More than five centuries after Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, was wrecked in the Caribbean, the Center for Historic Shipwreck Preservation in conjunction with archaeological investigators think they may have finally discovered the vessel’s long-lost remains.
If planned future investigations prove right, it will, without doubt, be one of the world’s most important underwater archaeological discoveries.
“All the geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is Columbus’ famous flagship, the Santa Maria,” said the leader of the expedition, Barry Clifford.
So far, the Center’s team has carried out purely non-invasive survey work at the site – measuring, taking geological and wood samples as well as photographing it.
Tentatively identifying the wreck as the Santa Maria has been made possible by separate discoveries by other archaeologists suggesting the probable location of Columbus’ fort relatively nearby. Armed with this new information about the likely location of the fort, the Center was able to use data in Christopher Columbus’ diary to work out where the wreck should be.
An expedition led by Barry Clifford, mounted by the team over a decade ago, had already found and photographed the wreck – but had not, at that stage, realized its probable identity.
Re-examination of underwater photographs from that initial survey, combined with data from recent reconnaissance dives on the site (carried out by the Center’s team with Indiana University archaeologists), have allowed the Center to tentatively identify the wreck as that of the Santa Maria.
The evidence so far is substantial. It is in the right location in terms of how Christopher Columbus, writing in his diary, described the wreck in relation to his fort.
The site is also an exact match in terms of historical knowledge about the underwater topography associated with the loss of the Santa Maria. The local currents are also consistent with what is known historically about the way the vessel drifted immediately prior to its demise.
The footprint of the wreck, represented by the pile of ship’s ballast, is also exactly what one would expect from a vessel the size of the Santa Maria.
A re-examination of the photographic evidence taken during the initial survey of the site by the Center’s researchers has also provided evidence which is consistent with the vessel being from Columbus’ era – including a probable early cannon of exactly the type known to have been on-board the Santa Maria.
When the Center returned to the site for an additional investigation, their intention was to definitively identify the canon and other surface artefacts that had been photographed. But tragically all the key visible diagnostic objects including the canon had been looted.
“We’ve informed the Haitian government of our discovery – and we are looking forward to working with them and other Haitian colleagues to ensure that the site is fully protected and preserved. It will be a wonderful opportunity to work with the Haitian authorities to preserve the evidence and artefacts of the ship that changed the world,” said Mr. Clifford.
The Santa Maria was built at some stage in the second half of the 15th century in northern Spain’s Basque Country. In 1492, Columbus hired the ship and sailed in it from southern Spain’s Atlantic coast via the Canary Islands in search of a new western route to Asia.
After 37 days, Columbus reached the Bahamas – but, just over ten weeks later, his flagship, the Santa Maria, with Columbus on board, drifted at night onto a reef off the northern coast of Haiti and had to be abandoned. Then, in a native village nearby, Columbus began building his first fort – and, a week later, leaving many of his men behind in the fort, he used his two remaining vessels to sail back to Spain in order to report his discovery of what he perceived as a new westerly route to Asia to his royal patrons – King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.
Leading American maritime archaeologist, Professor Charles Beeker of Indiana University, who accompanied the Center’s reconnaissance expedition to Haiti and who also carried out an underwater visual assessment of the site, says that it “warrants a detailed scientific investigation to obtain diagnostic artefacts”.
“There is some very compelling evidence from the 2003 photographs of the site and from the recent reconnaissance dives that this wreck may well be the Santa Maria”.