To begin the new year, our Treasure of the Month for January is one of the most important shipwreck silver coins ever found. This coin is typical of the many Mexico eight reales cobs found among the numerous wreck sites of the 1715 Fleet that are scattered along the east coast of Florida. But, it is atypical in one respect. It is a 1715 Fleet-related coin that was not found where it should have been found. Rather than being salvaged from a 1715 Fleet wreck site, it was found over 1,400 miles away in Massachusetts. How could this be? The answer is what makes this coin so important.
Shortly after the sinking of the Spanish Treasure Fleet of 1715 on July 31, Sam Bellamy was an unemployed but experienced sailor living in Cape Cod. When news of the disaster became known, Bellamy decided to seek his fortune by chasing the treasures of the 1715 Fleet. He believed that the treasures could be easily salvaged due to the shallow nature of the wreck site. However, by the time he got there, the Spanish had already begun salvage operations, so the treasure was not there just for the taking. What had been salvaged was being guarded on shore by the Spanish. By this time, however, pirates had begun their own style of “recovery” operations by raiding the Spanish salvage camps. One such pirate was Henry Jennings.
Rather than return to England empty-handed, Bellamy turned pirate himself. He built up a crew and plundered numerous ships. During his travels he encountered Jennings and together they conducted other raids. One such raid netted them a 28,500 peso windfall in the form of what were no doubt 1715 Fleet coins. In a severe lapse of judgement, Jennings left the loot with Bellamy so that he could pursue another rival. Bellamy took the treasure and ran.
During 1716, Bellamy raided over 50 ships. In February, 1717, Bellamy and his crew captured a 300 ton slave galley called the Whydah. Bellamy decided to make the Whydah his flagship and along with 4 ½ tons of gold , silver and other goods, he and his men headed back to New England.
In April, 1717, the Whydah was capsized in a storm and laid undiscovered until 1984, when underwater archaeological explorer Barry Clifford found her in approximately 20 feet of water. Sam Bellamy’s fateful decisions brought Spanish 1715 Fleet treasure to Cape Cod. Our Treasure of the Month is one such coin.
Weighing in at 25.64 grams, this Mexico eight reales has a clear 1715 date (the 15 bold) next to a nearly full crown in alignment with the axis of an attractively urn-shaped flan with a flat bottom bulbous body and narrow neck. The nearly full cross-lions-castles on the reverse at nearly a 45-degree angle to the flan shape. The surface is typically flat with only a hint of corrosion. This coin provides the visible link between the 1715 Fleet and the only documented pirate shipwreck to be salvaged in our time. Only a few Whydah coins have hit the market, fetching high prices to match the popularity and importance of the wreck, each coin once given as a present to an investor as opposed to being sold by the salvager, Barry Clifford. Clifford maintains a strict policy of keeping the treasure intact and archaeologically conserved and presented in his excellent museum on Cape Cod. The artifact card that comes with this coin records that it was found on January 27, 1988 and is identified as item 107960. It was conserved in May, 1989.
The text for our January, 2019 Treasure of the Month was summarized from the article “Captain Sam Bellamy and the Whydah” authored by Daniel Frank Sedwick and published in the November, 2018 Auction Catalogue 24. Images also courtesy of Daniel Frank Sedwick, LLC.
For more information about the Whydah and its recovery, visit the Whydah website.