The Dominica Treasure 1583-1590


It has long been debated whether or not Indians with cannibalistic practices existed because actual accounts describing the ways in which they supposedly “consumed” fellow prisoners are rare.1 Generally known as “Caribes” or Caribs, documents relate the audacity and exploits of these armed natives. Numerous attacks are recorded for Puerto Rico during the sixteenth and early seventeenth century.2 By the late 1560’s the assaults were but vestiges of a once powerful resistance unwilling to subdue to Spanish expansionism. These Indians lived entrenched in the Lesser Antilles where, like in other unconquered localities, the savagery of the terrain lay controlled by the original habitants.

Through island-hopping related tribes from South America frequently came to the assistance of the Lesser Antilles communities in an attempt to punish the Spanish aggressor. Such was their mission in 1569 when they fell upon the recently established Spanish colony at Trinidad Island, off Venezuela, where many Spaniards were massacred and the twenty year old son of San Juan’s clergy Juan Ponce de Leon was supposedly dragged away with other settlers.

In one of the subsequent assailing voyages to Puerto Rico a previous captive managed to flee in 1583. This escapee was the black women Luisa Navarrete who spent four years of captivity with one of the Dominica tribes. Her account of the perils suffered were told to the island’s Bishop who wrote to the Spanish Crown.

“... each year they go to steal by the months of June, July, and August, to the island of Puerto Rico and other parts. In this manner they have captured many Negro slaves and some Spaniards in some haciendas by which fear many lands have been depopulated and two mills that make sugar. They have done and do great harm and have taken some navios of those that head from Santo Domingo to Margarita by having touched the island of Puerto Rico. Among the captives they have taken was a free female Negro named Luisa born in Puerto Rico... whom after being four years captive in the island of Dominica in coming the Indians to steal at that of Puerto Rico they took her with them, from where she escaped, from whom many things were known about the island of Dominica as well as the captives and treasure that there exists.” (AGI, Santo Domingo 172)

Papers related to the incident gave an historical insight about the treatment of captured Spaniards; some had gone insane, others lay desolate and roamed naked among the tribesmen. Luisa told of particular cultural practices, such as the customs following the death of a master, whose prisoners or slaves were sacrificed to serve in the next life. She pointed out that whenever the Caribs departed on expeditions, the Spaniards were left stranded on the island with only the native women and children as custodians. Luisa also spoke of the agricultural crops maintained by the natives at such immediate isles like Grenada and Martinique.

Concerning cannibalism she stated that the Spanish prisoners no longer constituted part of the native diet because several Indians had died following the consumption of a friar. Incursions were thereafter made upon other tribes capturing Indians for food and bringing whitemen as slaves. Close to thirty Spaniards and 400 Negroes lay about the island having been gathered from Puerto Rico and Trinidad; among them was the son of clergy Juan Ponce de Leon.

Clergy Juan Ponce de Leon was speedy informing the king of the matter whom through a Royal decree given at San Lorenzo el Real, dated June 12, 1584, ordered the Real Audiencia de Santo Domingo to gather information from the oldest inhabitants of a way by which Dominica could be taken and whether it was convenient to establish a settlement.3

Stratagems were carefully studied by the Military Junta at Puerto Rico. The governor of Margarita Island proposed that Captain Pedro Gomez could easily transact the release or exchange by using Luisa as an interpreter. Gomez would be aided by some men, parents and friends, of those who had lost members to the tribes. It was also suggested that the Captain General in charge of the regional galleys could stop there for approximately four days and attend the matter. Any captured natives would serve as rowers without major expense. (AGI, Santo Domingo 2280)

Luisa also told of a fabulous treasure gathered from various Spanish wreck sites stored within a cave. But which ships had met their fate among the waters of Dominica? According to Captain John Hawkins’ 1565 account, a Spanish vessel was wrecked in 1564 and the Indians captured and ate most of the survivors. (Hakluyt, 1904, X: 25-29)

