“From Havana to Skibereen”
Paddy O’Sullivan revision, 27 October 2013
Just after dawn on the morning of October the 12th 1492 Columbus sank his knees in the soft sand on an island in the Caribbean and claimed it for his sponsors the King and Queen of Spain. Columbus thought he had discovered an outlying part of Asia but in fact he was later to learn that he had discovered the Americas or New World. In the New World from Florida to the Andes in South America great tracts of land with their untold promise of gold and silver were revealed by the discoverers. Prior to Columbus’s great discovery Spain had been a divided country, plagued by wars and strife between Christian, Moslem and Jewish communities. The marriage of King Ferdinand and Isabella resulted in the merging of their two kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The problem of the Jews and Moors of Spain was settled at this time by bloodshed and their expulsion from Spain. Consequent to the discovery of America, Spain rose to predominance in Europe, her Kingdoms included Tripoli, Algiers, The Netherlands, the two Sicilies, Sardinia and lands in the New World. Spain at this time was greatest civil power in the world and spreading its influence ever wider.
The Spaniards who followed Columbus saturated America with colonists. Their primary objective was to find wealth and power, they also attempted to educate and bring Christianity to the native Indian populations. The flood of gold, silver, emeralds and minor cargos such as cochineal, hides and cocoa that was crossing Atlantic from the New World, developed into an annual routine. Each year there were two separate voyages from Seville of “Flotas” or fleets of ships sailing in company to the New World. On the outward voyage they carried humdrum cargos of European manufacture and of little importance. One fleet, The “Galleons de Terra Firme” or mainland fleet sailed to New Granada – present day Colombia in South America, where it picked up gold, emeralds and pearls at Cartagena, and later silver from Peru’s fabled silver mines at Portobello on the Panamanian Isthmus. The second fleet sailed to Vera Cruz in the Caribbean and took aboard cochineal, indigo dyes, silver, as well as goods from the Orient such as porcelains and silk which came to Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific coast. From that location goods were mule-hauled across the Isthmus to Vera Cruz to be laden on the Galleons for Spain. The two fleets when fully laden would then join at Havana in Cuba and sail back to Spain together. An English sea captain’s clerk in the early 1700’s once wrote of the treasure fleets in the following glowing words: “The King of Spain whose dominions are rich and durable mines of gold and silver without bottom or seeming end, from whence flows the wealth of spain, by which the pomp, state, and frontiers of that Kingdom are maintained and defended, yearly sends his mighty ships of Spain into America, which moving road bring him home his annual treasure of gold and silver”. These annual voyages continued in one form or another for a period of 320 years.
The Spaniards soon learned to their regret that their valuable fleets were being attacked or preyed on by English and French war ships as well as pirates and privateers. These costly raids demanded new ideas of the Spaniards and as early as 1560 they designed a new and bigger warship known as the Galleon and capable of taking heavy cannon (mostly of brass) for defense. The treasure ships now sailed in stronger numbers with the warships as their protectors. The fleets were most vulnerable to attack in the vicinity of the Azores in mid-Atlantic and later at Cape St. Vincent.
One such Treasure fleet mustered in the Bay of Matanzas, Havana, in late July in the year 1628 in preparation for the homeward voyage. One of the biggest galleons of that fleet “The Santa Anna Maria” had in her hold over eighty tons of silver bars. On the eve of July 24th a signal shot was fired from the St. Anna Maria and immediately the other ships of the fleet answered by sending their seamen rushing to the capstans and setting their sails in preparation for the long voyage home. It was a calm night disturbed only by the sounds of clanking pawls from the capstan winches as anchors were dragged from their prisons of mud on the sea floor. The Captain must have felt in a jubilant mood as he looked forward to going home after his year of absence. He would also be rewarded by the King of Spain for returning the King’s money safely. Little did he suspect that doom and misfortune lay ahead as unfolding events would
would destine his ship to a watery grave on a stretch of rocky coastline at Castlehaven, near Skibereen, and himself the executioner’s axe for having lost the Silver fleet.
