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Newton’s “Juan Esteban de Ubilla and the Flota of 1715”

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Juan Esteban de Ubilla and the Flota of 1715 - Author(s): Lowell W. Newton - Source: The Americas, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Oct., 1976), pp. 267-281.   Published by: Academy of American Franciscan History.



FOR Spain the Succession War (1702-1713) capped a century of stagnation and decline with a decade of civil war, invasion, and anarchy. Together with many other issues at stake in the conflict, commercial ambitions-particularly those relating to the Indies-lurked behind the facades of Habsburg and Bourbon dynastic claims.1 Both before and during the war foreign penetration, especially by the English and the Dutch, challenged Spain's claims to exclusive trading rights in the New World, a challenge which neither the Spanish Navy nor Spanish imperial strategy was able to thwart.

Once the greatest maritime power in Western Europe, the Spanish Navy by the end of the seventeenth century was a pallid relic of its former self, while the once immense convoy system that linked the metropolis with the American colonies was badly decayed. Catastrophic decline in the population of New Spain (and perhaps elsewhere in the Indies), colonial ability to produce agricultural products formerly imported from Spain, commercial competition by foreign interlopers, a sharp drop in the annual production of silver, and an inward turn of the colonial economy for decades before the war had blighted trade and commerce between Spain and her empire.2 Even before the outbreak of hostilities in 1702, the extent of decline was indicated by the discontinuance of regular sailings of the New Spain (Mexico) and Tierre Firme (Spanish Main) fleets. The Habsburgs' preoccupation with the continental wars of the seventeenth century and their consequent disregard of the deterioration of Spanish naval power, coupled with a precipitous drop in the amount of trade between Spain and the Indies, reduced Philip V to dependence upon the maritime resources of his grandfather, Louis XIV of France.3 During the war the immensely valuable ships carrying bullion mined in Mexico and Peru were often escorted by Spanish and French vessels, and several times specie was transported in wholly French squadrons.4 Aware of Spain's weakness at sea, the Maritime Powers expended considerable effort in attempts to capture the treasure fleets.

The English were particularly successful in their attempts to seize Indies bullion. In September of 1702, ships of the Mexican flota entered the Galician port of Vigo under the combined protection of French and Spanish warships, and were vigorously attacked on 23 October by an allied fleet of English and Dutch vessels. Caught at anchor, much of the Spanish fleet was destroyed and considerable amounts of specie were taken, although some of the silver had been previously sent ashore and escaped capture.5

The English also struck the 1706 Tierre Firme fleet. Having left Cadiz in 1706 under the command of the Count of Casa Alegre.6 the fleet sailed to the Caribbean and remained there for two years awaiting the shipment of Peruvian silver, which finally arrived in Puerto Bello in the late spring of 1708. In June the ships sailed for Cartagena but were intercepted by an English squadron under Sir Charles Warner. In a battle fought just before sunset, the Spanish capitana (flagship) was blown up, killing most of its company including Casa Alegre, a second ship was captured, a third sunk. The almiranta (the vice admiral's ship) and others escaped to Cartagena.7 Given these two spectacular successes and the Spanish government's need for Indies silver to help sustain the war effort, great concern was displayed that the bullion be safely returned to Spain after the disasters of 1702 and 1708.

A second 1708 Indies fleet was escorted from Spain across the Atlantic by French warships. It returned to Cadiz from Havana in March of 1711, guarded by cruisers of the Spanish Windward Squadron (Armada de Barlovento) under the command of Andres de Arriola. During the return voyage the fleet was scattered by a severe gale which Arriola later ruefully described as "the worst storm I have ever experienced at sea."8 With a very large quantity of bullion in her hold, Arriola's capitana completed its voyage alone, arriving at Cadiz in early April, 1711. Within a week the other ships of the fleet straggled into port.9 Arriola was almost immediately given command of another fleet which crossed to Mexico at the end of summer, 1711. His orders to return to Spain at the earliest possible moment were countermanded on the recommendation of a Mexico City Junta, whose composition represented an alliance of merchants and royal officials. This postponement resulted from a fear that the English might intercept the fleet. It would not sail from Veracruz, the Viceroy of Mexico decided, "until a good and secure time."10

The Junta was convened and chaired by Don Francisco de Alencastre Norafia y Silva, Viceroy of New Spain, Marquis of Valdefuentes, and Duke of Linares.11 The office of Viceroy had always been the prerogative of birth or reward for outstanding service; during the Succession War it was also the prize for adherence to the new Bourbon dynasty. Whatever Arriola's orders from Madrid, these were superceded by the will of the Viceroy in consultation with the Junta. As the highest civil and military officer in New Spain, the Viceroy had the power to alter royal decisions relating to the movement of ships if local conditions warranted and in this case, Alencastre obviously felt that they did.12