Spanish Galleon

Author John S. Potter Jr. (1972: 137) stated that in 1567 several naos under the command of Adelantado Pedro Menendez de Aviles' son were transporting to Spain the gold, silver and pearl consignments from Tierra Firme through the Lesser Antilles archipelago. On board the vessels came three million pesos worth when caught in a hurricane and smashed on the reefs. Survivors who made it ashore were soon captured and eaten by the Carib natives. When the sea calmed, the Indians went out in canoes to the broken ships and extracted just about everything that could be found. Nails and other artifacts were brought back. Spanish treasure, consisting of silver bullion and lots of currency of four and eight real denomination, was extracted too.4

Despite the contradictions concerning the nature of the lost fleet, it is a known fact that many Indian tribes had the habit of gleaning cargo from wrecked ships. For example, when the Frenchmen Rene Laudonniere undertook the ill-fated settling attempt at Florida he reported that “there is found among the savages good quantitie of gold and silver, which is gotten out of the shippes that are lost upon the coast, as I have understood by the savages themselves.”5 Even John Hawkins reported about this practice in the 1565 voyage account when he was near Los Martires, (Florida Keys), where proportedly an Indian king named Cabs had a “... great store of golde and silver, so farre foorth that in a certaine village he had a pit full thereof, which was at the least as high as a man, and as large as a tunne... The greatest part of these riches was had, as they sayd, out of the Spanish shippes, which commonly were cast away in this straight; and the rest by the traffique which this king of Calos had with the other kings of the countrey...”6

Spanish documents described the Dominica treasure as follows:

“(1584)... that from lost naos they have stored in a cave three leagues from the sea a quantity of gold and silver worked and to be worked and reals...”7

“(1587)... in the Dominica there were lost might be some twenty years certain naos with which came from the province of Tierra Firme a son of the Adelantado Pedro Menendez (de Aviles) in which were brought more than three million in gold, silver and pearls and that having been killed and eaten the people of the said naos... the said Caribs went in their pirogues to the naos to extract the iron and nails from them; which they appreciate a lot, and in the way took the treasure that they found there and placed it in a cave that is close to the beach where it is said, and certified by some captives that have escaped from the said Indians, is at present still there...”8

“(1587)... there is a cave full of silver bricks and much reals of 4 and of 8 and other merchandise and that the silver pile is so high that a man on horse could not be seen from the other side and asked by the female Negro where they had obtained that silver they said that nearby were lost some navios with a storm and that they killed the people that came ashore swimming and they headed to the navios in search of the nails and iron that by being in the shoals could be extracted...” (AGI, Santo Domingo 155)

By 1587, the Crown was still gathering reports and comments. On October 10, 1588 Luisa was once again questioned and stated in a sworn account before the Governor that:

“She was captured while at an hacienda located in Humacao about ten years ago by Carib Indians, with another Negro and four men. Taken to Dominica where she was held captive for four years learning the language and customs... and that in the said island she saw lots of silver bars in the manner of bricks. That questioning... the Indians about where they had come from, they responded from a navio that had struck the coast of that island and speaking about this to some of the Christians held captive for a long time... they told her that a navio had arrived to that island with a storm a long time ago and had struck the coast which was loaded with lots of silver for the king and that the said Christians had been in the island when it hit the coast and that some of the people that came in the said ship drowned and others were killed by the Caribs and seven or eight were held captive and distributed throughout the other islands... and since the Indians have suspicions that Christians will fall upon them, they have hidden this treasure in a watering spot or cave that is a league from the sea and inland in other parts... and in this way she had seen lots of gold --she does not know if it came from the said ship-- because in the island of Grenada, that is close by, the said Indians go from Dominica in where they say there is lots of gold of which they have made eagles... and other birds and vermins.”9

Another account was provided by Francisco Perea, pilot of a Spanish frigate that had been overtaken by the Caribs, and blazed while anchored at Vieques Island. He had escaped with other Spaniards aboard a native pirogue.

“... Dominica... being there he saw lots of silver that he recognized as being from New Spain, and from Tierra Firme marked silver bars; as they usually come from Tierra Firme, and the silver coins of New Spain, and asking this witness to a colored Indian... he told him that it had been recovered from a navio... and in the same manner he saw lots of gold made into eagles... guinea pigs and other figures...”10

Of particular interest in Francisco Perea’s deposition is the mentioning of a “colored” Indian amongst the Dominica Warriors. In 1583, Luisa Navarrete described the existence of at least 400 Negroes at Dominica. According to some estimates, by the year 1602 there were approximately 2,000 Negroes roaming the island (Sued Badillo, 1978: 94). At other Carib-dominated islands like Saint Vincent these “savage” Negroes out-numbered the Indians ten to one by the seventeenth century (Sued Badillo, 1978: 94). Negro populations at these islands received a strong boost through the continuous Carib raids and subsequent slave captures conducted at Puerto Rico and South America, and those brought by human traffickers whose vessels were ultimately wrecked in the Lesser Antilles.

