Overview: Spanish schooner Diamante
(wrecked at Cape Romain in 1816)
Copyright © 2013 by Edward Lee Spence, all rights reserved
The Spanish schooner Diamante, Captain Christoval Soler, was wrecked near Cape Romain, South Carolina, on August 29, 1816. Contemporary accounts referred to her as the Diamond.
SLAVER OR PIRATE?
The Diamante’s captain reported her as bound from Havana, Cuba, to the coast of Africa with a “valuable cargo” and a “considerable sum of money.”
The primary purpose for a voyage to Africa at that time would have been to engage in the slave trade and/or the purchase of valuable cargos of ivory, dye-woods, etc. Although ownership of slaves was still legal in the United States the importation of new slaves was already illegal. Furthermore, the slave trade was condemned by most civilized nations. Great Britain actually maintained armed cruisers off the coast of Africa in an attempt to stop and capture the slavers, who were legally considered to be smugglers. By most standards, slavers were the lowest of the smugglers. Black men women and children would have been captured or purchased in Africa and carried to the West Indies to be sold. A large percentage of these blacks would then be illegally transported to the southern United States to face a life of slavery.
Piracy and the smuggling of slaves often went hand in hand. Her armament and the large number of men and officers (51 total), reported aboard the Diamante, would not have been unusual for a slaver but, in light of her actions, it raises the question as to whether she was really intended as a privateer or pirate.
AN ACT OF PIRACY?
Most acts of piracy were, of necessity, subtle, until it became clear to the pirates that they were going to succeed and would be able to make a safe escape. Until the successful outcome was clear, most pirates would use a ruse to cover their real intentions. Pirates often used the cover of being a legitimate privateer (in effect a government licensed bounty hunter) or the cover of being “in distress” to stop and board passing vessels, and/or to seize “needed” foodstuffs and crew. There was almost always a promise to pay connected to those thefts. The famous pirate Edward Teach (“Blackbeard”) even gave written receipts and promissory notes to his victims, knowing they would never be honored.
The insistence by the captain of the heavily manned, armed schooner Diamante that the presumably unarmed boat Hornet provide the Diamante with a pilot was a questionable act to say the least.
The Diamante apparently was truly in distress and could legitimately demand help, but the people from whom she was demanding it weren’t qualified to assist and apparently said so. They were not believed and were effectively forced to help against their will.
Unfortunately for the Diamante, the man they pressed into service as a coast pilot had been telling the truth. He wasn’t qualified and he mistook the tower of the Cape Romain windmill (which had lost it’s arms in a storm) for the Charleston light. By the time his mistake was realized, it was too late. The “pilot” ran the schooner aground on the outer shoal of the Cape.
Once it became obvious that the Diamante would be lost, her crew made plans to board the Hornet, with the expressed purpose of dumping overboard the Hornet‘s cargo to make room for the Diamond‘s “valuable” cargo, which, if she was a slaver, would have consisted of both trade goods and money (and a “considerable sum of money” is in fact mentioned). Such plans may have been made with the consent of the Hornet‘s captain, but such consent was very likely obtained under duress. There was probably a promise that the Hornet‘s captain and owner’s would be fairly compensated, but the Hornet‘s captain would have been taking a big risk, no matter how legitimate the Diamond appeared to be. But, either way, the plans were made too late and schooner sank before her cargo could be transferred to the smaller boat. As many as thirty men were drowned or eaten by sharks.
GUNS THROWN OVERBOARD
At least some of the Diamante’s guns were thrown overboard when she first struck the outer shoal. The schooner then “drifted in somewhat nearer to the land” where she sank in 3 fathoms (18 feet) of water. It was thought that she lay “some five miles distant” from shore. The Diamond‘s captain attempted to save a “considerable sum of money” from the wreck (but it was later lost an unspecified distance from the wreck). It isn’t known if there was additional money left aboard the wreck. But, the original reports make it sound like before abandoning ship that the captain had simply taken off his pants, tied the legs to make a bag and filled the pants with as many coins as they would hold. My best guess is that there was more money. If it had been the entire amount, which he had had on board he would have known the exact amount he placed in the pants and he would probably have mentioned the figure. But, the captain would have wanted to keep quiet about any money left on the wreck, especially if it was stolen loot or if he was hoping to later mount a salvage effort.