Despite the king's order that sailings be once again placed on a regular basis,13 the suspension remained in effect throughout the entire year, during which Arriola died, as had so many other Spanish seamen in the insalubrious port of Veracruz. He was replaced by Pedro de Ribera who now became "General" of the Windward Squadron, a title which recalled an earlier period when fleet commanders were warrior-nobles, not professional seamen.14

Near the end of 1712 as Ribera prepared his fleet for its return crossing to Spain, in accordance with orders from the Junta and Viceroy Alencastre, a second New Spain flota arrived in Veracruz under the command of General Juan Esteban de Ubilla. The second fleet, composed of eight ships, was under orders to unload mercury transported from Spain, take on passengers, merchandise, and bullion, and return to Spain as quickly as possible.15

Ribera's fleet obviously took precedence over his own, and Ubilla should have quietly waited until Ribera's ships cleared the port; instead after only two weeks he unmasked his growing discontent. In the space of two days he wrote four letters to officials in Mexico City, bluntly asking to be given a fixed date for his fleet's departure. He also assiduously assured Alencastre that his flagship was "very satisfactory," and "needs little repair." All that was required was the loading of silver and he could sail for Spain.16 Throughout the month of December the peevish and impatient Ubilla plagued the Viceroy's secretary and badgered Alencastre himself, to the latter's growing irritation, with requests for orders.

Ubilla also managed to offend Pedro de Ribera, who was waiting for mid-January, the date set by the Junta for his departure. Conflict between the two commanders broke out over the question of who was the superior officer, a problem that frequently caused difficulty in the Spanish Navy before its officer ranks were restructured later in Philip V's reign. Ribera-who had received his appointment from the Viceroy-wrote to Alencastre complaining that his right to fly the command flag from the masthead of his ship, his "by ancient law and privilege," was being challenged by General Ubilla.

When Alencastre informed Ubilla of Ribera's complaint, he reacted sharply. The acerbic, competitive commander indignantly wrote to Joseph de Granara, the Viceroy's secretary, that since the age of twelve he had received favors from the Crown, and that he had served most of his life in the Carrera de las Indias. By implication, it was he who knew most about the Carrera and naval prerogatives. For one thing, his own command had been granted before Ribera's. For another, his appointment came from the Crown itself, not from a Viceroy. Unwisely speaking for the king, Ubilla claimed that if Philip V had intended that an "ancient and honored servant" (himself) be under the command of "people such as Ribera" (whose main experience was as a land commander), he would never have chosen so experienced a sailor as Francisco Salmon to be second-in-command of the fleet. The indignant letter closed with a disclaimer; not afflicted with inordinate ambition, he wanted only the "just authority that His Majesty permits me to have."17

As if not convinced that this was sufficient (it seems a fair assumption that Granara would have passed the letter to the Viceroy), Ubilla on the same day wrote to Alencastre himself. This communication was rancorous in mood and tone. Viewing himself as a man of valor and resource, the General obviously felt that modesty was not requisite. Command flags, he noted with a pointed sneer, were given to persons, not to ships. Repeating his argument for possession of the flag based on the length ("since before I could grow a mustache")18 and kind of service, Ubilla wrote that he had served as Captain, Commander of troops that guarded the galleons of the Carrera, as Admiral (second-in-command) of the galleons, and as General (commander) of "other fleets."

From tactlessness he descended to rudeness and accusation. "I have written Your Excellency three times asking for orders to sail, and you have not replied, which has caused injury to my health." Again speaking in place of the king (which even some royal policymakers were reluctant to do), Ubilla wrote concluding his letter, "His Majesty wants you to dispatch my fleet immediately."19 By this time Ubilla's orders were at least four months old; but he chose to ignore the fact that he had no knowledge of what Philip V wanted Alencastre to do, just as he ignored Alencastre's right to alter royal decisions regarding fleet movements.

Later on the same day of 29 December, the damaged, resentful commander took a daring and extraordinary step. He wrote a second letter to the Viceroy, stating that "it was my intention to depart from Veracruz immediately in accordance with His Majesty's wishes, and I have repeatedly tried to do this." Ubilla then loftily demanded that Alencastre send this letter, along with his own reply, directly to Madrid; he obviously did not want to be found culpable for the delay of his fleet which, it must be recalled, had only been in Veracruz eighteen days. The general of the flota unreasonably forgot that Philip V was able to maintain the empire during a long and difficult war in large measure because of faithful proconsuls through whom he was able to rule his vast overseas territories. Ubilla also ignored the obvious fact that the Viceroy of New Spain stood in the front rank of imperial officers.

