of the treasure had been stolen, but the Spanish managed to retrieve their stashes.

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The Madama do Brasil would have looked like this typical 17th century merchant ship.

Three weeks later, on October 12, a well-equipped group of wreckers led by Richard Richardson, John Williams, and Asa Eyley sailed from Eleuthera and fired at the Spanish, who withdrew. Then the Eleutheran Adventurers bribed Indian divers to get the lay of the land and locate of the wreck and treasure. Setting up a camp at Sandy Point, these entrepreneurs returned to Eleuthera in less than a month with 2,600 pounds sterling in silver, which they carefully divided; significantly improving their lot.

The same group made the 70-mile voyage in October, salvaging at least 1,400 pieces of eight. In 1898-1903, “it was rumoured that Bahamian fishermen worked the site, but what they found was never officially reported,” per Dave Horner.

Then in 1947 “a storm rearranged the beaches of Gorda Cay, revealing evidence of the wreck to local fishermen. And a year later, American diver Art McKee found three 72-pound silver bars there. In August of 1950 Nassau businessmen and treasure-hunters Roscoe Thompson and Howard Lightbourn retrieved “a 72-pound silver ingot in 15 feet of water, just off the exposed shoal. Its markings showed the bar to be the property of Spain’s King Philip IV.” They also found “three coins from the same era.” This gained immense publicity, as “it was later displayed at the Tourist Development Board in Nassau.” Ian Fleming cited this silver find in Thunderball (p.107). Per the Nassau Tribune, Albert E. Worswick bought the ingot and donated it to the board. Valued at $20,000, the Nassau duo is said to have bought it from a fisherman who found it in the ballast pile for $50, according to rumour.

In 1979 Mike Kelley recovered “four Spanish cobs … from the Gorda Cay wreck in the Bahamas. [using] … metal detector looking in the cracks in the coral close to the beach … along the shore line to the end of the island.” There are said to be aggressive sharks there. In 1997, a group on RV Explorer of Honduras “salvaged several thousand coins and other Capitana artifacts.”  In the 2000s, treasure seekers reported “some coins were found in the coral on the beach, and some big ingots in the water” at Gorda Cay. Dave Horner observes that “there is no way to determine how much might remain today on the shallow reefs at Gorda Cay before they drop off into deep water.” Beware – a large mouse stands in the way of those seeking the treasure... the island has been recast for an American entertainment conglomerate and its ships.

Comments

truetruebahamian 2 months, 1 week ago

Too many of those mice nibbling away at what is ours.

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hrysippus 2 months, 1 week ago

A very interesting piece of research. Thanks Eric.

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