The 17th century San Francisco ship was a glorious human achievement. The ship was fashioned to represent the culture and wealth of Spain at the time. They wanted to show the world that Spain was in its Golden Age, that its vast empire was completely limitless, and that their ships had no bounds. Spain wanted the world to understand it could trade with anyone in the world no matter how far away they might be. So they made a fleet of ships, each more impressive than the next. And that is exactly what drew everyone into this story.
Allow me to paint you a picture. Sailing across the waves, the San Francisco gleaming on the water, the massive vessel finds itself in the midst of turbulent weather that quickly turns into a dangerous storm. This glorious and strong ship was no match for nature and the ship was tragically beaten by the crushing waters of the Pacific Ocean. The sailors were on the route through Japan’s Chiba Province, which is close to Tokyo when they were forced to abandon ship, with the history books at the time noting that the San Francisco ship sunk to the bottom of the ocean. What makes this story really alluring, though, isn’t even the ship itself. In fact, what attracted people from all over Japan to search for the San Francisco has nothing to do with the ship at all.
So why have people been searching for centuries for this useless old ship underwater? Well, we’ll let you in on a little secret: the ship did not only carry passengers, but had also carried cargo. More specifically, it carried treasure, which can be found deep in the Pacific Ocean. However, what this treasure included – and has had underwater archeologists risking their lives to find – may surprise you.
A little ball of joy
These 3 scuba divers stumbled upon an artifact that could possibly change what we know about the 17th century. This hand-sized ball might look like a piece of trash to you, but if it’s what archeologists think it is then that could mean that these scuba divers are in for a big treat. What kind of treat could this little ball possibly have to offer, you may ask? Well, for starters, it’s a treat worth millions of dollars.
Beneath the waters of the Tokyo shores
That little ball sparked enough interest to get the Japanese government to assemble and fund diving a team. The scuba divers dove into the Chiba province waters to find the San Francisco – 0r whatever was left of it. This dangerous mission was anything but a sure thing, but the team was ready, their budget from the government was in order, their scuba suits and tanks were strapped on and they were about to go treasure hunting.
Some have died trying
“We hoped to recover something that could shed light on the shipwreck, however little it may be,” that’s what Dr. Jun Kimura said about their search for the remains from the San Francisco shipwreck. He knew that their chances were slim, and that they were not the first divers to search for it; people had failed many times before and some even died trying. The San Francisco shipwreck occurred hundreds of years ago and with each passing year, the likelihood of stumbling upon the ship became worse and worse.
Sailing the Tokyo seas
The team compiled to be sent on the mission needed to be top-notch. It was made up of Australian, Japanese, and American archeologists. They were all very skilled with tons of experience in the field to boot. But that wasn’t enough. They needed luck on their side when they would sail through the scaly and dangerous angry waters of Tokyo. The waters held poisonous and dangerous wildlife so the search wasn’t going to be easy, to say the least.
What were they searching for exactly
The San Francisco was among the most impressive ships to sail the Pacific in the 1600s. It was designed to display Spain’s greatness and reflect the country’s prosperity. This ship didn’t only carry its tangible cargo; it was a status symbol that projected an image of grandeur. Uncovering its wreckage would, therefore, uncover a moment of international history, and give an accurate appraisal of the highest magnitude of wealth in that period. Now, are do you see why this mission was so bent on finding its treasures, both material and immaterial?
Dissapeared without a trace
The San Francisco ship was originally on a mission from the Phillippines all the way to Mexico in order to transport goods from one Spanish colony to another. Dr. Kimura said that when the San Francisco ship sank it “impacted the relationship between Spain, the Philippines, Mexico, and Japan.” It didn’t just drown, it disappeared off the face of the earth – until now, that is. But why is Dr. Kimura trying so hard to find this particular ship?
An opportunity they couldn’t refuse
The San Francisco ship wasn’t carrying just any cargo but rather it held many valuable goods that could be worth millions if found. When Dr. Kimura and his fellow archaeologist, McCann, realized that if there was a chance, no matter how slight, that they could find the San Fransisco ship, it was an offer they simply couldn’t refuse. How could they say no to the possibility of riches, fame, a little bit of enticing danger, archaeological interest and a front-page story in the news to boot?
