HISTORY OF THE SANTA MARGARITA

This is a true story--a 16th Century tale of adventure on the high seas.  One of the world’s great sailing ships was on a perilous journey from Manila to Acapulco.  The Santa Margarita was commanded by a tyrant, General Jan Martinez de Guillestigui.  He was cruel, arrogant, and greedy, piling cargo into the Santa Margarita until it was fatally overloaded.  During seven miserable months at sea most of the ship’s food supplies were lost, the ship was blown a thousand miles off course, and most of those on board died of scurvy or starvation.  When the ship finally made it to land, its anchor rope was cut by natives, and the ship drifted onto the reef in pounding surf.  The natives captured the survivors and went on a killing rampage, leaving alive about 25 of the more than three hundred who had departed Manila seven months earlier.

 This also is a tale of a contemporary project to find and recover the ship.  A group of retired Americans are spending millions of dollars from their savings to dig up the ship buried in a reef bordering the Philippine Sea.  The ship is emerging as a treasure ship of Asian art.

 Imagine the troubled, often violent voyage of this great sailing ship. . .the horrendous conditions aboard . . . more than 300 people crowded into a ship 120 feet long and 45 feet wide, together with livestock and food and water for seven months...the spectacular wreck as the massive ship breaks up on the reef of this tropical island while the natives drag survivors to shore where they are strangled, or buried alive, or thrown head first into rocks, or buried with only the head showing, which is then used as a target for sling stones. 

BACKGROUND

At the end of the 16th Century, the Santa Margarita was one of the largest sailing vessels in the world.  As a Manila galleon, she sailed a trade route from Asia to Acapulco in New Spain (now Mexico), the first leg in a route linking Europe to its colonies in Asia.  The IOTA Partners researched the ship, and located the wreck in the Northern Mariana Islands, 1500 miles East of the ship’s home port of Manila.  Before searching, however, they signed a public-private partnership contract with the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands: IOTA provides the financing and know-how, and gives the government its choice of artifacts for display and a share of proceeds from the recovery.  The excavation is governed by US laws; 11 agencies monitor the federal permits.

THE SHIPWRECK

Into the hostile environment of the North Pacific ventured a ship so large it was described as “a mountain in the sea,” yet within a few weeks it was reduced to a derelict.  Before leaving Manila, cargo far beyond the permiso, or legal limit, had been stuffed into every corner and empty space.  After that the loading continued; cargo was piled on the open decks, both obstructing the crew and causing the ship to be top-heavy and unstable.  The additional shipping fees for the “found space,” however, promised to make General Guillestigui rich.  The condition of the ship at the wharf was obvious, and experienced sailors would not hire on, thereby adding to the problems of sailing her.  It took six days to sail the ship out of Manila Harbor.  The ship needed to be lightened and properly ballasted, but rather than give up shipping fees by setting cargo ashore, the General ordered twenty five passengers to take their belongings and leave.  One such expelled passenger was the ship’s chaplain, Geronimo Ocampo, who was so infuriated he excommunicated the General on the spot, damned the voyage, and proclaimed it would end badly.  The ship carried his curse to its final resting place on a Rota reef.  Remaining on the Santa Margarita and sharing its fate were likenesses of the chaplain’s namesake, San Geronimo (Saint Jerome), sculpted in ivory.  After 400 years in the Philippine Sea, the sculptures, partly obscured by concretion, were recovered and conserved by IOTA and given a new life.  By an ironic stroke of fate, yet another San Geronimo, the Santa Margarita’s companion ship on the fatal voyage, became separated during the first storm, and soon wrecked on the east shore of the Philippines. 

General Guillestigui did not live to enjoy the fortune he was to reap from his shipping abuses; he was buried at sea a few days before the ship, by then a derelict, reached Rota. 

THE HISTORY

The setting for the Santa Margarita’s last voyage is one of Spanish sea power and the trade links between Asia, the New World and Europe.  The artifacts carried by the ship include some of the earliest examples of the fusion of European and Asian art and culture.  

