While I was researching the wreck of Nuestra Señora de Atocha, I was touched by one report that about half of the treasure was salvaged by the Spanish after the Atocha and her sister ship, the Margarita, sank in a hurricane off the coast of Florida Keys in 1622. Their methods were primitive, but effective. The cost, however, was the loss of life of the Native American slaves.
After the surviving ships brought the news of the disaster back to Havana, Spanish authorities dispatched another five ships to salvage the Atocha and the Santa Margarita which had run aground near where the Atocha sank. The Atocha had sunk in approximately 55 feet of water, making it difficult for divers to retrieve any of the cargo or guns from the ship. A second hurricane in October of that year made attempts at salvage even more difficult by scattering the wreckage of the ship still further.
Nevertheless, the Spaniards undertook salvage operations for several years using their Native American slaves. They recovered nearly half of the registered part of the rich treasure from the holds of the Margarita. The Spanish used a large brass diving bell with a glass window on one side. A slave would ride to the bottom, recover an item, and be hauled to the surface by the men on deck. It was often lethal, but more or less effective. Dead slaves were recorded as a business expense by the captains of salvage ships.
Unlike the Portugese who supported slavery, the Spanish monarchs abolished “slavery” soon after the Spanish established colonies in the Americas. The traditional slavery was replaced by the encomienda which regulated the use of Native Americans and to reward individual Spaniards for services to the crown.
In the encomienda system, the Spanish crown granted a person a specified number of natives of a specific community, with the indigenous leaders in charge of mobilizing the assessed tribute and labor. The receiver of the grant was to protect the natives from warring tribes and to instruct them in the Spanish language. In return they could extract tribute from the natives in the form of labor, gold, or other products.
In practice, the difference between encomienda and slavery could be minimal. The natives, whose populations had already been decimated by European diseases, were worked hard and gained little. Natives were forced to do hard labor and subjected to extreme punishment and death if they resisted. The enslaved natives were often displaced of those enslaved and the communities and family units broken up.
The Bishop of Santiago justified the practice in a report in 1544:
In the past the treatment [of the Indians] was very bad; now [it is better] because they are needed, since the Spaniards are supported by their services, and if they are treated harshly, they hang themselves or let themselves die. They do not give much work, especially when they extract gold, since they are given good sustenance and a real [silver coin] every day. If they were free they would just be idle and fight, which would cause the loss of lives, souls, and the property of the settlers, and Your Majesty would lose the island. Although this does not produce revenue now, it is important to preserve it, and if the Indians were freed, within two years there would be few [settlers] left in the towns of Puerto del Principe, Sanctispiritus, Trinidad, Baracoa, and even Bayamo. Thus the latter and Havana would be the only towns left, and the island would become impassable because the thick-ness of its forests would close the roads, though Your Majesty would not have to pay the governor, bishop, clergy, or officials, since we would all leave.
Bishop of Santiago,
Report on his inspection of Cuba, 1544