More immediate than Ubilla's anxiety to leave for Spain was the dispatch of Ribera's fleet, and Alencastre justifiably did not want to see Ribera's departure postponed merely to placate the impatient Ubilla who, it appears, overlooked the unwritten rules of personal interaction in the complex hierarchy of Spain's ruling class; an untitled naval commander did not roar and posture to a peer, let alone one who was titled twice-over, and who was both a Grandee and a powerful Viceroy. The hazards of such behavior should have been palpable.

Alencastre sought refuge from the irritant in silence; better that than an unseemly series of quibbling letters with Ubilla, to whom he need not justify his decisions. For his part, Juan Esteban waited imperceptively in Veracruz for the response his arguments would evoke. But there was none. December passed and the new year came. No new dispatches were sent from Mexico City. Bewildered, but not yet feeling slighted, the General wrote to Granara that he "found it strange" that Alencastre had not yet replied to his letters of 29 December. As the Viceroy knew it would, the problem was resolved a few days later, when Ribera and his fleet sailed from Veracruz for Spain, the command flag fluttering from the flagship's masthead.20

Ubilla continued to write at least one letter each week requesting sailing orders, but the Viceroy and the Junta remained obdurate.21 In February the nortes, powerful north winds that inhibited navigation in the gulf and frequently endangered ships in port, increased in violence. In addition, by the end of the month the General was wrestling with a problem that plagued him throughout his time in Veracruz; pay was in arrears, and funds were needed for repairs and maintenance of his ships. By mid-month he was lamenting that crews had begun to desert their ships because they were unpaid. Desertion, he noted gloomily, especially afflicted the almiranta.22

At the end of February the Junta sent Ubilla word that it had tentatively decided to set his sailing date for the middle of March.23 Preparation began immediately and foremost of the many tasks was to careen the ships, work that was slowed by rough seas and continuing nortes, and which was accomplished only with considerable difficulty.24 The fleet was ready to sail by the beginning of March, but the merchants involved in the trans-atlantic trade had not sold their imports from Spain by mid-month, so again the departure date was postponed by the Junta.

In a state of bilious frustration, Ubilla wrote to his influential uncle in Mexico City, the Marquis of Santa Sabina, asking him to use his influence with Alencastre and obtain a firm and fixed date for his departure.25 Perhaps through the good offices of his titled relative, a Junta met in Mexico City and decided to authorize the fleet's departure in May, "depending upon the weather."26

The Junta's latest decision set the rusty wheels of imperial defense in motion. Coastal observers and guards were posted on the northern capes of Cuba to watch for enemy vessels, a step taken to forewarn the flota if enemy activity was observed.27 Despite these precautionary actions in Cuba, a Junta meeting on 9 May in Spain's capital once again suspended the sailing; the fleet was now to depart sometime in the middle of August, this time, "without fail."28

While the unhappy crews of the flota sweltered in the oppressive heat their restive commander experienced a very curious misfortune. Ubilla wrote Granara at the end of June that he had an "accident" with his sword ("terziana"), and for this reason had sent one of his officers, Raphael de Eliza, inland to Orizaba in his place, although the purpose of the trip is uncertain.29 This single reference to the incident and lack of explanation evokes suspicion that in fact Ubilla had been wounded in a duel, but that for obvious reasons he did not want to relate the circumstances to the Viceroy's secretary. Given the General's temper, his frustration at waiting for a decision over which he obviously had little control, and Alencastre's coolness towards him since the Ribera dispute, it is not difficult to imagine Ubilla involving himself in some sort of brawl or duel. Despite his duties, life for the commander must have been excessively dull in the raw and primitive port. It appears unlikely that he would have invented the injury merely to escape the trip to Orizaba, to which he may well have looked forward since it offered the opportunity to leave Veracruz for a time. A better excuse would have been a debilitating fever, an all-too-common affliction. During the following months Ubilla never explained the incident, although he several times made reference to his convalescence and the "atrazo padecido."30

The remainder of the summer of 1713 was passed by Juan Esteban in recuperation and anxiety over the impending voyage to Spain, now set for mid-August. Although this date was published and proclaimed throughout New Spain, on August 9 the inconstant Junta again met and decided against an August sailing, citing both fear of the English and the risk of "old ships to winter seas." A third consideration, and perhaps the crucial one, was the proximity of a conclusion of peace throughout Europe.31 Severely disappointed, the commander returned to flat and regular duties, although with his relentless talent for the tactless, he periodically wrote either to Granara or Alencastre to remind them of the obvious; if the fleet was to sail he needed orders well in advance of the actual sailing date.32

