Gear-obsessed editors choose every product we review. We may earn commission if you buy from a link. How we test gear.
Using new scientific research methods, Allen Exploration located a large trove of items smuggled aboard a ship that sank in 1656.
Carrying a double load of bounty, the Nuestra Senora de las Maravillas (“Our Lady of Wonders”) wrecked about 43 miles off the shore of the Bahamas in 1656. During its descent, the ship scattered a debris trail at least eight miles long. Scavengers pillaged that bounty for centuries until the government put a moratorium on it in the late 1990s.
But the water still hid a surprising amount of treasure. Under a new excavation license granted in 2020, Allen Exploration, an investment company that partnered with the Bahamian government, finally found it. The riches will be open for public viewing at the new Bahamas Maritime Museum in Freeport beginning August 8.
At least 3.5 million pieces of eight (a global currency from Spain) and silver bars had already been salvaged from the Maravillas. This latest search, led by the retired millionaire plastics businessman Carl Allen, combed the ocean floor to locate more artifacts. He ended up finding gold chains, emerald pendants, and plenty of 1600s-era remnants worthy of a museum.
“When we brought up the oval emerald and gold pendant, my breath caught in my throat,” Allen says in a news release. “I feel a greater connection with everyday finds than coins and jewels, but these Santiago finds bridge both worlds. The pendant mesmerizes me when I hold it and think about its history. How these tiny pendants survived in these harsh waters, and how we managed to find them, is the miracle of the Maravillas.”
When it left Spain for Colombia in 1654, the two-deck Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de las Maravillas was armed with 36 bronze cannons. Her purpose was to bring back treasure to Seville, both as royal tax and private property.
The weather forced the crew to pause for the winter in Colombia. Coincidentally, when the Jesus Maria de la Limpia Concepcion sank off Ecuador, salvage of the wealth from that wreck was transferred to the Maravillas.
So, when the Maravillas set sail for Spain, after a stop in Havana, it was doubly loaded with valuables.
That fortune didn’t make it far. Just after midnight on January 4, 1656, while the ship was navigating the Bahama Channel, slicing between Florida and the Bahamas, the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, lead ship in the Tierra Firme fleet, struck the Maravillas. Within 30 minutes, the ship sank, and only 45 of the 650 crew, merchants, and travelers on board survived.
The trail of treasure spread as much as eight miles and had been buried beneath sand and dead coral on the Little Bahama Bank ever since. Under the Antiquities, Monuments, and Museum Act, all wreckage in the Bahamian water is the property of the Government of the Bahamas. Allen Exploration (AllenX) earned a survey license in 2019 and an excavation license in 2020.
“The Maravillas offers an opportunity to study the end of the Golden Age of Spain that drew to a close with the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 after the Franco-Spanish War,” according to the Bahamas Maritime Museum. “The wreck of the Maravillas is a sunken porthole into the consumer tastes of Spain in a very tight and crucial period in the country’s history and into its colonial relationship with Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia in the Americas.”
Experts figured there wasn’t much left to find from the shipwreck, but Allen Exploration believed the stern castle had broken off and drifted away, opening a new area of exploration in an area 7.5 miles by 5 miles. Using magnetometers and Icon A5 aircraft, the team started an original search with the humble goal of investigating the personal belongings of officers, crew, and passengers to reconstruct daily life at sea.
They found far more than that.
Throughout the haul, they discovered valuable pieces, including a two-pound, six-foot-long gold filigree chain with ornate decorations, uncut emeralds and amethysts, and jewel-encrusted pendants. Some of the pieces, such as a golden pendant in the form of a scallop shell, are tied to the Order of Santiago, a Christian order of knights founded in about 1160 in Spain to fight Spanish Muslims and protect pilgrims. Plenty of valuables weren’t on the original ship’s cargo manifest, highlighting a common practice of the day: smuggling.
Ten Spanish salvage expeditions have recovered “a huge chunk of the Maravillas’ treasure cargo,” Allen says. “The galleon, though, was stuffed with contraband illegally greasing the palms of Spanish merchants and officials. Defrauding the Spanish Crown continued into the salvage years. Our archaeology is finding that most recovered coins were minted in Mexico. But the Maravillas didn’t officially load coins in Mexico. Illegal contraband again raises its suspicious head.”
The team also found iron fasteners from the hull; rings and pins from the rigging; olive jars; plates; a silver sword hilt; and other personal belongings once part of the 891-ton Maravillas. Each item is being mapped in geo-referenced databases.
More than enjoying the excitement of the historical finds, AllenX wants to learn from the process. “By mapping each type of find, AllenX is finally reconstructing the mystery of how the ship was wrecked and fell apart,” James Sinclair, a marine archaeologist with the project, says in the news release. “This isn’t just forensic marine archaeology. We’re also digging into former excavations, working out what previous salvage teams got up to, where and why. So much data has been sadly lost from this ravaged wreck.”
Sinclair says the company is continuing the hunt for more treasure and trying to paint a more detailed picture of how the ship was destroyed. “Now we’re connecting the dots, for the first time plotting how the Maravillas galleon broke up in 1656 and became a scattered wreck.”
Allen Exploration has decided to keep the new collection together by sponsoring the building, opening, and running of the the Bahamas Maritime Museum; nothing is being sold. In the end, the wealth of the Maravillas ventured beyond its intended destination, and arguably created a longer-lasting impact.