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 crew of the Diamante, the man they pressed into service as a coast pilot had been telling the truth. He wasn’t qualified and apparently 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 Diamante‘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 Diamante‘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?
The Diamante may well be one of three co-mingled wrecks, which Dr. Spence first found over thirty years ago. The co-mingled wreckage is located in roughly 18 feet of water about 500 yards inshore of the outer shoal of Cape Romain. The wrecks are 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, almost no work was ever done on this multiple wreck site by Dr. Spence and his people, even though Dr. Spence has always believed it had great potential. The reason Dr. Spence is now convinced that there are at least three wrecks at this location and not just one, as he originally thought, is that three sets of totally different anchors have been found at the site and a close examination of the artifacts shows that they span from the late 1600s (some Spanish coins) to the 1850s (a bottle, hull sheathing, etc.). He has long wanted to work this site, as he believes there is much to be found, and he is finally going to be able to work it as he desires under an agreement he signed in March with Galleon Quest (see: www.GalleonQuest.io).
The nature of the artifacts recovered to date from the site indicate a minimum of three wrecks, with at least one having a valuable cargo. Some of the artifacts appear to date from the time general time period of the wreck of the Diamond, while others date as early as the 1690s, and as late as the 1850s. It certainly isn’t proof, but one of the wrecks in this cluster may or may not be the Diamante. And, if it isn’t its probably one of the other wrecks has already found nearby and also owns the rights too.
The silver coins mentioned above were chipped out of the sand, shell, and iron oxide matrix encrusted around a piece of pig iron that diver Kevin Rooney found while helping Dr. Spence relocate the wreck site.
Two flintlock pistols, which have been recovered from the wreck, appear to “trade pistols” meant as merchant cargo, rather than for shipboard use. Some of the salvaged fragments of porcelain have a heavy, almost military appearance.
Both of the 9-pounder cannons, which were recovered by Dr. Spence and his divers in the 1980s, have the lines usually associated with a much earlier time-period (although at least one was 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 pewter molds were found that were probably meant for making decorative chocolates and would seem to out of place on a vessel bound to Africa, but, if the Diamante was a pirate or a privateer, they could have been part of a captured merchant cargo.
Although some 22 carat gold bracelet, a 22 carat gold thimble, and numerous low carat gold rings were found, as well as some silver plates, none of the cheaper trinket type trading goods (such as glass beads and bronze bracelets) or leg irons, normally associated with a slaver have been found on the wreck.
If one of the wrecks is indeed that of the Diamante (and some of the artifacts and location certainly support that theory) then the nature of her cargo, and the lack of artifacts associated with the slave trade, seem to support her being a pirate or a privateer 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 items were salvaged from the Diamante immediately after her loss, it was hoped that admiralty court records could shed some additional light on her character and cargo, but so far those records haven’t been located. An advertisement by the Spanish consul requesting persons to turn over salvaged material to him also indicates that diplomatic records (consular dispatches) might contain some useful information.
NOTE TWO: Among the artifacts recovered were a musket barrel, two lock-plates for flintlock muskets, two intact flintlock pistols, and a number of cannon balls of different sizes (including sizes for cannons larger than the two that were recovered). 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 cups, plates and bowls, silver plates, and some coins were also found on the wreck. Sixty bronze crucifixes were found when when some test holes were dug on the wreck over a two day period. The crucifixes appear to be French. Because they were widely scattered around the wreck site, its thought they were cargo and that there was originally at least a large crate of them. That means there could easily be thousands of them, as have been found on a several other shipwrecks.
NOTE THREE: There are other possibilities as to the identity of this wreck, one of those being a British privateer. And, as noted above, there are several other nearby wrecks that Dr. Spence has already found, and obtained the rights to, which may be the Diamante, even if one of the three wrecks at 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. Under his Agreement with Galleon Quest he will be splitting the recovery with them. This page contains speculation and forward thinking and is not and should not be considered part of any offering memorandum.
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