The manifest for the Santa Margarita, as for other ships of that era, could not be located. Historical research, and measurements during the excavation indicate the ship was about 120 feet long, and about 45 feet wide. She drew 20 to 25 feet of water, although she was lower in the water at the time she wrecked due to the inability of the weakened Spanish to operate the bilge pumps. It is believed her cargo capacity was about 8,000 piezas, each measuring about 2 cubic feet. Although fully laded, the ship delayed its departure from Manila to take on even more cargo. The delay exposed it to the storms and typhoons prevalent in the Western Pacific in August and September. The ship was commanded by a tyrant, General Juan Martinez de Guillestigui. He was cruel, arrogant and incompetent, piling cargo and treasure into the Santa Margarita until it was fatally overloaded. Before leaving Manila, cargo far beyond the permiso, or legal limit, had been stuffed into every empty space, and after that it was hung from the yardarms and piled on the open decks, both obstructing the crew and causing the ship to be top-heavy and unstable. The additional shipping fees for the “found space,” however, promised to make the general rich.  

The ship was so overloaded and poorly ballasted that experienced sailors could not be found to serve on her, thus adding to the risk, which was already notorious among travelers as the riskiest route in the world. From the outset, the ship’s instability posed problems. After an abortive attempt to clear Manila harbor the ship returned to Cavite, near Manila, to be lightened and to recruit experienced sailors. Not surprisingly, none could be found. Rather than give up shipping fees by setting cargo ashore and reballasting, however, General Guillestigue ordered twenty-five passengers to leave the ship with all their belongings.

 One such expelled passenger was the ship’s chaplain, Father Geronimo Ocampo. The infuriated chaplain excommunicated the General on the spot, damned the voyage, and proclaimed it would end badly. The Santa Margarita proceeded, and after seven months of storms, starvation and scurvy at sea, ended its voyage on a coral reef in the Mariana Islands, where the few survivors were either killed or held for ransom.

General Guillestigui did not live to enjoy the fortune in profits expected from his shipping abuses; instead, he earned a burial at sea a few days before the ship reached Rota. Of the more than 300 people who left Manila in July, 1600, twenty-two survived the starvation, scurvy, and capture of the ship by Chamorros. The Spanish survivors were eventually ransomed and returned to Manila. Those few who had been forced off at Manila with Ship's Chaplain Ocampo counted themselves lucky–or blessed. Although the loss of the Santa Margarita cargo was disastrous for the Manila merchants, no salvage expedition was sent. As the ship was breaking up on the North Shore of Rota, the natives superficially looted the ship for iron--especially for knives, swords and nails--as it was sinking. A hundred years passed before the Governor of Manila sent an expedition to recover the king’s cannons. Nothing else from the Santa Margarita was reported salvaged.

The religious art went down with the ship.  Sculpted ivories of the Madonna and Child, Saint Geronimo in the wilderness, and Saint Francis receiving the stigmata all suffered damage. Some were little more than a jigsaw puzzle of ivory shards mixed with white sand and coral rubble. Time, typhoons, seismic tremors, and sea water gradually destroyed the ship’s artifacts. The earliest to be lost was organic material such as silk, spices, tea, taffeta, and ivory. Abandoned, the ivories were on a course to crumble within a remote reef until they were no longer art, nor culture, nor even ivory. 

As centuries passed, the story of the Santa Margarita faded. The scrolls reporting the tragedy gathered dust in dark archives. The remains of the ship and its valuable cargo were hidden inside a reef except when exposed to the destructive force of typhoons and earthquakes. Ming dynasty porcelain, each a work of art, went unseen and unappreciated for four hundred years, while the episodic violence of nature took its toll, shattering the scenes on the porcelain into a jumble of shards containing songbirds, horses, deer, and a man forever poling a sampan to some forgotten shore.