The fall was in part devoted to the inspection of an old frigate of 279 toneladas which Ubilla wanted to purchase and add to his fleet.33 Extensive lists were prepared of the repair-work needed to make the ship sea-worthy, and a very complete inspection was made of the hull, which below the waterline had been damaged by toredo worms (bromas).34 Despite Ubilla's enthusiastic support of the project, or perhaps because of it, Alencastre eventually decided against the idea.

On December 20, precisely one year after the General's ill-conceived letters to the Viceroy, the all-important Junta again met in Mexico City. By this time sentiments of its members had veered around to avoidance of any decision regarding the flota until definite orders were received from Madrid. Local matters influenced the decision; bandits impeded the movement of merchants and merchandise as well as the shipments of silver from northern mines to the capital.35 In addition, word had come from Europe that peace negotiations were being conducted at Utrecht, although the conclusion of the peace was not yet known.

As Ubilla ended the first frustrating year of postponement, he apparently resolved to take measures of alleviation and compromise with the Viceroy, since demands, complaints, and continual reminders had failed to produce desired effects. Beginning in January of 1714, his letters to Alencastre were laced with elaborate statements of respect, deference, and courtesy. Perhaps this decision was made by Ubilla when he learned that yet another meeting of the Junta in mid-January had set his departure for 19 March.36 Once again preparations were made and by 1 March were nearly completed. All the vessels of the flota had been careened and were ready to take on cargo, while a ship sent to Campeche for cables was expected back in Veracruz momentarily. But the sailing date, as was the case with its numerous predecessors, achieved only transient acceptance. A few days before the fleet was to weigh anchor the depressing news arrived from Alencastre that the return was again postponed until news of the peace was confirmed.

Ubilla stewed; March slid by. No new instructions were sent from Mexico City. At the end of the first week in April Ubilla could no longer tolerate the silence and unnecessarily wrote Alencastre what the Viceroy already knew; the fleet was prepared and could sail at any time once the cargo was loaded.37 Near the close of a fretful May disquieting word came from Havana that on 8 May six ships, probably English, had been seen east of Cuba. Eighteen ships, positively identified as English, had also been sighted off Puerto Rico sailing north.38

A month later Ubilla was faced with a more immediate threat than the distant possibility of interception at sea. The weather in the gulf turned nasty, then dangerous. For two days the ships of the flota, which were tied to the great walls of San Juan de Ulúa fortress, tossed miserably on the rough seas, straining moorings and men alike. On the night of 20 June, Ubilla wrote a curious and inconstant letter, which opened with the opinion that mid-July appeared to be a good time to begin his voyage back to Spain. Then, somewhat startlingly, Ubilla described the storm, the extremely precarious position of his ships, which were now in danger of being lost because they were not tied both fore and aft, although typically he offered Alencastre no explanation why this was so. "They cannot continue to suffer wind and water," the General wrote, "and if the storm continues it will be a miracle if all the ships are not destroyed."39 After a wild night the storm abated and the vessels of the flota fortunately survived.

A lull followed. Mid-summer passed. Again the Junta set another sailing date, again it was cancelled. In September Ubilla's fleet was again endangered by another gale during which five small vessels, none of which seem to have been part of the flota, were lost. "This port is dangerous," Ubilla rightly commented, once again displaying his penchant for stating the obvious, "I wish to leave it at once and hope that you have given the necessary orders."40 But Alencastre, who was still awaiting instructions from Madrid, had not done so.

In the fall of 1714 the Viceroy at last received a letter from Philip V in which he responded to Alencastre's explanation of the quarrel between Ubilla and Ribera as well as the flota commander's behavior during his month in Veracruz. The monarch instructed Alencastre to inform Ubilla that he "in all cases" was to do precisely what the Viceroy ordered, and expressed a "loss of confidence" in the General. Perhaps not reluctantly, Alencastre dutifully transmitted these orders on to Ubilla.

The reply from Veracruz is one of the strangest of Ubilla's letters to his superior, and although an unfortunate aspect of his unenviable writing was a pronounced tendency to make confused, often tortuous declarations,41 much of the letter defies comprehension. It began with a statement that all of Ubilla's problems were slowly being solved except that of his health, which was now quite poor, and the "mortification" he felt over Philip V's loss of confidence in him. Once honored, he felt himself now despised, consigned to ignominy.

