Bermuda's 12 Undiscovered Treasure Wrecks
by Robert F. Marx, Dec. 1997
During the past five centuries, more than 1,000 ships have been lost off Bermuda. A 19th century historian aptly dubbed the island a 'graveyard of ships.' The waters around Bermuda conceal more wrecks than any other area in the Western Hemisphere, with the possible exception of the Florida Keys. In several areas of the Bermuda seafloor two, and, in one case, three ships from different periods lie on top of each another.
On modern maps, Bermuda appears as a small dot in the Atlantic some 569 miles off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. However, it played a key role in early navigation and is shown disproportionately large on old maritime charts. One of the larger of the 300 isles, islets and rocks that make up the British colony, Bermuda Island was known as the Isle of Devils because of its perilous waters.
The first settlers arrived on Bermuda as a result of a shipwreck. The Sea Venture, an English ship carrying colonists to the Virginia Plantation, wrecked off the island in 1609. In May of 1610, the survivors reached Virginia but some returned to Bermuda and founded a colony.
From earliest times Bermudans engaged in salvaging shipwrecks. When William Phips first reached Nuestra Se–ora de la Concepci—n on Silver Shoals he discovered Bermudan wreckers had already beat him to the galleon and recovered a substantial amount of treasure. As late as World War II, salvaging wrecks was still an important occupation for Bermudans. Thousands of tons of scrap iron were salvaged from wrecks for the war effort, including untold numbers of cannons and anchors, which made finding the wrecks later more difficult.
The first major treasure recovery in this century was made in 1955 by Teddy Tucker, a Bermudan descended from the island's first governor. Tucker learned to dive at the age of 12. He was so fascinated with the underwater environment that he constructed his own diving helmet. He placed a glass window in one-half of a small boiler tank and attached one end of a garden hose to the top, the other end to a hand pump on the surface. With this contraption, young Teddy and several school chums explored Bermuda's coral reefs; they made plenty of money selling seafans, shells and coral to tourists.
When WW II broke out, Tucker joined the Royal British Navy. After the war he spent three years as a commercial diver in the Far East and Indian Ocean, salvaging ships lost during the war. Returning to Bermuda he started a commercial salvage firm with his partner and brother in law, Bob Canton. When the salvage business was slow they also fished commercially.
In 1950, Tucker spotted two iron cannons in about 25 feet of water. Several days later he and Canton returned to the spot, which was about ten miles off Hamilton Harbour. The two men raised both cannons, as well as a large copper kettle full of lead musket balls. They planned to sell the cannons as scrap iron, but members of the Bermuda Monuments Trust Commission offered them a great deal more than they would have received for scrap. They went back to the wreck site and recovered four more cannons, an anchor and a pewter plate.
Five years later, after a severe storm had passed through the area, the two men stopped at the wreck site and Tucker jumped in wearing a facemask. Reaching the bottom he saw a piece of metal and pulled it out. It was a beautifully decorated bronze apothecary's mortar bearing the date of 1561. Excited by the find, he returned to the boat and donned a Desco shallow water diving mask. Using a small piece of board, Tucker fanned the sand where he had found the mortar and uncovered a handful of blackened silver coins. He then dug a trench about seven inches deep and saw a gleaming object. It was a gold cube weighing two ounces. Tucker was so intoxicated by this find that he bumped his head on the bottom of the boat while surfacing.
Tucker and his brother in law decided to become fulltime treasure hunters. They planned to work the wreck systematically and secretly, with several trusted friends to serve as diving tenders and deckhands. Their first goal was to remove all visual signs of the wreck to keep others from finding it.
The coins and gold cube had come from a sand pocket in the coral reef that was about 60 feet in diameter. In the reef itself, which rose to within 12 feet of the surface, they located dozens of iron cannon balls and several muskets embedded in the coral. Attached to them they discovered more than 200 encrusted silver Spanish and French coins. The most recent date any of them bore was 1592.
Tucker began fanning away the sand in the same area where he had discovered the gold cube. He discovered three gold buttons, each studded with three large pearls. The men were elated but an impending storm bore down on them and they were forced to run for shelter. The storm continued for three days but the minute it abated Tucker and Canton returned to the wreck. During the first hour on the bottom, Tucker discovered a round gold disc that weighed 18 ounces and contained the mark of the Spanish Crown.
A strong northeaster kept them from the wreck for three days. All of Tucker's thoughts and dreams were of treasure. In one dream, he found gold near a bright yellow Brain Coral formation. When he got back to the wreck, he found a piece of coral that looked like the one in his dream. In less than 10 minutes he found a ten and a half inch bar of 24 carat gold weighing about a kilo and another small gold cube. The bar was marked with the Spanish royal tax stamp and tally number and the name 'Pinto,' which he later learned was the Colombian mine that yielded the gold.
