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The Spanish treasure fleet, also called silver fleet, plate fleet (from the Spanish plata meaning "silver"), or West Indies Fleet from Spanish Flota de Indias, was a convoy system adopted by the Spanish Empire from 1566 to 1790. The convoys were general purpose cargo fleets used for transporting a wide variety of items, including agricultural goods, lumber, various metal resources, luxuries, silver, gold, gems, pearls, spices, sugar, tobacco, silk, and other exotic goods from the Spanish Empire in the Americas to Spain. Passengers and goods such as textiles, books and tools were transported in the opposite direction.
Spanish ships had brought goods from the New World since Christopher Columbus's first expedition of 1492. The government started a system of convoys in the 1560s in response to the sacking of Havana by French privateers. The main procedures were established after the recommendations of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, an experienced admiral and personal adviser of King Philip II. The treasure fleets sailed along two sea lanes. The main one was the Caribbean Spanish West Indies fleet or Flota de Indias, which departed in two convoys from Seville, where the Casa de Contratación was based, bound for ports such as Veracruz, Portobelo and Cartagena before making a rendezvous at Havana in order to return together to Spain. A secondary route was that of the Manila Galleons or Galeón de Manila which linked the Philippines to Acapulco in Mexico across the Pacific Ocean. From Acapulco, the Asian goods were transhipped by mule train to Veracruz to be loaded on to the Caribbean treasure fleet for shipment to Spain. To better defend this trade, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and Álvaro de Bazán designed the definitive model of the galleon in the 1550s.
Spain strictly controlled the trade through the Casa de Contratación based in Seville. By law, the colonies could trade only with the one designated port in the mother country, Seville. Maritime archaeology has shown that the quantity of goods transported was usually much higher than that recorded at the Archivo General de Indias. Spanish merchants and Spaniards acting as fronts (cargadores) for foreign merchants resorted to contraband to transport their cargoes untaxed. The Crown of Spain taxed the wares and precious metals of private merchants at a rate of 20%, a tax known as the quinto real (royal fifth).
Spain became the richest country in Europe by the end of the 16th century, but the Habsburgs used the wealth to fight wars in the 16th and 17th centuries against the Ottoman Empire and with most of the major European powers.
Supernormal inflation in the 17th century, caused by the flow of precious metals from the American colonies gradually damaged the Spanish economy. As a consequence, following a series of non-payments of debts, Spain lost financial support from European bankers by 1690. Nonetheless, the Spanish monopsony over its West Indies colonies lasted for over two centuries.
The exports' economic importance also declined with the drop of production of the American precious metals mines, such as Potosí. Numbering just 17 ships in 1550, the fleets expanded to more than 50 much larger vessels by the end of the century. By the second half of the 17th century, that number had dwindled less than half of its peak, with many of its remaining ships old and in poor repair. As economic conditions gradually recovered from the last decades of the 17th century, the fleet operations slowly expanded again, once again becoming prominent during the reign of the Bourbons in the 18th century.
The Spanish trade of goods and precious metals was threatened until the mid-18th century by Spain's colonial rivals who seized islands as bases along the Spanish Main and in the Spanish West Indies. The English acquired small islands like St Kitts in 1624, expelled in 1629 they returned in 1639 and seized Jamaica in 1655. French pirates established themselves in Saint-Domingue in 1625, were expelled only to return later and the Dutch seized Curaçao in 1634. In 1739, British Admiral Edward Vernon raided Portobello, but in 1741 his massive campaign against Cartagena de Indias ended in defeat with heavy losses of men and ships. Temporary British seizures of Havana and Manila (1762-4), during the Seven Years' War, were dealt with by using more, smaller fleets visiting a greater variety of ports.
Charles III began loosening the system in 1765. In the 1780s Spain opened its colonies to free trade. In 1790, the Casa de Contratación was abolished, bringing to an end the great general purpose treasure fleets. Thereafter small groups of naval frigates were assigned specifically to transferring bullion as required.
Despite the general perception that many Spanish galleons were captured by Dutch and English privateers, few fleets were actually lost to enemies in the course of the flota's two and a half centuries of operation. Only Piet Hein managed to capture the fleet in 1628 and bring the whole cargo safely to the Dutch Republic. In 1656 and 1657 Robert Blake attacked the fleet, but the Spaniards saved most of the silver on board and the English admiral only managed to capture a galleon. The 1702 treasure fleet was destroyed in the Battle of Vigo Bay during the War of the Spanish Succession, when the fleet was surprised at port unloading its goods, but the Spanish sailors had already unloaded most of its cargo. None of these attacks took place in open seas. In the case of the Manila galleons, only four were ever captured by British warships: The Santa Anna by Thomas Cavendish in 1589, the Encarnación in 1709 by Woodes Rogers, the Covadonga by George Anson in 1743, and the Santísima Trinidad in 1762. Two other British attempts were foiled by the Rosario in 1704 and the Begonia in 1710. These losses and those due to hurricanes were important economic blows to trade when they occurred. The treasure fleets, however, must be counted as among the most successful naval operations in history. Moreover, from a commercial point of view, some key components of today's world economic system were made possible by the success of the Spanish treasure fleets.
Wrecks of Spanish treasure ships, whether sunk in naval combat or by storms (those of 1622, 1715 (1715 Treasure Fleet) and 1733 being among the worst), are a prime target for modern treasure hunters. Many, such as the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, have been salvaged.
Walton gives the following figures in pesos. For the 300-year period the Peso or Piece of Eight had about 25 grams of silver, about the same as the German Thaler, Dutch rijksdaalder or the US Silver dollar. A single galleon might carry 2 million pesos. Of the estimated 4 billion pesos produced during the period 2.5 billion was shipped to Europe, of which 500 million was shipped around Africa to Asia. Of the remaining 1.5 billion 650 million went directly to Asia from Acapulco and 850 million remained in the Western Hemisphere. Little of the wealth stayed in Spain. Of the 11 million arriving in 1590, 2 million went to France for imports, 6 million to Italy for imports and military expenses, of which 2.5 went up the Spanish road to the low countries and 1 million to the Ottoman Empire. 1.5 million was shipped from Portugal to Asia. Of the 2 million pesos reaching the Dutch Republic in that year, 75% went to the Baltic for naval stores and 25% went to Asia. The income of the Spanish crown from all sources was about 2.5 million pesos in 1550, 14 million in the 1590s, about 15 million in 1760 and 30 million in 1780. In 1665 the debts of the Spanish crown were 30 million pesos short-term and 300 million long-term. Most of the New World production was silver but Colombia produced mostly gold. After about 1730 Brazil began producing gold. The following table gives the estimated legal production and necessarily excludes smuggling which was increasingly important after 1600. The crown legally took one fifth at the source and obtained more through other taxes.