After a coherent beginning, the General's prose degenerated into a string of incoherent phrases that seem to represent a rambling, disjointed attempt to justify his earlier demands to the Viceroy and his conflict with Ribera over the command flag. The latter portion of the letter contained an explanation that the long months of delay had necessitated the expenditure of all personal funds; now accumulating debts, he was forced to ask the royal hacienda for remuneration. For the second time Ubilla mentioned his poor health; the wretched nortes continued. At one point, he requested Alencastre's pardon, explaining simply, "I am tired." This strange communication ended with the now standard luxuriant laudations and extravagant assurances of subordination and obedience.42

The letter seems to have been written in a melancholy tone of despair, of broken hopes and lost illusions. The decline of Ubilla's health, his personal financial problems, the seemingly endless setting of new sailing dates and subsequent bustle to make preparations, last minute re-scheduling, fear of storms and enemies, all had taken a serious toll. Now the ultimate injury-loss of royal confidence-seems to have come close to breaking Ubilla's spirit.

He continued, nevertheless, to exercise his command and presumably to fulfill his responsibilities. As the end of the second year of delay in Veracruz drew near, financial concerns weighed with increasing force upon the disconsolate General. In October he submitted to the Viceroy an account of fleet debts, calling attention to 4,000 pesos in arrears salaries for the crews of the flagship and almiranta.43

The year slowly waned with little communication between Ubilla and Alencastre. Poor health continued to bedevil the General, evoking genuine or formula inquiries from the Viceroy, with whom Ubilla now appeared to enjoy good relations.44 The long second year of delay passed, Ubilla continued to report preparations for another impending departure, but his letters, though still laden with lavish displays of respect, were brief and circumspect. He wrote only of immediate and primary tasks.45

The spate of problems besetting him* did not, as the commander must have wished, vanish with the old year. In late December of 1714 two of his officers, Raphael de Eliza and Miguel de Lima, pressed him for the appointment to the post of captain of the urca (storeship). At least one, possibly both officers apparently took the matter over Ubilla's head and appealed directly to Alencastre, spurring the General to curious activity. He wrote the Viceroy, citing the Recopilación de las ley es de las Indias and one of its laws which gave the flota commanders the right to appoint captains of ships of their fleets, noting that since Alencastre had expressed no preference, he had decided to appoint Raphael de Eliza as the commander of the urca.46

The Viceroy, however, in fact did have a favored candidate. He informed Ubilla that he wished to see Miguel de Lima given the command, although he did not state the reasons for this decision. The General now faced a difficult problem. Although his right to make the appointment was firmly supported by the laws of the Indies, thereby allowing him to oppose Alencastre if he wished, Ubilla in January 1715 was not the truculent subordinate he had been in December of 1712. He had, it would seem, learned a lesson; or perhaps he no longer cared enough to defend the prerogatives of his command. Whatever the case, in the language of obedience and conciliation, Ubilla informed Alencastre on 14 January that he compiled with his "suggestion" and gave the command to Miguel de Lima.

Unfortunately, the matter did not end so simply. The unsuccessful candidate Eliza, Ubilla lamented, "resists me, also the laws of the Indies; his tenacity is not to be overcome." Eliza demanded "satisfaction." Once the fleet returned to Spain, Ubilla noted miserably, "where they are very prejudiced against the Generals of the Carrera," the officer intended to bring the case before the Council of the Indies.47

A month and a half later, however, Eliza seems to have been reconciled; he and Miguel de Lima, according to Ubilla, were now in "good correspondence," although the reason for Eliza's change of attitude is not known.48

In March the Viceroy at last sent Juan Esteban pay for the crews of the capitana and almiranta, for which Ubilla expressed immense and doubtless sincere gratitude. By return post he sent Alencastre a requested list of his own personal debts.49 In the middle of the month all salaries had been paid and the crews were busy loading cargo in response to the Junta's order that the flota set sail for Spain on 22 March.55

Perhaps not surprisingly, by the second week in April the fleet was still in Veracruz Bay and the impatient General was quarrelling with royal fiscales who would not release April's pay for officers and men of the flota. Moreover, ships were still being prepared for the voyage; the hull of one of the smaller ships was being scraped, new masts for Lima's urca were being installed.51 On April 24, Ubilla wrote the Viceroy that the urca's masts were completed and her hull was cleaned. At long last his spirit seems to have lifted, since his letter closed "and with God's favor we will sail happily on the return voyage."52 On 4 May, 1715, Ubilla's tiny flota of four ships weighed anchor and stood out to sea after a delay in Veracruz of two years and five months.

