The Online Library of Knowledge

Pirates & galleons


A galleon has run aground in a storm.A galleon has run aground in a storm.A pirate ship or galleon could be wrecked in a number of ways, besides being sunk in battle. A ship could become overbalanced by badly loaded cargo. Its top-heavy shape could make it topple over in the wind. Storms could whip up massive waves that swamped it with water. In tropical regions, hurricanes, which cause high winds and mountainous waves, were an ever-constant threat. Sharp coral reefs or rocks just below the water’s surface could smash a hole in a ship's hull, causing water to flood in. Sometimes, shipwrecked sailors could make their escape in rowing boats or on makeshift rafts. But many drowned for one simple reason: very few sailors could swim.

Salvaging treasure

Many galleons—loaded with treasure from the Americas—were lost on their return to Spain. If a ship went down in shallow water, it would be possible to quickly try to salvage it (rescue its cargo). People can only hold their breath underwater for a few minutes at most, so divers on a salvage operation had to work fast, even if the wreck was only a few metres below the surface.A Spanish salvage ship winches up treasure.A Spanish salvage ship winches up treasure.Salvaging a wreck was very dangerous but the rewards were worth the risk to the Spanish government. A salvage ship would be sent to the area in an attempt to recover treasure and other items in its holds. Heavy things like cannon and chests required ropes and grappling irons to lift them. They could be winched to the surface from a salvage ship anchored above the wreck, using a treadwheel. A treadwheel could also lower a diver in a diving bell full of air. This allowed him to stay underwater for as long as the air lasted.

In 1522, the Spanish treasure ship Nuestra Señora de Atocha sank off the coast of America carrying a vast cargo of jewellery, gems, silver and gold. In July 1985, after searching the seabed for 17 years, the American Mel Fisher discovered the ship. The treasure removed so far is worth £300 million ($500 million).

© 2020 Q-files Ltd. All rights reserved. Switch to Mobile