Just like the Titanic, there were survivors of the San Francisco ship to go on and tell the tale. One of the survivors of the San Fransisco was Don Rodrigo de Vivero Velasco, the governor of the Philippines, who wrote about the experience in his diary. Dated the 30th of September, 1609, Velasco said there was a strong storm that pushed the San Fransisco into the reefs of the province of Chiba. Don wrote that “The ship was getting destroyed in pieces among some cliffs on the head of Japan.”
A painting of the struggle
Don Rodrigo de Vivero Velasco also wrote “All of us survivors were over the riggings and ropes because the galleon was getting broken piece by piece.” There were hundreds of survivors who were transported back to Mexico by a Japanese modern ship. This painting depicts the scene of the local Fisherman from Chiba helping the hundreds of survivors trying to reach the safety of the mainland and get out of the dangerous storm. This painting is currently hung in the museum in Onjuku.
A gift of appreciation
As a symbol of the appreciation for the help that the Japenese extended towards the San Francisco survivors in their time of need, the Spanish King gave the Japanese Shogun this priceless golden clock. Kimura said that “They were the first Japanese ever to cross the Pacific,” and “The Spanish king highly appreciated what Japan had done for the survivors, so diplomatic exchanges between Japan and Spain started.” This was just the start of the relationship between the King of Spain and the Japanese Shogun.
A blossoming relationship
The Japanese and Spanish rulers’ relationship only got better with time. They agreed to advance the trade routes between Spain and Japan. The Spanish king even offered to send 50 Mexican silver mining experts to help further Japan’s trade and teach them how to better mine for silver. In exchange, the Spanish priests who were currently held in Japan that were prosecuted would be spared and set free. Lastly, they agreed that if any future shipwreck situation should arise the Japanese would continue helping the survivors.
Meet Dr. Kimura
That is what captivated Dr. Jun Kimura. He wanted to know if he could find anything at all that was connected to the shipwreck. Dr. Jun had been working for the Maritime Civilizations Department at the University of Tokyo for some time now and he specialized in the sea battle sites. The San Francisco wasn’t any normal battle; rather, it was a battle against nature. And for the most part, nature won, sparing some survivors but none of the goods.
A great sacrifice
Ian McCann was helping Dr. Kimura on this mission. He was an Australian researcher. This team had sacrificed a lot to find out what lays below the Eastern shores. Ian McCain sacrificed the most. He actually sold half of his assets so that he could pursue archeology and share his findings with the rest of the world. Ian said “Some guys choose to go around in a Porsche. This is what gets me. This is my lifestyle now.”
Day in and day out
In the beginning, it was exciting. They were on a mission for the greatest treasure. They would put on their scuba suit, sink to the ocean’s floor, take out their metal detectors and start searching. Two years later of constant searching, day after day no matter what harsh elements came their way, the team grew tired and restless. That was exactly when McCann actually found something. His fellow archeologists were shocked. What did he find?
Ian McCann, an Australian researcher on the team who was from the University of New England, could not believe his eyes. Dr. Kimura said that “Ian just saw an unusual shape on the sandy bed. He recovered it but then we had to go back to the surface as our air had nearly run out.” They quickly resurfaced with huge grins plastered on their faces, ready go back down as soon as possible. What exactly they had found they were not sure just yet.
Ian was so proud of himself, he said “We were just about to head up the shot line when I noticed a round shaped concretion about 5 meters [16 feet] from the line. Something about it looked a little different so I quickly swam across to it, scooped it up and headed up the line. As soon as I felt the weight, I knew it was something important.” Ian was in for a surprise when he would discover what was really in his hands.
Pride of a good find
After two years straight of searching with not much to show for their efforts, it is understandable that the team grew a bit hopeless. That was why this find was so important to them, they really needed a reason to continue searching. McCann said “This is our second year looking for the site. The visibility can be poor, currents strong, and day after day we have to keep diving and looking.” McCann was so excited about finding a the cannonball.. but what is a cannonball exactly?
Testing their theory
The team believed that the small sphere that they found was actually a cannonball used to protect the San Fransisco ship. They were excited but they weren’t sure. If they were correct that would mean that the actual San Francisco ship wouldn’t be too far off. They knew the process though, this wasn’t their first time around the block. The team would have to send the cannonball to get tested through a chemical analysis in order to know for sure.
