Spanish treasure fleet

From Academic Kids

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Spanish treasure fleets brought the wealth of the Spanish colonies in Central and South America to Spain, in the form of silver, gold, gems, spices, cocoa and other exotic goods. Another fleet called the Manila galleons exchanged Chinese wares from the Philippines and Mexican silver from Acapulco in Nueva Espa˝a (modern Mexico) where it was transhipped to Vera Cruz to join the Caribbean fleet.

Spanish ships had brought treasure from the New World since Columbus' first expedition of 1492, but a system of convoys started to be developed in the 1520s in response to attacks by French and English privateers. Under this system, two fleets sailed each year from Seville (later Cßdiz), consisting of galleons, heavily armed with cannon, and merchant carracks, carrying manufactured goods (and later slaves). One fleet sailed to the Caribbean, the other to the South American ports of Cartagena, Nombre de Dios (and later Porto Bello); after completing their trade the fleets rendezvoused at Havana in Cuba for the return trip.

Spain strictly controlled trade with its colonies: by law, the colonies could only trade with one designated port in the mother country. The English and Dutch tried to break it, and foreigners established associations with fronting Spaniards (cargadores), but this monopoly lasted for two centuries, in which Spain first became the richest country in Europe and used the wealth from its colonies to fight wars against France, the Otoman Empire, England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and then the precious metals from the Indies engendered the inflation of the 16th century, which destroyed the old economy.

The fleet carried the royal fifth (a tax of 20%) of precious metals and wares of private merchants. Archaelogy has found that the quantity of metals really transported was usually much higher than that recorded at the Archivo de Indias as merchants resorted to contraband and corruption to transport their riches untaxed.

This economic system began to decline in the 17th century. The treasure fleets were menaced by storms (the fleets of 1622, including the Atocha, 1715 and 1733 were destroyed by hurricanes in the Caribbean) and by pirates, privateers and foreign navies. The threat of attack became greater as Spain's colonial rivals established their own, or seized Spanish, bases in the Caribbean: the English acquired St Kitts in 1624, and the Dutch Curašao in 1634. Treasure fleets were captured by Piet Hein in 1628 and in 1656 and 1657 by Robert Blake. In the 1660s Henry Morgan attacked Spanish possessions. The 1702 treasure fleet was destroyed in the Battle of Vigo Bay.

These losses were tremendous economic blows to Spain. Weakened by continual wars and suffering economic depression, Spain was unable to protect its colonies. In 1739, Admiral Edward Vernon raided Porto Bello, and in 1762 (in the Seven Years' War) the British captured Havana and Manila.

Spain opened its colonies to free trade in the 1780s and the last treasure fleet sailed in 1790.

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