A small chapel was built in Spain in the year 1150. Its name translates into English as, “Our Lady of the High Grasses,” because a religious icon was lost and then found in the high grasses or “tocha” nearby. For nearly 1,000 years, this chapel of Nuestra Señora de Atocha has been standing in the center of Madrid, with the life of the city revolving around it.
Well, not exactly “this chapel.” In 1890, when the original chapel could no longer be repaired, Pope Pius IX commissioned that a Neo-Byzantine Basilica* be built to replace it. That Basilica was destroyed during the Spanish Civil war and its reconstruction was completed in 1951. All things considered, it is not the chapel itself but the idea of “Our Lady of the High Grasses” that has been around since 1150.
The original chapel was 470 years old when the Mayflower disembarked on Plymouth Rock in 1620, the same year that representatives of King Philip IV of Spain took possession of a new galleon that had been constructed for him in the shipyards of Havana. Christened as the Nuestra Señora de Atocha after the old chapel in Madrid, this new galleon was 112 feet long, made of mahogany instead of oak, and required a crew of 110 men.
The crew’s first job was to deliver 40 tons of gold and silver from Central America to King Phillip IV in Spain. It took them more than 2 months just to load it all onto the ship. The heavily armed Atocha was given the honor of sailing as the almirante, or rear guard of a 28-ship convoy.
But those 28 ships Captains weren’t thinking about pirates when they set sail for Spain on September 4, 1622. The protracted loading of the ships had caused them to depart 6 weeks late. They were sailing into the heart of hurricane season.
On the morning of September 6, just two days after setting sail from Havana harbor, the remains of 8 of those 28 ships lay scattered from Marquesas Key to the Dry Tortugas.
The mighty Nuestra Señora de Atocha sank in 56 feet of water, losing all of her 265 passengers, soldiers, sailors, and slaves except for 3 sailors and 2 slaves who survived by clinging to the top of the mizzenmast. A few weeks after those 5 were rescued, a second hurricane swept the ship and its treasure to parts unknown. The Spanish government searched for the wreck of the Atocha for more than 60 years.
And then it became the stuff of legend. Four hundred million dollars-worth of sunken Spanish treasure was lying somewhere on the shallow ocean floor near Key West, Florida, free for the taking.
During the 20th century, the treasure of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha was discovered hundreds of times in just 30 feet of water by boats full of people who chose to ignore it.
Princess Pennie and I were the guests of Mel Fisher and his family in Key West, Florida, shortly before Mel died in 1998. It was Mel’s son, Kim, who told us of the hundreds of fishing lures they pulled off that pile of treasure before lifting those gold bars into the sunlight in July of 1985.
And so our story goes full circle: a ship’s treasure was lost, and then found, in the high grasses of the ocean 835 years after the treasure for which it was named was lost, and then found, in the high grasses of central Spain.
Spain… bullfighting… Ernest Hemingway… Key West
Considering that Ernest Hemingway spent 27 years of his life on the Pilar, his custom-made fishing boat in Key West, I am reasonably confident that at least one of those fabled fishing lures was his. But even so, Hemingway would have been just one of the countless sport fishermen who returned to Key West at the end of the day to drink a beer and tell a story about catching “a big one” that broke their line.
Yes, those fishermen caught a big one indeed.
Perhaps the biggest one ever.
Roy H. Williams
*In the Catholic faith, a church is any place of worship that has a permanent congregation and is run by a pastor or priest. A chapel has no pastor or priest or permanent congregation. A cathedral is a church run by a bishop. The status of basilica can be awarded only by the Pope, usually because of historical, spiritual, or architectural significance.
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