Misfortune continued to stalk Ubilla and his ships. As they sailed up the coast, bound for Havana, in winds "infrequent and tranquil," the topfore-masts of the flagship suddenly swayed, bent, and snapped without warning in the middle of the night.53 In a letter to Alencastre describing the incident Ubilla noted that usually such accidents occurred when too much sail was being carried in strong winds, or when lines were improperly rigged. In this case, however, he could find no explanation. The masts may have been old and rotten or less likely, an unexpectedly strong gust of wind may have created impossible strain. Whatever it was, Ubilla did not speculate.

The crew of the San Cristdbal de Havana labored throughout the night and following day until five in the afternoon to construct a jury rig. The General was critical of the crew's efforts; "they had no precision in changing the sails."54

A few days later the flota was buffeted by strong headwinds and was forced to take refuge in one of the small coastal ports, where the flagship struggled for ten days attempting to turn on her cable and clear the bay."55 Finally, after fifty-five days at sea, the fleet reached Havana, where Ubilla wrote his account of the voyage to Alencastre. Again he complained of ill health, the "disgusting weather in this station," but closed the letter optimistically, "with the moral faith in the happiness of the rest of the voyage."56

Ubilla's last letter to the Viceroy, however, strikes a different chord; it seems that of an unhappy man who was much over-burdened. Dated 22 July, 1715, written in Havana, Ubilla opened by stating that the fleet would sail the following day for Spain, having experienced a month's delay in Havana. The flota would have sailed much earlier except for the deplorable necessity of extensive repairs to the ships. Eschewing modesty, Ubilla noted that the impending departure would have been impossible "except for my incessant application and personal assistance with the work."57 A squadron of merchant ships under the command of Antonio de Echeverez, son of an important Spanish commercial magnate, was in Havana and was to sail for Spain with Ubilla's flota. Alluding to personal clashes and private conflicts, the details of which he would (considerately) spare the Viceroy, Ubilla complained that Echeverez wanted to sail directly to Spain without the protection of the flota's warships. This controversy, plus the supervision of repairs, had required the General's "unceasing" activity. Ubilla once more complained about his poor health, explicitly explaining that he was afflicted by "a discharge from my bowels, which I have had and presently persists, and molests me considerably."58 Except for the necessary attendance at conferences, he had been ashore only once to pay his respects to the Bishop.

For some reason the fleet did not leave Havana on the following day, July 23, as Ubilla had intended, but instead sailed on 24 July. The combined squadrons of Ubilla and Echeverez totalled eleven vessels, carrying merchandise, 14,000,000 pesos in silver, and significant quantities of gold; much-needed bullion for merchants whose trade had been victimized by the war and the long delay since the 1713 Peace of Utrecht, and by a monarchy overwhelmed with war debts. Only one of the vessels, the French ship Grifon, ever reached home.

Near Cape Cañaveral, at a latitude of 280 north, the fleet was struck by a hurricane on 28 July.59 Driven by monstrous waves and irresistible winds, two of the ships went down in deep water; the rest were wrecked on the shoals. The almiranta sank, a survivor reported, "within a cannon shot" from the shore. The urca commanded by Miguel de Lima was driven ashore and wrecked near the mouth of a river. Two smaller ships were also destroyed, but the upper deck of one broke off and floated ashore, serving as a raft for a few fortunate members of her crew. The flagship managed to lower her boat, thus saving some of her passengers and crew, but the hull "opened up suddenly" and plummeted to the bottom, taking 225 people to their deaths."60 In all, one thousand people were drowned in the catastrophy. One of them was the unlucky Juan Esteban de Ubilla.

The reaction to the disaster is interesting. Writing to Alencastre from Havana on October 15, one survivor attributed the loss to being "God's punishment for our sins."61 An unidentified official wrote the Bishop of Havana that in his opinion, "these things are alone contingent upon the will of God;"62 another survivor, Admiral Francisco Salmõn, informed Alencastre that "these accidents rest upon the will of God."63 While it could be argued that these sentiments reflect desengaiio, a "brooding disillusionment ... pessimism and fatalism," or "stoicism so profoundly embedded in the Hispanic psyche,"64 it might also be argued that the reaction of the three men cited above was not necessarily the fatalism of the Hispanic baroque mentality. The mariners knew they had no control over the weather, and what they could not control, or foresee, belonged quite naturally to God's providence.