A Dutch pirate fleet led by Piet Hein, lurked in the shadow of darkness awaiting an opportune moment to attack the Spanish fleet. The captain of the Dutch fleet, a pirate named Piet Hein, had always carried a grudge against the Spaniards ever since the day he had been captured by them in his youth and condemned to slavery in the galleys, during his many years of captivity he had mastered the Spanish tongue. He eventually escaped the galleys, his back bearing the scarred reminders of the whip and scourge. The Dutch fleet was superior in both numbers and manpower to the unsuspecting Spanish. With surprise on his side and in the blackness of night Piet Hein struck as his ships sailed into Matanzas Bay and overwhelmed the entire Spanish fleet as they were about to sail for Seville. The Spaniards who were greatly outnumbered were stunned by the audacity of the attack. Several Spanish ships were set on fire in the melee of battle fought in the blackness of night, forty four Spanish ships ran aground on the sandbanks in the confusion. Piet Hein took fifteen ships captive, among them four galleons. Many of the Spanish fled in disarray and confusion.
Piet Hein surveyed his newly captured fleet and noted that most if not all of the ships were in poor and leaky condition with extensive Teredo Beetle damage to their timbers. As a precaution he transferred the silver from the Spanish ships to his own Dutch ships which were deemed to be more seaworthy. He then set sail for Amsterdam and home taking with him four of the biggest Galleons as an additional prize. Two Galleons were lost or sunk on the high seas and the third “The St. Anna Maria” captained by Miguel de Sosa, was caught in a south westerly gale and wrecked on the south Irish coast at Castlehaven, in West Cork. Piet Hein made it back to Holland with the remaining Spanish ship, his own entire fleet, some prisoners and four million ducats of silver. He was well rewarded by his King and Country and Knighted for his great deed, he was also granted an estate and fortified by a generous pension.
He is to this day, the Dutch national hero having spared his country from imminent bankruptcy. The unfortunate Spanish captain was imprisoned in Spain for five years and then tried and publicly beheaded in Cadiz amidst loud jeering.
However, the restless Piet Hein did not settle well into his new life as country gent, smoking his pipe and relaxing about the garden was far too tame a lifestyle. The lure of the sea and adventure beckoned and saw Hein abandon the trappings of glory to return to his old way of live as a swashbuckling privateer. Hein let it be known that he wished to return to serving his country. At this stage Dutch problems lay at their very back door in the form of the Pirates of Dunkirk who were geographically well located to prey on ships passing the Channel. Holland had suffered badly from these marauders, Piet Hein volunteered to deal with the Dunkirkers and was allocated a ship named the Green Dragon accompanied by two slower frigates. So eager was Hein to attack the pirates that he sailed well ahead of his slower companions and without waiting to regroup he immediately opened fire on the pirate fleet. Response was immediate as the pirates unleashed a hurricane of cannon shot against the Green Dragon. Hein gloried in the heat of battle swinging his sword shouting commands to the trumpeters and directing the attack operation. Suddenly an enemy cannon ball took away Hein’s shoulder and killed him instantly, he was not yet fifty two years of age. An old adage has it: “he that cherish the danger shall perish therein”. Hein departed this life on the 4 July 1629.
He was given a full state funeral and buried in the old church at Delft.
The bones of the treasure ship Santa Anna Maria lie strewn in forty feet of water on a rocky headland off Reen point in Castlehaven. Her oak keel and planking are largely intact pinned down by the ships ballast cargo. Her remains a reminder of the age of discovery and colonization of kingdoms of the new world,
- Alan Roddie: “Jacob the Diver” article in “The Mariner’s Mirror” Society for Nautical Research. Vol 62, 1976
- Mendel Peterson : The Funnel of Gold. Little, Brown, 1975. ISBN: 0316703001, 9780316703000
- Arne Zuidhoek : Piet Hein en de Zilvervloot. De Boer Maritiem, 1978. ISBN: 9022819876, 9789022819876 (kindly translated into English by dear friend Jacob Vredenburg)
- C. R. Boxer : The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600-1800. Hutchinson, 1977, ISBN: 0091310512, 9780091310516
- Bob Marx: The treasure fleets of the Spanish Main. World Publishing Co. 1968 (no isbn)