In popular folklore pirate treasure would mean sea chests overflowing with pieces of eight, plundered diamonds and other exotic jems... but this was not usually the case. Although it may have been their goal to do so, most western pirates mainly attemped to attack lightly armed merchant ships. They normally came away with booty like a few bales of silk or cotton, some barrels of rum or tobacco, carpentry or navigation tools, weapons, medicine, and a few pieces of eight. They might also try and recruit new members from their captives, or perhaps just take the entire ship as a prize. Although buried treasure has been a favorite theme in pirate stories. There are very few documented examples of real pirates who buried their plunder. Most pirates preferred to spend their booty in an orgy of drinking, gambling, and whoring when they returned to port.
In the Golden Age of Piracy, the great riches of the Spanish Main and there treasure fleets are what attracted so many pirates to that area of the world.
As you can imagine the rewards of piracy at that time could be fantastic. And some daring pirates acquired enormous wealth. But the kind of 'treasure' taken by pirates differed all over the world.
NEW WORLD PIRATES
This was one of the most popular areas for pirate activity. Spain's conquests in the 16th century had given it a large amount of land. This land included area from California down to South America. It was a very rich land, full of minerals and the treasures of the Aztec and Incas. This area is what was called the Spanish Main. The Spanish looted this treasure and shipped it through the Caribbean to Spain. Cargos were very rich indeed! According to Stewart Ross' book Pirates, when Sir Francis Drake "raided Nombre de Dios in 1572 he seized 15 tons of gold and thousands of silver coins!" It is no surprise then that this area was a favorite hunting place for pirates looking for treasure ships loaded with booty to plunder.
In this same time period European Christians who sailed along the coast of Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis called the Muslims barbarians. And the area thus became known as the Barbary Coast. The pirates from this area were called Corsairs, and were not generally involved in piracy for gold or pieces of eight. The treasure they were trying to capture was people. Who they held for ransom, used as oarsmen on their galleys, or just sold as slaves.
INDIAN OCEAN PIRATES
A third area for piracy was one of the great trade routes in the world - the Indian Ocean. After 1497-1498, when Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. The trade routes opened up and became more popular with European traders... and also with pirates. Cargos in the Indian Ocean were just as valuable as those in the Caribbean. But instead of gold or silver the booty these ships contained were very valuable silk, jewels, ivory and spices such as pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon. Most pirates prefered to operate out of just one of these regions of the world. But some pirates were known to have plundered booty in several areas of the world over the course of their career.
Today treasure in the ocean can refer to many beautiful things like fish and coral. But to most people it refers to items of value that were lost when the ships that carried them sank. Most of the gold, silver and jewels found in the ocean were on ships that sank hundreds of years ago. Treasure hunters today start on their adventure by searching through books and historical records. Here they try to find out what ships disappeared, what cargo they carried, and the exact route the ship was supposed to take. It also helps to know when the ship sank, or where it was supposed to have sunk. A famous treasure hunter named Mel Fisher searched for a shipwrecked Spanish galleon for over 16 years. He knew that the ship, named the Atocha, sank in the Florida Keys in 1622. In July 1985, over 360 years after the ship sank, Fisher and his crew located part of the Atocha's cargo of gold and silver, with a value of over 400 million dollars.
Hunting for treasure is never as easy as you might think. A ship rarely sinks in one piece. When a ship sinks, it leaves a trail of debris. The hull and
heaviest parts of the ship and cargo might sink straight down, but the rest may be scattered by the waters current. Sometimes treasure hunters find the debris
first, then by following the trail of debris they can find the main wreck. Robert Ballard and his team found the wreck of the Isis after finding a pile of
amphoras. The discovery of forty-two Roman items from the wreck of the Isis shows why treasure hunters need to be very careful and use archeologists in order to preserve these treasures.
In marine archeology materials either disintegrate from the salt in the water, are buried in sediment, or become homes to marine animals. If scientists had simply brought up an amphora or a wreck like the Mary Rose. It would have dried out and cracked when the salt that had penetrated the artifact dried. Have you ever gone swimming in the ocean? Once you come out of the salt water, the water evaporates, leaving a film of salt on your skin. Scientists need to keep artifacts wet. Pottery often cracks if moved from salt water to fresh water. Scientists need to get rid of the marine algae, fungi, and corals that have grown in and on artifacts. Preserving treasure can be a very complicated business.
The fate of each item lost when a ship went down varied according to its material. Shoals of small fish, crabs, and lobsters can quickly consumed any type of food, while leather, wood and bone were more slowly consumed by the decomposing bacteria and fungi. Iron objects rusted rapidly, with solid metal objects like cannon balls usually retaining only a core of iron under countless layers of oxide. Thin copper, brass, and bronze were quickly lost. While more solid items made from these metals are usually salvageable after the surface corrosion is removed. Silver too is also quick to corrode. Only gold and precious stones remain unchanged. It is estimated that between 1600-1900, over two thousand ships have sunk off the coast of Florida. But only a small percentage of these have been found. Many more ships have sunk in the Caribbean. And also off the coasts of Mexico and South America. There is believed millions of dollars in lost treasure still down there waiting to be re-discovered... Good Hunting Matey!