It is useful to recall that there was no systematic collection of information about hurricanes, their frequency or occurrence geographically.65 The research of Jose Carlos Millis shows that the possibility of a hurricane in the Caribbean during 16 to 31 July had a frequency of something like 4.4 on a scale of one hundred, while from mid-August to mid-September the frequency was 1 6.7."66 The hurricane of late July was unusually early, a fact that underscores the irony of the flota's destruction. If the fleet had left Havana on 2 3 July as Ubilla said it would instead of the following day, or for that matter if it had sailed from Veracruz a few days earlier, the disaster probably would have been avoided. Yet even if Ubilla had known the frequency of hurricane occurrence he probably would have sailed anyway, since the odds were overwhelmingly on the side of the fleet, and in the days of sail, ships at sea during a storm were safer than ships near land. Responsibility then, ought not to be affixed to the government, the Junta, the fleet commander, or to Spanish fatalism. Like other men who sailed the Carrera, the luck of the 1715 flota simply and unfortunately ran out, for no amount of preparation or planning could counter the accidents of nature and the caprice of fate.

The loss of the fleet is instructive in understanding the convoy system and its limitations. Seven reasons were given by Viceroy Alencastre when explaining the delay of the flota's departure from Veracruz; delayed sale of merchandise imported from Spain, fear of interception by enemies, repairs needed by the ships, unwillingness to risk old vessels to an Atlantic winter crossing, delays in the collection and shipment of exports and silver, waiting for news of the conclusion of peace negotiations at Utrecht, and receipt of post-Utrecht instructions from Madrid. All of these justifiable delays occurred so that the flota could fulfill its multiple tasks, the most important of which was to escort merchantmen and carry silver safely back to Spain.

Although the possibility of a hurricane was never mentioned by Alencastre or Ubilla in their correspondence, both must have been aware of the possibility since Spanish navigation had long been plagued by the storms. No ship was safe in the Caribbean during hurricane season. Ubilla's fleet, however, cleared Veracruz on May 4, giving it sufficient time to sail to Havana, then to gain the Atlantic before the onset of hurricane season. It was impossible for Ubilla, the Junta, or the Viceroy, to anticipate the dismasting of the flagship, the headwinds that slowed the voyage to Havana, and the subsequent delay in that port while repairs were made to Ubilla's ships.

The 1715 fleet may be viewed as representative of other fleets that were lost throughout the long existence of the Carrera. The natural risks inherent in it seem to have been accepted by policy-makers, passengers, and seaman alike. The loss of millions of man hours of work required to build the ships, the millions of man hours of work invested in mining, smelting, minting and transporting the silver and merchandise carried by the fleet, and the loss of one thousand lives-these were all part of the enormous price of empire.


1 Henry Karnen, The War of Succession in Spain, 1700-1715 (Bloomington, 1969), p. 167. This indispensible work stands in sharp relief against the arid landscape of Spanish historiography of the period 1660 1746, which Kamen calls “the dark ages of modern Spanish historiography.”

2 See J. H. Parry, The Spanish Seaborne Empire (New York, 1970), pp. 2 16-228 and John Lynch, Spain Under the Habsburgs (New York, 1969), 11, 160-178, 224-228, 260.

3 Kamen, pp. 178-179.

4 Herbert Richmond, The Navy as an Instrument of Policy (Cambridge, 1953), pp. 285-86, 3 13-362.

5 Henry Kamen, “The destruction of the Spanish Silver Fleet at Vigo in 1702,” Bulletin of the institute of Historical Research, Nov., 1966, pp. 165-173, which alters the accepted view that the English captured most of the treasure. In fact, much of it was safely ashore.

6 The fleet’s departure from Cadiz was observed and described by Father Rabat. See J. García Mercadal, Viajes de Extranjeros por España y Portugal (Madrid, 1962) III, 155-1 56.

7 Ruth Boume, Queen Anne’s Navy in the West indies (New Haven, 1939), pp. 170-171.

8 Andrés de Arriola to the Viceroy of Mexico the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, October 5, 1711, in Archivo General de Simancas, Sección Marina, legajo 392. Hereafter cited as AGS-SM; all letters cited pertain to this legajo.

9 ibid., fol. 4.

10 Duke of Linares to Philip V, Mexico City, February 29, 1712, AGS-SM.

11 For an outline of the events of Linares’ tenure in office see Vicente Riva Palacio, México a través de los siglos (Mexico, 1970), II, 763-768.

12 A power which fleet commanders often resented. For examples of conflict between Viceroys and commanders see F. de Castro y Bravo, Los Naos Españolas en la Carrera de las Indias (Madrid, 1927), pp. 75-78.