The seventh day on the wreck was the most thrilling day of Tucker's life. Fighting time he decided to use a water hose to blast away the sand on the bottom. After the sediment settled, he saw a magnificent emerald studded gold cross. There were seven emeralds, each about the size of a musket ball. When he surfaced with the dazzling cross, his wife and others aboard the boat dampened his spirits, saying the green stones couldn't possibly be real emeralds. A year later, when the cross was sent to the British Museum, the stones were positively identified as emeralds and the cross was valued at $200,000. It is still the most valuable item ever recovered from an old shipwreck.
Before bad weather halted that year's work, Tucker and Canton had three more days of diving. More gold and pearl buttons were recovered, as well as an intriguing array of artifacts, including a ceremonial spear made by the Carib Indians, swords, muskets, a breastplate, small brass weights used by a ship's surgeon, a pair of navigational dividers, hourglasses, a pottery cruet for oil or vinegar, buckles, buttons and hundreds of cannons and musket balls.
Tucker and Canton soon discovered it was more difficult to hold on to a treasure than to find one. They had wanted to keep it a secret, but rumors were soon flying all over the island. A story soon appeared in a Bermuda newspaper, but the government, which they had feared might seize the treasure, remained silent. Having no idea of the intrinsic value of the find, Tucker contacted Mendel Peterson of the Smithsonian Institution and invited him to Bermuda to appraise the treasure. Peterson's eyes almost popped out of his head when he saw their find. After several days of study, he evaluated the treasure and artifacts at $130,000 but subsequently raised the value to $250,000.
After Life magazine ran a feature article on the find, real trouble began. Every time the men went to sea they were followed by boats trying to pinpoint the wreck. A prowler attempted to break into Tucker's house so he moved the treasure to a bank. Then the government decided the treasure was legally Bermuda's because it had been discovered in territorial waters. After an angry meeting with the Colonial Secretary, who told him the government planned to confiscate the treasure, Tucker quickly retrieved it from the bank. That night he put it in a potato sack and hid it in an underwater cave.
He learned later the government planned to confiscate the treasure for fear he would smuggle it from the island. Once officials knew he had hidden the treasure, they eased their demands. Tucker and Canton convinced them they wanted the treasure to remain on the island. They cooperated with the government in establishing a museum. Tucker's wife and several friends managed the museum, although experts assured him that he could sell the treasure for at least $250,000. Tucker didn't want to sell it piece by piece so, in 1961, he sold the museum and all the treasure to the Bermuda government for only $100,000; today it would be worth far more.
Mendel Peterson spent months doing historical detective work and was able to identify the wreck as the Spanish merchant vessel, San Pedro, lost in 1596 while sailing between Mexico and Spain. The documents did not indicate the type of cargo or the amount of treasure she carried, nor if any attempts had been made to salvage her.
In 1957, Mendel Peterson joined Tucker and Canton for the first of 25 summers of shipwreck exploration. They discovered more than 30 wreck sites the first year, ranging from early 17th to late 19th century ships. Tucker has located more than 130 wrecks around Bermuda, using three methods of visual search. The waters are so clear he was able to find many simply by standing on the bow of a boat and looking down at the seafloor. When the seas were not completely calm he located wrecks by towing divers on a line behind a boat or by flying in a light plane.
Tucker and Canton continued searching during the summer of 1958 and, toward the end of the season, made another significant discovery. From the bow of a boat, Tucker sighted an iron cannon that was barely visible on the sandy bottom. The men dug a few holes with an airlift and discovered two dozen silver coins, several fragments of gold chain, a pair of brass navigational dividers, lead musket shot and many ceramic shards. The finds indicated an old Spanish ship was buried there, so Tucker decided to devote the remainder of the season to the wreck. Each day they uncovered more of the ship's timbers and made wonderful finds: a gold ring with a large emerald, more silver coins, swords, pulley blocks, bits of rigging, leaf tobacco and many pieces of ceramic ware.
Research identified the wreck as the San Antonio, a Spanish merchant vessel of 300 tons that had been lost in 1621. Documents showed that colonists rescued all of the crew and passengers and salvaged much of the cargo. Work continued intermittently on the San Antonio during the following three summers. They found a large part of the ship's cargo of indigo and cochineal dyes and recovered several thousand cowrey shells, used to purchase slaves in Africa.
