In the days of Pirates and volatility on the high seas, the Spanish Armada ferried precious metals, jewels and rare items between the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and the Spanish mainland. In a fit of marketing brilliance, given the state of the world, someone thought it would be a good idea to name the route ‘The Spanish Treasure Fleet’. Rather than the far more sensible ‘The Spanish insert-name-of-really-dull-item-here Fleet’. Especially as, at the time, the Spanish Armada and the Spanish colonies themselves were being looked upon with rather envious eyes – particularly from the French, English and Dutch navies.
Remarkably, over the course of two centuries, very few fleets were actually lost, and majority of those that were mostly succumbed to poor weather or bad seamanship rather than any confrontation.
In fact, the only time that the fleet was captured was at Matanzas Bay, Cuba, by the Dutch Admiral Piet Heyn.
The story of that capture plays out like the plot of a Hollywood movie, and was remarkable for many reasons – not least of which was the fact that Admiral Heyn managed to take the fleet without the loss of a single life.
Lot 1004: Netherlands, Admiral Piet Heyn (1578-1629), Silver Medal depicting the capture of the Spanish Fleet at Matanzas Bay, Cuba, 1628, 58.41g, 58.87mm, unsigned. Good very fine and very rare. Guide Price: $20,000
The fleet was due to sail to the colonies in two separate flotillas, one departing from Venezuela and one from Mexico (one guesses that their security team was more adept than their marketing team). Whilst the flotilla moored in Venezuela was awaiting departure, they were already being eyed by the Dutch. A Dutch cabin boy, having drunk more than his fill in the bars of Blanquilla, became lost in the port on his way back to his ship. Captured by the Spanish, he was coerced into giving up the Dutch plans.
The Spanish flotilla in Venezuela was therefore forewarned, but there was no time to get word to their comrades in Mexico.
The Dutch fleet, led by Admiral Heyn, pursued the remaining Spanish ships and eventually forced them into the Bay of Matanzas, where, finding themselves utterly outnumbered without their colleagues languishing in Venezuela, had no choice but to surrender. On 9th September, 1628, they did so, with only minimal shots fired – none of which actually hit their target.
Admiral Heyn captured 11,509,524 Guilders of gold, silver, and expensive trade goods – a booty that would go on to fund the Dutch navy for the next 8 years.
Upon his return to the Netherlands he was hailed as a hero, and when facing the adoring crowds of home, would utter perhaps the most illustrative and damning quote of any wartime; a quote that rings as true today as it did 400 years ago.
“Now they praise me because I gained riches without the least danger; but earlier, when I risked my life in full combat they didn’t even know I existed.”
The medal, for sale in our New York Auction, is forged from the recovered treasure.