In the little bay of Tobermory, inside the Isle of Mull, Captain William Burns, the salvor of many a wreck in every part of the world, is seeking one of the ships of the great Armada on behalf of the Duke of Argyll. The Admiral of Florence, or Duque de Florencia, the vessel in question, of fifty-six guns and 486 men, was the flag-ship of the Florentine squadron sent to assist Spain at the time of the Armada. She was commanded by Gaspard de Souza, and arrived at Tobermory Bay in distress. The Admiral made an agreement with the clan McLean that he would land a hundred fighting-men to assist the McLeans against the McDonalds, and pay the McLeans a sum of money as well, if they would help him to repair his ship and give him provisions and water to enable him to continue his journey to Spain. This promise of money shows the presence of a considerable quantity of specie on board, and, as the vessel was the flag-ship, it is probable that she would have carried the money to pay the squadron. Sir Fitzroy McLean, the present head of the clan, has in his possession a very interesting painting of the landing of the Spaniards or Italians in Tobermory Bay to ask assistance from his clan, and this is the story as told by the McLeans themselves ÷
After the hundred men were landed, they proceeded with the McLeans to the Islands of Rum and Muck, and, after defeating the McDonalds, they besieged Mingarry Castle, on the mainland, and returned to Tobermory. The McLeans allowed the hundred men to go back to the ship, but retained three of the officers as hostages until the debt should be paid. They also sent one of their chieftains, Donald Glas McLean, on board the vessel to recover the money as agreed upon, when the Spanish Admiral disarmed him and kept him on the ship as a prisoner at large. During the night the McLean discovered the position of the powder-magazine. The following morning Admiral Gaspard de Souza had the McLean brought on deck, when they were about to get the vessel under weigh, to take his last look at his native land, as he intended to carry the Highland chieftain to Spain. The McLean immediately rushed for the powder-magazine and blew up the ship, perishing-at the same time himself. There were two men blown ashore. One of them was the ship’s cook, and the place where he fell is still called “The Cook’s Cave,” and is about one hundred yards from where the ship was blown up. The McLeans, who had been in daily contact with the vessel, said that there was a quantity of treasure on board, and that Admiral de Souza had a large amount of silver plate also.
The vessel was given to the then Earl of Argyll by Charles I., and in 1661 the Earl of Argyll made a contract with a Swede to come to Tobermory Bay with his diving-bell. He came with all his apparatus, and made an examination of the vessel. He found that the deck from the mizzenmast forward was completely blown away, and that the cannon and other materials belonging to the ship were lying scattered about at from two to twenty yards’ distance, but that the poop from the mizzenmast aft was intact.
The Swedish salvors then recovered several large cannon, when the clan McLean drove them away from their work. It is on record that the Duke of York (afterwards James II.), thinking that the vessel was a treasure-ship, disputed the right of the Earl of Argyll to its possession, and that the cause was tried in the Edinburgh Court of Session and decided in favour of Argyll. There is still in existence a letter of apology from the Duke of York to the Earl of Argyll for the trouble and expense he had been put to in this action. The contract that was made with the Swede in 1661 agreed that the first £3000 recovered should be paid to the Earl of Argyll before the contractor received anything whatever-the Earl also to have the first £100 received from the recovery of the copper.
Other attempts were made by different salvors who made contracts; but in 1740 the Argyll family commenced operations themselves, and salved among other things the beautiful bronze cannon now in the grounds of Inveraray Castle. The gun was made for Francis I. by Benvenuto Cellini, and has the fleur-de-lys engraved upon it, together with the arms of the French King. The vessel since those days has gone down considerably in the bottom of the bay, and a formation of sand and mud, brought down by a burn from the mountains, has covered up what remains of her. It is to remove this silt from above the vessel that the “sand-pump “and the “diggers “are being used by Captain Burns. The sand-pump is used to lift sand and mud, which it discharges into a sieve, the meshes of which are about a quarter of an inch square, at the stern of the vessel. One man is constantly employed in watching the sieve, and in this way any small articles, such as coins or rings, are able to be recovered. At the same time, the main object is to get at the ship itself, and the present salvors are working on the supposition that, owing to the depth of the water and the crude appliances, it would be quite impossible for the treasure-chest to have been already removed, as the vessel is known to have been full of sand within eighty years of the explosion.
The modern appliances, it is expected, will shortly enable the ship itself to be reached. The divers, working with a 2000 candle-power electric light, have already found definite indications, in the shape of timbers, knees, and other portions of the vessel, which give pretty exactly its position. On July 28, one of them found two parts of an antique silver candlestick, and the finds include, in addition to the Cellini cannon and other things, breech-loading guns (one dated 1586), flagons, powder-scoops, coins, boarding-pike heads, copper pans, a pair of mathematical dividers with a quaint spring for opening the points, a gold ring, a quantity of lead, and a number of metal and stone cannon-balls.
A. HUGH Fisher.