In 1959 their outstanding discovery was the wreck of the Vigo, a small Spanish merchant vessel lost in 1639. During the two weeks remaining that season, Tucker and his team recovered a massive, three foot long gold chain, two large gold nuggets and 50 silver coins. The following season's efforts were divided between excavating the Vigo and the San Antonio.
At the end of the summer, Tucker gave Mendel Peterson several uninteresting looking coral-encrusted conglomerates for preservation. An assistant at the Smithsonian Institution removed the coral growth from one of them and found a gold ring set with three stones; emerald, almandite and crystal. On the inside of the band an inscription in Castilian read, 'Yours and always will be.' This lovely ring, the most important find made that year, had almost been overlooked.
During the summer of 1961, Teddy pioneered a method of locating shipwrecks using a helium filled balloon, which was towed behind a boat at an elevation of about 180 feet. The first wreck he found that way was the Virginia Merchant, an English merchant vessel sailing between Plymouth, England, and Jamestown, Virginia. It had been lost in 1660 with 179 persons aboard. Several weeks of excavation produced clay pipes, tools, weapons, house bricks, writing utensils, pieces of silverware, pewter plates and many fragments of chinaware and pottery.
The next week Tucker found the sister ship of the Virginia Merchant; the merchant vessel Eagle. She also had sailed between Plymouth and Jamestown with trade goods and passengers in 1659. A tremendous number of trade good artifacts were discovered on this wreck. During the excavation, Tucker and Donald Canton, Bob's brother, almost lost their lives. They were using the airlift in about 33 feet of water, next to a massive coral ridge that almost rose to the surface. Digging at the base of the coral formation they uncovered a large wooden chest filled with thousands of clay pipes. Digging deeper they found a copper teapot, then a slate and stylus, which were probably used by the ship's navigator in plotting the ship's position. Suddenly, Tucker felt a strong tremor. Years of working underwater had taught him to act fast. He grabbed Donald Canton and they scrambled out of the hole seconds before a huge piece of coral, weighing at least a ton, toppled into it. After a large shark harassed them the following day, Tucker decided the wreck was jinxed and spent the rest of the season completing salvage of the San Antonio.
During the summer of 1962, he found the French frigate L'Hermoine, lost in 1838. Every wreck is different, furnishing a unique assortment of artifacts that illuminate the life and times of its sinking. The French vessel yielded large numbers of weapons, shot, uniform buttons, copper powder cans, porcelain objects and glass bottles; many with their original contents. Nearby they located the remains of an English merchant ship, the Caesar, lost in 1819 with hundreds of grindstones of various sizes, kegs of white lead and bottles of many different descriptions.
On the last diving day of the season Tucker convinced everyone to 'have a quick look' at the San Pedro, where they had already found so many valuable artifacts. It almost appeared that Tucker had planted treasure on the site, because he was only down a few minutes before he discovered a small gold bar, later valued at $16,000.
Toward the close of the season, Tucker's sighting of a few ballast rocks on a sandy bottom led to discovery of the oldest ship ever found in Bermuda waters. While digging an exploratory hole on the site, he uncovered a vast amount of ballast rock buried about a meter and a half under the sand. He also found a small clump of badly sulfated silver coins, some of which bore mid 16th century dates.
Historical research indicates it was most likely the capitana of the New Spain Fleet, lost in 1563 under the command of Captain General Juan MenŽndez. Tucker and his team devoted the summers of 1963 and 1964 to excavating the site. With the exception of the small clump of silver coins discovered in the exploratory hole, no other treasure was found on this wreck; in fact, it yielded very few significant artifacts, which indicates it was probably salvaged by the Spaniards. However, its early date and that a large section of the lower hull was intact and remarkably well preserved, convinced Peterson the wreck should be excavated. A grant funded the project, which furnished valuable archaeological data regarding the ship's construction.
I was fortunate to spend most of the summer of 1963 working with Tucker on that site. Rarely have I seen a man so passionate about his work. Every day he would jump over the side with his airlift tube and stay there for hours. One day he was down for 12 hours before he finally surfaced. He only came up then because the rest of us were starving to death and turned off his air compressor.
During the summers of 1965 and 1966 he returned to some of the earlier wrecks he had discovered; Virginia Merchant, Eagle, Caesar and L'Hermoine; and recovered vast amounts of artifacts. In 1965 he also spent a few days on the San Pedro and discovered yet another gold bar, weighing 39 ounces. Peterson valued it at $50,000 and declared it to be 'the most valuable numismatic item yet discovered in the Western Hemisphere.'
