Tumbaga Metal: The Discovery of Spain’s First Treasure Wreck

Decades after Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World from 1492 to 1493, large quantities of gold, silver, and copper were discovered by Spanish conquistadors. This discovery increased Spain’s influence on the world economy. Not only were vast quantities of these three metals important to Spain from her colonies the nation became the hub of an empire that traded with the rest of the world, importing and exporting goods among other nations.

Before the middle of the 16th century, colonial mints which produced gold and silver coins had not yet been constructed in Mexico or Peru. Hernando Cortes, Spain’s prime conquistador in Mexico, sent what little precious metals could be pillaged and smelted from Aztec and Tarascan jewelry, idols and other artifacts back to Spain. These items were melted down into crude bars of gold, silver, and copper. But there was a problem: the bars never made it to Spain.

In the summer of 1992, a treasure salvage boat located off the Western coast of Grand Bahama Island, detected an incredibly large amount of metal buried in the ocean. When the family who worked for Marex, put on their scuba gear to investigate, they uncovered several bars of silver and gold, but that discovery was just the tip of the iceberg. After contacting Marex headquarters, over two-hundred crude bars were brought to the surface from the same site.

After researching the gold and silver ingots, poured with some copper, archeologists discovered that they came from a Spanish ship that sank in 1528, as the result of a hurricane or the ship ran aground in shallow water. Most bars could be identified from markings that had been stamped after being melted down as thoroughly, but as quickly as possible, using crude molds some of which were merely depressions in the sand.

These bars named “tumbaga” were identified by four engraved details on each one:

1.The letters BV with “~” over the B and “o” over the V, possibly signifying Bernardino Vasquez, one of Cort├ęs’ fellow conquistadors, who oversaw the mixture and molding of each bar.

2. The purity of each bar was marked in Roman numerals as a percentage of 2400 for 100% pure; 1200 for 50%, 600 for 25%, and so forth.

3. Serial numbers, beginning with the letter R followed by Roman numerals.

4. Tax stamp, part of a circular seal whose legend (pieced together) reads CAROLVS QVINTVS IMPERATOR for Charles V, king of Spain and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The stamp probably indicates the “King’s Fifth”: 20 percent of the treasure goes to the King.

The discovery of this collection of bars has great historical importance for the vast, exciting tales of shipwrecked “Spanish treasure” such as chests filled with gold doubloons from the early colonial Spanish empire. Also, it is the oldest treasure which was discovered in the Atlantic Ocean from the Spanish seaboard empire between 1492 to 1820. The treasure was originally artifacts that were plundered and smelted from Aztec and other pagan native American tribes; the conquistadors were mainly subduing the native population and not enforced regular mine digging before 1528.

The word “tumbaga” originates from an historical document from a Spanish governor in the Philippine islands from the early 18th century who used the term, “Metal de tumbaga” to refer to a gold-copper alloy used among the natives. The term today also includes a silver-copper alloy, which comprised most of the bars. (See attached link for The “Tumbaga Saga).