HAS IT BEEN FOUND?
This may be a wreck, which Dr. Spence first found over thirty years ago, that is located in roughly 18 feet of water about 500 yards inshore of the outer shoal of Cape Romain. The wreck is just under 4 nautical miles from the nearest land (Cape Island) and slightly over 5 miles from the site of the old windmill on Mill Island. For various reasons, relatively little work was ever completed on this wreck site by Spence and his people, even though he felt it had great potential.
The nature of artifacts recovered to date from the site indicate a very valuable cargo. The artifacts could date as late as the wreck of the Diamond, although their general appearance suggests a slightly earlier date for the wreck, so it may not be the Diamante. A flintlock pistol, which was recovered from the wreck, appears to be of a military style made for shipboard use. Some of the salvaged fragments of porcelain have a heavy, almost military appearance. Both of the cannons, which were recovered by Dr. Spence’s divers in the 1980s, have the lines usually associated with a much earlier time-period (although at least one appeared to be dated 1798) and do not appear military. The cannons are British (made in London) not Spanish, but that would not be unusual on a privately armed Spanish merchant vessel, especially if she was a pirate. Several salvaged pewter molds probably meant for making decorative chocolates would seem to out of place on a vessel bound to Africa, but, if she was a pirate, they could have been part of a captured merchant cargo. Although some gold chain, a gold thimble, and numerous low quality gold rings were found, as well as some silver, none of the cheaper trinket type trading goods (such as glass beads and brass bracelets) or leg irons normally associated with a slaver were observed on the wreck.
If the wreck is indeed that of the Diamante (and her general date and location somewhat support that theory) then the nature of her cargo, and the lack of artifacts associated with the slave trade, seem to support her being an outright pirate and not a slaver. Remember, the Diamante was off the waters of South Carolina when she gave the story of being “bound to the coast of Africa.” At that time, slavery was an acceptable institution in South Carolina. By implying that the ship was being used in the slave trade, her intentions would have been acceptable (albeit illegal) to South Carolinians hearing the story, and it would have helped the Diamante account for her armament and her large crew, without attracting undue attention.
NOTE ONE: As some cargo was salvaged immediately after her loss, it is likely that admiralty court records could shed some additional light on the character of the Diamante. An advertisement by the Spanish consul requesting persons to turn over salvaged material to him also indicates that diplomatic records (consular dispatches) should be reviewed.
NOTE TWO: Among the artifacts recovered were a musket barrel, two lock plates for flintlock muskets, and a number of pieces of “grape shot”. One of the lock plates was marked “Brook”, “Brooks” or “Brooke”. There was a London arms manufacturer by the name of Brooke. The remains of an ornate clock, crystal decanter stoppers, pewter plates, silver plates, and some coins were also found on the wreck.
NOTE THREE: There are other possibilities as to the identity of this wreck and there are several other wrecks located nearby, which may be the Diamante, if this site isn’t.
This is one of several pages dealing with the Spanish schooner Diamante, which was shipwrecked in 1816 while bound from Cuba to Africa with a “valuable cargo” and a “considerable sum of money.” In 2012, underwater archaeologist Dr. E. Lee Spence filed a claim in Federal District Court against a number of unidentified shipwrecks that he had previously discovered outside of the State three mile limit at Cape Romain, South Carolina. Although still officially unidentified, based on the historical descriptions of where she was lost, it is reasonable to believe that one of the wrecks (if not this one, then another one) that Dr. Spence has found will eventually prove to be that of the Diamante. Spence’s claim was made under both the law of salvage and the law of finds and was against both the recovered wreckage and the wreckage in situ. The Court ruled that Spence was the “true and exclusive owner of the abandoned wreckage” (which includes all of the shipwrecks that he had found in the specific area designated in his court filing), which means he is already the legal owner of any and all shipwreck gold, silver, cannons, hulls, engines, rigging, and other artifacts on all of the those wrecks that he has found in his claim area, including all of the material which has yet to be salvaged. His work is being funded by United Gold Explorations Limited. To learn more about shipwrecks in general, check out Spence’s page on Facebook. This contains speculation and forward thinking and is not and should not be considered part of any offering memorandum.