After searching the waters around Bermuda for so many years, Tucker felt he had located all the wrecks that could be found by visual methods. Consequently, during the summer of 1967 they conducted a magnetometer search in various areas around the island, funded by a grant from the Explorers Club of New York. The survey located a number of 19th century wrecks and a new area of material associated with the Virginia Merchant. They excavated it and found a great deal of cannon shot and personal objects, such as ivory combs, brass buttons and clay pipes.
Their most important discovery was the English merchant brig Warwick, which arrived from England in Castle Harbor on October 20, 1619. A month later the brig sank in the harbor during a storm. A preliminary survey of the wreck revealed extensive timber remains. The wooden hull was found to be more complete than any other yet discovered in the Western Hemisphere. The ship had settled quickly in the harbor silt, which preserved it from keel to gunwale. Tucker and Peterson devoted the next two summers to excavating the Warwick, which furnished a wealth of archaeological data.
Teddy Tucker wasn't the only underwater explorer in Bermuda waters. Another native Bermudan, Harry Cox, has been prowling the reefs in a relatively relaxed manner as long as Tucker. Through the years, Cox has spent weekends taking friends and sometimes tourists to an area of the reefs he calls 'wreck country,' where he has pinpointed more than 15 old ships. It was on such an excursion in 1968 that he discovered a richly laden Portuguese treasure ship, lost in the second half of the 16th century.
One day, as Cox and friends were returning from a day on an 18th century English merchant wreck, a man spotted a few scattered ballast stones; Cox stopped to investigate.
While everyone donned diving gear, his friend surfaced with an elephant's tusk. After thoroughly combing the area and turning up nothing more than ballast stones and a few pottery shards, everyone but Cox returned to the boat. As he relates the tale, Cox 'Had a feeling that there was something great down there,' so he continued searching the rapidly darkening water. He fanned in a small sand hole on a nearby reef with his hand and uncovered a silver coin. Fanning faster he soon found two gold coins and a large solid gold bracelet. He surfaced shouting, 'Gold, gold!' and the others grabbed fins, masks and tanks and threw themselves overboard. In the following 45 minutes, they recovered treasure valued at more than $200,000. The finds included a number of gold bars, pieces of gold jewelry, a massive six foot double linked gold chain, an elaborate gold manicure set, silver items and a brass mariner's astrolabe.
One of the many pieces of jewelry discovered that afternoon was a magnificently worked gold ring with a large empty socket. Cox vowed he would find the stone that once graced the ring. Two years later he actually did; it was a breathtaking five carat emerald that fit the empty socket perfectly. Cox has been back to the wreck site many times since and has found an assortment of additional artifacts, but the majority of treasure came up on that first thrilling dive. Apparently Cox has not yet found the main body of the wreck, but rather the area where the vessel struck the reefs and dropped some of her contents.
In 1959, the 350th anniversary of the sinking of the Sea Venture; the event that led to the settlement of Bermuda; the government asked Teddy Tucker to locate the site of this important shipwreck. Tucker found a shipwreck that initially appeared to be that of the Sea Venture; however, when artifacts from it were analyzed, they were identified as being from a later period and the project was abandoned.
Then, in 1978, Allan 'Smokey' Wingood, a retired professional diver and a keen student of Bermuda history, decided to locate the Sea Venture. After three painstaking years, he came to the conclusion that the wreck Tucker had found in 1959 was indeed the Sea Venture. He was right. Reexamination of the artifacts Tucker had submitted for identification proved they had been mistakenly attributed to a later period.
Excavation of the Sea Venture differed from previous underwater projects in Bermuda, which had concentrated on salvaging valuable artifacts and treasure. This shipwreck was mapped and excavated over a period of six summers by a team led by underwater archaeologists from the United States and England. Today, thousands of fascinating artifacts found on the site are on display in Bermuda's Maritime Museum.
In light of a 1980 law making the Bermudan government sole owner of anything discovered in its waters, it is not surprising there have been no announcements of shipwreck discoveries during the last 15 years. Most of the old pros, including Tucker and Cox, have retired from the game. Tucker, utilizing sonar, ROVs and submersibles, is currently searching for 'monsters' that may inhabit the deep ocean.
This doesn't mean, however, that divers aren't searching for shipwrecks. I have heard from sport divers who have made significant finds off Bermuda.
Fortunately the Bermuda government recently altered its policy so as to encourage controlled shipwreck exploration that benefits both the nation and the salvors. Individuals and groups can now apply for search and salvage permits and receive one-half of what they recover.
Why not head for Bermuda on your next diving holiday and try your luck at picking up a few gold doubloons? See if you can find one of the richly laden undiscovered shipwrecks described in our sidebar.