Recovering Spanish treasure; The Treasure of the Concepcion, by Peter Earle. New York: Viking Press. $12.95 .
Somewhere between youth and adulthood one usually loses either the taste for stories about pirates, buccaneers, lost treasures, and adventure on the high seas or the opportunity to indulge it. The list of books one "must" read overtakes the list one would like to read, and the loss becomes permanent.
Permanent unless, of course, a historian such as Peter Earle presents a thoroughly "adult" history that also captures some of those youthful pleasures. "The Treasure of the Concepcion" is that kind of book.
Earle documents the voyage of the Spanish flagship Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, which sailed from Spain to the New World in 1640. The mission of the Concepcion was to bring back cargo, passengers, and silver from the Spanish holdings in the West Indies and Mexico.
The Concepcion was the flagship for an ill-fated fleet of 20 Spanish vessels, none of which, as Earle points out, would return safely to Spain the following year.
The fleet did make it as far as Mexico but waited too long to avoid the storm season before starting home. The ships, heavily laden with silver, sailed from Vera Cruz in late July, 1641, for Havana, where they dallied until mid-September.
Awkward in the best weather, the vessels faced exceptionally rough seas on the voyage home. And when not assailed by the elements, they became the targets of marauding buccaneers. A hurricane in late September blew the fleet far off its course and separated the Concepcion from the other ships. After being underway on her own for a month, the Concepcion met another storm that drove her onto an underwater reef off the coast of Hispaniola.
When the crew's attempts to dislodge her failed, they and the passengers abandoned ship, consigning the Concepcion and her treasure to the reef. Only about 200 of the ship's 500 passengers survived.
Ordinarily, it should not have been difficult for someone to locate the wreck and salvage the treasure. But several expeditions would follow the survivors' directions and find nothing. The ship's navigators, it seems, had misread their instruments after being blown off course. They calculated the vessel to be more than a hundred miles from what would turn out to be its true location.
It took Boston sea captain William Phips, sailing on behalf of the King of England in 1687, to pinpoint the Concepcion's whereabouts. As much a buccaneer himself as King's agent, Phips proved quite the match for the pirates and scavengers who were also hunting the Concepcion's lost treasure.
With little more than rumors and intuition to go on, Phips and his crew succeeded in locating the wreck and salvaging a large part of her treasure. They then set sail for England, intending to come back with better ships to recover the rest of the bounty.
But in London, where Phips was treated as a celebrity, news of the Concepcion's location leaked out. Other treasure hunters flocked to the wreck and stripped it of another quarter million pounds sterling worth of silver.
By the time Phips returned, all the easy takings were gone. Part of the ship apparently had been buried in coral, barring Phips's attempts to reach the remaining holds. After an unsuccessful effort to cut through the coral, Phips was forced to give up the quest. The coral continued to grow and the ship to disintegrate.
There were later unsuccessful efforts to find the vessel, and the story might have ended there but for a curious twist two years ago. In 1978, modern-day treasure hunter Burt Webber learned that Peter Earle, a teacher at the London School of Economics, was at work on a book about the Concepcion. Webber also heard that Earle's research had led him to the long overlooked ship's log from Phips's voyages, giving the exact location of the reef.
With the help of Earle's documents, Webber and his company, Seaquest International, sailed to the wreck site and found the ship's remains. Since then, Webber's company has brought up most of the silver that Phips' crew was unable to recover.
In a subject area where another writer might have turned a fascinating sea yarn into a dull tabulation of facts culled from archives, Earle has steered a safe course through the literary reefs. His account of the Concepcion's curious history makes for an exciting and entertaining book that should interest casual readers and maritime historians alike.