the reverse route of a shipwreck in the 18th century


When the team of Mercury Galleons Project began to investigate the shipwreck Our Lady of Guadalupe, which occurred in 1724 in the bay of Samaná (Dominican Republic), could not have imagined that their steps would return them to Spanish lands, to dig just 50 kilometers from Madrid. The paths of Archeology are sometimes inscrutable. In New Baztan, the town founded at the beginning of the 18th century by Juan de Goyeneche, have searched for the remains of its old glass factory and their findings have confirmed what they already suspected. The 364 crystal glasses and other pieces that the ship was secretly transporting did not come from this Spanish production center, so “they were contraband,

now we know that they were made in Central Europe, that they were bohemian”, explains archaeologist Carlos León Amores.

Guadalupe glass wine cellar
Guadalupe glass wine cellar – Carlos Leon

The investigation that has led to uncovering this crime, prescribed centuries ago, seems typical of the CSI. The vessels were found in perfect condition in the stern section, in rows of fifteen pieces directly on the wood of the hull, a hidden place that has already raised suspicions. Also, they were not listed in the cargo log. Studying their decorations, they saw that they were very similar both to the glasses that were marketed at that time in Bohemia and to those of the San Ildefonso glass factory, created by Felipe V in Segovia, but they soon found out that it did not start to work until 1727, three years after the sinking of the ship. If they came from Spain, they had to have come from the Nuevo Baztán factory, where very similar pieces were made. In fact, some of the master glassmakers who would later work at the Farm came from this factory in Madrid.

The location of the ovens of Nuevo Baztán was unknown, however, and no glasses had been documented that could be attributed to this factory, except for two of dubious origin. The Azogue Galleons Project team requested permits to excavate in Nuevo Baztán and together with specialists from the Reno Archeology company, they carried out a geophysical survey and some initial surveys in the public park located behind the town’s gas station. In this place the historian Beatriz Blasco had most probably located the textile complex.

“Some walls appeared to us, which could correspond to the building that had the glass ovens, and in one of the areas we found a lot of loose glass. From there we have been able to make some analyzes and a comparison that tells us that those of Nuevo Baztán and those of Guadalupe have nothing to do with each other. With which we rule out this route and confirm that they are glasses from Central Europe that they were smuggling because Felipe V prohibited Central European glass arriving on Spanish ships from being marketed in America. That is why they did not appear in the cargo list, ”explains Carlos León.

Illustration that reproduces the Our Lady of Guadalupe
Illustration that reproduces the Our Lady of Guadalupe – Mercury Galleons Project

It is one of the main contributions of the study ‘
The shipwreck of the ship Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and the transportation of quicksilver in the 18th century
‘, which this archaeologist has published in the latest issue of the Prehistory and Archeology Notebooks of the Autonomous University of Madrid. He has also correctly identified a jug from Vilafranca del Penedés, which was previously believed to be made in Puebla, Mexico, and has found out details about the lieutenant general Baltasar de Guevara, commander of the ill-fated Flota de Azogue of 1724, as well as the baptism certificate in which it is stated that this son of unmarried noblemen was baptized in the Madrid church of San Martín as Baltasar, Melchor, Gaspar. Only after his parents’ marriage did he appear under his real name.

Mercury, a strategic product

The Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe captained the fleet that departed from Cádiz on July 11, 1724, loaded with mercury from the mines of Almadén (Ciudad Real) bound for Veracruz (Mexico). “Quicksilver became a strategic product for the Spanish Crown since the discovery of the amalgamation of gold and silver,” explains León Amores. As much gold and silver was obtained and cleaned in America, especially in New Spain, as mercury was capable of being transported there. “Every two years, since 1700, a fleet is being sent with 2, 3 or 4 ships loaded with mercury, especially for the mines in Mexico,” adds the archaeologist. In the first quarter of the s. XVIII, they have counted six Fleets of Azogues, which transported between 5,000 and 10,000 quintals (between 230 and 460 tons) each.

The one from 1724 never reached its destination. On August 23 of that same year, a storm pushed the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and her admiral ship, the San Joseph, known as the Count of Toulouse. The latter, which had been purchased from France, collided with a bass and sank violently while the Guadalupe ran aground near the Dominican coast. More than 600 people from the Tolosa and some 82 from the Guadalupe lost their lives in the shipwreck or in the hard journey on foot that the survivors undertook along the Dominican coast in search of help.

The archaeologist and diver Alejandro Selmi from the Azogue Galleons Project working on the Guadalupe
The archaeologist and diver Alejandro Selmi from the Azogue Galleons Project working on the Guadalupe – Carlos Leon

For centuries its history fell into oblivion until in 1976 the remains of the Guadalupe were found in an area of ​​reefs off the coast of Miches, about six meters deep. Initially, the Dominican Government granted permission to the treasure hunter Tracy Bowden to extract the objects that he considered of interest, on the condition that he deliver 50% of the pieces and reserved the right to acquire the rest. León Amores believes that very little of what the treasure hunter found ended up in private hands because the Dominican authorities exchanged practically everything for coins from the Count of Tolosa, located by Bowden in the same area. The archaeologist calculates that “more or less 90% of what was removed” is in the Royal Shipyards Museum, especially, and in the Faro a Colón Museum.

Nothing is known about the remaining 10% of the rescued material. “Mostly coins will have been traded, because we were surprised that there were so few on the ship, probably some jewel… but we don’t know exactly what is missing because there is no inventory of what was rescued,” lamented this expert. It is a sad consequence of entrusting such a mission to a treasure hunter. In addition, “the evident lack of archaeological methodology for this recovery prevents today from reconstructing many essential chapters in the history of this site.”

life on board

Even with everything, the Galeones de Azogue Project team formed by León Amores, Cruz Apestegui and Manu Izaguirre has been able to study in recent years both the circumstances of the shipwreck and shipbuilding in the transition between the 17th and 18th centuries, the way in mercury was transported, or life on board in the Spanish ships of the time.

Carlos León, at the Museum of the Royal Shipyards
Carlos León, at the Museum of the Royal Shipyards – Mercury Galleons Project

Among the numerous utensils and personal objects of the crew and the passage of the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, there are from the crude ceramics in which the sailors ate to the most advanced technology of the time reflected in a valuable table clock of the London brand Windmills. Investigators have discovered in the cargo record a mention of the payment of money for the shipment of a table clock that was to be given to the Bishop of Puebla. “We think he’s probably referring to that watch because it’s so special.”

The religious objects found among the remains of the Guadalupe (a benditera, an image of San Antonio de Padua, medals and medallions) show that a group of Franciscans boarded the ship. Carlos León has examined them one by one, as he has done with the coins to find out which mint they came from. Until the animal bones that the treasure hunter discarded in his rescue have yielded valuable information on how many sheep, goats, pigs or cows were on the ship, how many were alive and how they were consumed. The myriad of details now known make up a much more accurate picture of day-to-day life on a ship like the Guadalupe.

“Is the only mercury transport ship ever found, along with his partner Tolosa. With the difference between one and the other that the Guadalupe is entirely Spanish. Made in Campeche (Mexico) with wood from Campeche, but designed by Spanish naval engineers, following the Spanish construction system”, underlines Carlos León. A unique window to peek into the Spanish past submerged in the waters of the Dominican Republic… and also just a stone’s throw from Madrid. “We are waiting for permission to continue excavating in Nuevo Baztán -indicates the archaeologist- because those glass furnaces from the 18th century are not known.”


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