Ready for good news
The cannonball would be the first artifact ever to be retrieved from the remains of the San Fransisco shipwreck. They truly believed that they found the first piece of the puzzle that would lead them to the greatest treasure of their entire lives. The cannonball could serve as a treasure map and help them find the ship itself. They wanted so badly for the sphere to be what they believed it was. Their smiling faces prove that their two long year search was about to come to a fruitful end.
The team of archeologists quickly sent the cannonball to the local Tokai University to be tested by geologists in order to prove their theory to be true. This was the same school that Kimura worked at, they were not taking any chances. After painfully waiting for the results the geologists to come in. They were finally informed that the sphere was made out of the chemicals feldspar, pyroxene, and peridotite. But what did that mean exactly, was this the good news that they were waiting for?
Exactly what they were looking for
It really was a cannonball! McCann believed that it was very similar to many other cannonballs that were previously found in the Pacific ocean before. He said that “This matches the rock type used for other cannonballs found on Spanish vessels involved in this trade. More scientific tests need to be conducted but so far we are feeling quite confident it’s from the San Francisco.” The whole team breathed out a sigh of relief in unison, their prayers were answered.
Searching for centuries
This is not the first time that an expedition was organized by the Japanese government. Since the middle of the 19th century, the Japanese have been searching for any remains from the San Fransisco. However, the coastline of Chiba has been very unforgiving and has been ravished by tsunamis and other natural disasters, making finding any historical artifact next to impossible. It’s almost like these ancient artifacts want to stay hidden. But not if these archeologists have anything to do with it.
McCann is nervous that the news of their find would attract unwanted treasure hunters that don’t have the proper licenses or authority to search. He said “These galleons are a target for treasure hunters who spend a lot of time and money looking for them because of the valuable cargo they carry. The San Francisco will be the first one found that has not been pillaged and we can learn exactly what the manifested cargo and the hidden cargo was.”
Even more goods
It is rumored that sailors would almost always sneak even more goods onto the San Francisco so that they would not have to pay taxes. McCann added that “These vessels represented what could be termed as the first model for globalization, true world trade. For maritime archeology, this will be a significant find, a site [from which] we can learn a lot more about the trade, what countries were involved and exactly what was traded.”
Just a lucky find
McCann understands that this may have been a lucky find and this just might be the end of the line, he explained that “Large slabs of rock, up to 4 tons each, have collapsed into the gullies where artifacts are likely to be lodged, making it difficult to determine if there is anything there.” There have been too many typhoons and tsunamis on the coastline of Chiba, such as the one seen here, to make finding another clue anything but simple.
A rocky but hopeful road ahead
Despite the statistics and the past failed searches, McCann is positive and hopeful that this find will lead to another one. He went on to say that “With a good plan, an experienced crew and a good dose of luck it may be possible to find the more historically important and valuable items. But honestly, this is unknown…A lot of people invest in treasure hunters schemes only to lose their money, very few are successful, due to the unknown nature of each site and the difficulty of working underwater.”
It may excite you to hear that the cannonball wasn’t the only thing that the team of archeologists found in the Pacific Ocean. They had previously also recovered a piece of timber close by that they believed to be from the sunken San Fransisco ship. But a piece of timber is not enough to attract media attention or to really sink your teeth into believing that the San Francisco ship was within their grasp. There was clearly something special about the cannonball…
The archeologists are hopeful that the cannonball can better explain how the two empires traded at the time. History tells that there were two trips made each year between Mexico and the Philippines. They wanted to know more about the path that was taken from Acapulco to Manila to better understand the routes of that time. Which could also help them get a clue to where the San Fransisco could be hiding and where the treasure is.
The treasure’s value
McCann believes that the cannonball has a lot of potential to light their way to the rest of the San Fransisco. “A cannonball may not sound like much but it indicates the general vicinity where the vessel went down. It is the only Spanish Manila galleon that has not been plundered by treasure hunters.” McCann went on to explain that the San Francisco ship also may have “carried fabulously valuable cargo (…) by today’s value, the cargo may have had a value of around $80M.
The team explained that they are still hopeful and that “During our search, we believe we detected iron. It could be from modern times. But we want to keep searching in this area.” They believe that this is only a part of the puzzle towards the greatest treasure of their lives. The government of Japan has extended their budget to continue searching until March of 2019. That is an astounding amount of faith in the archeologists. We can’t wait to hear about what they find.