The presence of a possibly non-tributable source of labor in the form of “native Negroes” lured Spaniards to undertake recovery ventures where supposedly slaves had been left behind by mishap. Spanish documents indicated such retrievals for the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In 1593, for example, one Negro was brought to Puerto Rico from Dominica11 and an undetermined amount came from Martinique in the early seventeenth century.12 If these Negroes were in fact the product of native and African intermingling throughout the years, the ventures simply represented another form of deliberately ransacking Indian settlements.

Black Caribs appear to have been existent in the Lesser Antilles since the 1560’s. In one recorded instance, Negro warriors were associated with a Portuguese trader who threatened to attack Guadianilla, in southern Puerto Rico, if commerce was not carried out.

“... a Portuguese... arrived to said port (Guadianilla) in his navio well fitted and loaded with merchandise and wines... with his armed skiff and people and Negroes with bows and arrows... he requested to those of the town if they wished to purchase something; whom were unwilling he demanded food which would be paid for and if not (supplied) he would take them to their regret...”13

On the other hand, close commercial ties between non-Hispanic interlopers and native communities in the Lesser Antilles are evident in the sixteenth century. Throughout the years, Carib assaults had transformed into cattle slaughtering raids, and slaves, hides, sugar and agricultural tool-gathering expeditions. Some of the booty was traded with the non-Hispanics for trinkets, metal tools, or weapons. Yet this apparent commercial dependency and the intertwining of non-Hispanic coastal assaults with Carib raids could have been brought about, not only due to mutual commercial interests, but to atmospheric factors associated with the favorable peaks of the navigational season during which time frame both groups undertook their respective assaults.

The feasibility of rescuing captured Spaniards at Dominica and retrieving the treasure continued for sometime. In November 7, 1588, the Puerto Rico War Council thought proper to use the galleys stationed at Santo Domingo. These, assisted by a pair of shallow-drafted frigates, could easily enter the inlets. In all, an assault division of 150 men, derived from three 50 men detachments gathered from Margarita and Cumana, Santo Domingo, and Puerto Rico would be transported. The squadron would depart from San Juan and then sail upon Dominica as long as the Crown remitted a hundred firearms.14 The assault apparently was never carried Out from Puerto Rico or by any oncoming armada. Most likely, due to the huge losses suffered by the Invincible Spanish Armada in 1588, the enterprise was not undertaken. Still, by 1589 other individuals were interested in rescuing the treasure (AGI, Contratacion 4802). In 1590, the Governor wrote to the King informing that a navio and able personnel had been sent to explore Dominica, and if possible, retrieve captives that could give intelligence of the land and treasure.

“... it is well to have dispatched a navio with the people of intelligence and trust that you state to explore the ports that there are at the island of Dominica, and their disposition, and to procure to rescue some captive that can give word of the land through which means the others that there are could be set free, and pacify her, and if it is true what is said of the treasure that there exists gathered from navios that have been stranded at that coast, which is in conformity with what I ordered the Audiencia, and of that which you do and its outcome you will give me notice.” (AGI, Santo Domingo 2280)

What happened thereafter is still unknown. Possibly, the treasure was never retrieved being transferred by the Caribs fearing Spanish aggression, or the valuables could also have been dispersed and buried deep in one of the most secluded areas of Dominica, Grenada or Martinique Island to avoid an ultimate recovery.

Note: From “Shipwrecks in Puerto Rico’s History,” by Walter A. Cardona-Bonet, 1989.


1 In AGI Patronato 175 R. 32 and R. 34 eyewitnesses testify the cannibalistic habit. In one case a native boy was dismembered and eaten at Vieques Island. For the most part the relations indicated that the practice was exclusively applied to natives or Negroes captured or wounded in battles.