13 Andrés de Arriola to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, October 5, 1711, fol. 3, AGS-SM.

14 For an outline of the origin and development of the Barlovento Squadron see Lynch, II, 177, 197, 200.

15 H. Parry, Trade and Dominion: The European Overseas Empires in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1971), p. 104.

16 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, December 13, 1712, AGS-SM.

17 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to Joseph de Granara, Veracruz, December 29, 1712, AGS-SM.

18 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, December 29, 1712, AGS-SM.

19 Ibid., fol. 2.

20 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to Joseph de Granara, Veracruz, January 14, 1713, AGS-SM. Ribera arrived safely in Cádiz on 30 March. See Kamen, War of Succession, p. 191.

21 In five weeks Ubilla wrote a total of six letters.

22 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, February 26, 1713, AGS-SM.

23 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, February 27, 1713, AGS-SM.

24 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to Joseph de Granara, Veracruz, March 9, 1713, AGS-SM.

25 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Marquis of Santa Sabina, Veracruz, April 18, 1712, AGS-SM.

26 Duke of Linares to Philip V, iIexico City, July 1, 1714, fols. 1, 2, AGS-SM.

27 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, May 23, 1713, AGS SM.

28 Duke of Linares to Philip V, Mexico City, July 1, 1714, fols. 2, 3, AGS-SM.

29 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to Joseph de Granara, Veracruz, June 28, 1713, AGS-SM.

30 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to Joseph de Granara, Veracruz, July 6 and July 21; Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, July 23, 1713, AGS-SM.

31 Duke of Linares to Philip V, Mexico City, July 1, 1714, fol. 3, AGS-SM.

32 For example, Juan Esteban de Ubilla to Joseph de Granara, Veracruz, September 30, 1713, fol. 2, AGS-SM.

33 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to Joseph de Granara, Veracruz, October 10, 1713, AGS-SM.

34 Ibid., fol. 3.

35 Duke of Linares to Philip V, Mexico City, July 1, 1714, fol. 4, AGS-SM.

36 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, January 24, 1714, AGS-SM.

37 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, April 7, 1714, AGS-SM.

38 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, May 26, 1714, AGS-SM.

39 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, June 20, 1714, AGS-SM.

40 Ubilla was perfectly correct in this statement. For a map illustrating the most hazard ous ports in the route of the Carrera see P. and H. Chaunu, Seville et ¡‘Atlantique (Paris, 1957), VII, 120-121.

41 I am indebted to my colleague, Prof. José Luis Rey-Barreau, who cheerfully and generously spent much time wrestling with the difficulties of Ubila’s bewildering prose.

42 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, October 15, 1714, AGS-SM.

43 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, October 26, 1714, AGS-SM.

44 For example, Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, November 11, 1714, AGS SM.

45 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, December 30, 1714, AGS-SM.

46 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, January 14, 1715, AGS-SM.

47 Ibid.

48 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, March 12, 1715, AGS-SM.

49 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, March 2, 1715, AGS-SM.

50 Juan Esteban dc Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, March 17, 1715, AGS-SM.

51 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, April 12, 1715, AGS-SM.

52 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Veracruz, April 24, 1715, AGS—SM.

53 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Havana, June 28, 1715, AGS-SM.

54 ibid.

55 ibid., fol. 2.

56 Ibid., fol. 3.

57 Juan Esteban de Ubilla to the Duke of Linares, Havana, July 22, 1715, AGS-SM.

58 ibid., fol. 2.

59 There are numerous accounts of the wreck. Some of the more conspicuous accounts are in Parry, Trade and Dominion, p. 104; John S. Potter Jr., The Treasure Diver’s Guide (New York, 1960), 229 234; C. Fernández Duro, Armada Española desde la Unión de las reinas de Castilla y de Aragón (Madrid, 1899), VI, pp. 23 if.

60 Potter, p. 229.

61 Juan de Fornera to the Duke of Linares, Havana, October 13, 1715, AGS-SM.

62 Alonso de Armeta to the Duke of Linares, Havana, October 20, 1715, AGS-SM, who repeats this sentiment, and letter written by an unknown survivor to the Bishop of Havana dated November 14, 1715, AGS-SM.

63 Francisco de Salmón to the Duke of Linares, Havana, December 25, 1715, AGS-SM.

64 Irving A. Leonard, Baroque Times in Old Mexico (Ann Arbor, 1966) ,see esp. p. 30.

65 See José Carlos Millás, Hurricanes of the Caribbean and Adjacent Regions, 1492-1800 (Miami, 1968).

66 lbid.,p.xiv.