Namesake of the patron saint of homeless people, midwives and reformed prostitutes, the Spanish galleon Santa Margarita was a ship of 600 tons, armed with twenty-five cannon. One of a fleet of 28, the Margarita was voyaging to Spain with an enormous cargo of plundered New World mineral wealth: consignments of tens of thousands of silver “pieces of eight” treasure coins, more than 550 silver bars weighing some 10,000 pounds, and over 9,000 ounces of gold in the form of bars, discs, bits and coins. The Santa Margarita also carried riches in the form of personal belongings: medical tools, navigational instruments, and precious jewelry of almost unimaginable opulence.
Subsequent to departing the island of Cuba on September 4, 1622, the fleet was overtaken by a “storme and fearfull tempest.” Within days, the Santa Margarita, along with five other ships, were wrecked near the Marqueses Keys in the Florida Straits. Lost with the Margarita were 142 lives and a king’s ransom in treasure.
Margarita in Greek means “pearl,” and serendipitously, the earliest 17th century attempt to locate and salvage the Santa Margarita was undertaken almost immediately by the Spanish mariner Captain Gaspar de Vargas, who, knowing of their skills, sent for pearl divers -- from the Venezuelan island of Margarita – to aid in the search.
Then, in 1624, Havana politician Francisco Melian obtained a royal salvage contract for the fleet galleons. This inventive risk-taker manufactured a device that allowed his divers to see and breathe while underwater. It was a diving bell, and it was this invention that allowed an enslaved diver to locate the first treasure of the Santa Margarita and win his freedom.
In 2007, the mystique of the ship’s name came full circle: Blue Water Ventures made an astounding discovery—one Santa Margarita’s most extraordinary hidden treasures—a lead box containing 16,184 rare and precious natural pearls, not listed on the ship’s manifest. It is the expert opinion of Manuel J. Marcial that the pearls are Pinctada imbricata, and originate from the area known as “the pearl coast,” located along the north coast of Colombia and Venezuela, which includes the pearl island of Margarita. The existence of these pearls was extremely significant in providing a strong stimulus for European exploration of the New World. It is important to note that pearls from these sources larger than 2 to 5 carats are extremely rare.