2 For some attacks consult Los Caribes: Realidad o Fabula by Jalil Sued Badillo (Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Antillana, 1978); Historia de Coamo: La Villa Aneja by Ramon Rivera Bermudez (Coamo, Puerto Rico: Imp. Costa, Inc., 1980); Jalil Sued Badillo Guayama: Notas para su Historia (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Liberty Press, 1983: 28-29); Guayanilla: Notas para su Historia by Otto Sievens Irizarry (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Liberty Press, 1983) and Islotes de Boringuen: Notas para su Historia (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Model Offset Printing, 1985: 100-102) by Walter A. Cardona-Bonet.

3 AGI, Santo Domingo 2280 folios 138-140. El Rey a la audiencia de Santo Domingo que trate con las personas mas antiguas de aquelta ysla como se podra allanar la de la dominica y si convemia hazer alli alguna poblacion para que cesen los danos que los yndios caribes hazen y enbien su parescer y en el entretanto beis que medios como se Rescaten ciertos cautibos que tiene los dichos caribes conforme al ofrecimiento que para ello se a hecho en el consejo.

4 Robert Marx (1983: 279) has a different account. According to him the ships lost in 1567 were part of the New Spain Fleet commanded by Juan Velasco de Barrio which upon knowing about two English Fleets in the waters of the Indies took his division up the Lesser Antilles to supposedly exit the Caribbean near the Virgin Islands. However, it was struck by a storm which sank six of its ships carrying a reported 3 million pesos in treasure. These ships were: the Capitana San Juan of 150 tons, Captain Benito de Santana; the Almiranta Santa Barbola of 150 tons, Captain Vicencio Garullo, galleon San Felipe of 120 tons, Captain Juan Lopez de Sosa; nao El Espiritu Santo of 120 tons, Captain Juan de Rosales; and two unidentified naos of 120 tons each. Supposedly salvage operations were begun in 1568 and Indians captured on the island despite being tortured, never revealed where the bulk of the treasure lay.

5 Richard Hakluyt. (1904, Vol VIII: 452). Description of Florida (1564).

6 Hakluyt. (1904, Vol. VIII: 50).

7 AGI, Santo Domingo 2280 Royal decree given at San Lorenzo el Real, dated June 12, 1584.

8 AGI, Santo Domingo 2280 folio 26: Royal decree given at San Lorenzo dated April 4,1587. Al governador de Puerto Rico que en la primera ocasion que se ofreciere embie relacion de la noticia que se tuviere de cierto tesoro que los indios carives tomaron de unas naos que se perdieron en la dominica y la metieron en una cueba y del modo y forma quese podra tener en el sacarlo y traerlo de alli.

9 AGI, Santo Domingo 155. Relacion dada por Luisa Navarrete ante el gobemador de Puerto Rico el 10 de Octubre de 1588. The Indians of Guiana, Colombia and Venezuela also made animal figurines out of their gold; usually birds. In Vieques Island archaeological finds depict figurines made of stone and other materials illustrating wildlife native to the southern regions of Colombia.

10 AGI, Santo Domingo 155. Relacion dada por el piloto Francisco Perea ante el gobernador de Puerto Rico el 10 de Octubre de 1588 sobre el tesoro de la Dominica.

11 AGI. Contaduria 1075.

12 AGI, Santo Domingo 155. F. 102. El gobernador de Puerto Rico a su Magestad en respuesta a su real decreto del 4 de abril de 1588 respecto al tesoro de Dominica.

13 AGI, Santo Domingo 166: Juan Ponce de Leon a Su Magestad, Puerto Rico 27 de abril de 1565.

14 AGI, Santo Domingo 155 F. 102. El gobernador de Puerto Rico a Su Magestad en respuesta a su Real decreto del 4 de Abril de 1588 respecto al tesoro de Dominica.


Personal Note: I went to Dominica in the mid-1970's to search for this treasure. At that time, the cave was thought to be on the NW coast near where the 1567 fleet sank. Of course, I did most of my searching in this area. Little did I know that the cave was several leagues inland, as mentioned above. Now, while I was there I visited a small waterfall and pool (see pictures) that fits the descriptions of where the cave is supposed to be located. At that time, I had no idea that this area might be the location of the cave. Whether or not the treasure is still there remains to be seen, but it's possible.

That's me!

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