Thursday, May 15, 2014

Could this shipwreck be Christopher Columbus' Santa Maria?

This image of a Santa Maria replica was taken around 1904.
Detroit Publishing Co./Library of Congress

From CNET by Amanda Kooser

A wreck off the coast of Haiti has been tentatively identified by underwater explorer Barry Clifford as the remains of one of Columbus' long-lost vessels.


It's a mystery over 500 years in the making.
We've all heard the poetic phrase, "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue."
He traveled with three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
The third may have finally been found on the ocean floor off the coast of Haiti.
If the discovery is confirmed, it could be a major archeological event.

A hand-drawn map by Christopher Columbus shows the northern coast of Española (Hispaniola), where his flagship, the Santa Maria, sank in 1492.
Columbus wrote that the wreck was 1½ leagues from La Navidad, the fortified encampment he founded in what is now Haiti after the loss of the Santa Maria, Clifford said.
The wreck sits the equivalent of 1½ leagues from the site suspected to be La Navidad.


The wreck's resting place lies near breaking waves, as Columbus reported.

It was in a sandy spot, as implied in Columbus' journal.
At the site, the team found a field of stones 40 feet long and 20 feet wide.

That corresponds to the likely dimensions of the Santa Maria, which would've carried ballast stones in her hold.

Barry Clifford is an ocean explorer especially known for his discovery of the pirate shipwreck Wydah.
He has been on the hunt for the Santa Maria for years.
The shipwreck he believes to be that long-lost vessel was actually first found and photographed back in 2003.

A diver measures a cannon during a 2003 expedition off Haiti.
At the time of the discovery, archaeologists ruled out a connection to Christopher Columbus's ship, the Santa Maria.
It wasn't until 2012, after extensive research, that an investigator realized it could be connected.
“All the geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is Columbus’ famous flagship, the Santa Maria,” said the leader of a recent reconnaissance expedition to the site, one of America’s top underwater archaeological investigators, Barry Clifford.
(see video on History website)


A fresh look at the photos and the site led Clifford to the new conclusion.

Shipwreck found at 4.7 Nm offshore from Cap Haïtien in only about 10 feet of water depth

Clifford has quite a few reasons to believe he's found the right ship.
Columbus left details in his diary about the location of the sinking, which happened near Haiti on Christmas Day in 1492.

 Extract from Colombus journal

That description matches the shipwreck's whereabouts.
The size of the shipwreck is also consistent with the dimensions of the Santa Maria.
A cannon discovered with the wreck in 2003 was recently reevaluated and identified as matching one that would have been on board.
Unfortunately, that cannon was plundered from the site in the intervening years.
The photographic evidence is all that remains.
One reason why the ship was not identified as possibly being the Santa Maria back in 2003 has to do with the cannon.
Clifford told CNN the weapon was originally "misdiagnosed" by archeologists at the time.
Further research led him to an epiphany that the cannon could indeed be correct for the Santa Maria.

 This map shows Christopher Colombus route around the West Indies.
Remains which are though to belong to the Santa Maria were found off the Haiti's northern coast

"I am confident that a full excavation of the wreck will yield the first ever detailed marine archaeological evidence of Columbus' discovery of America," Clifford told The Independent.
He hopes the wreck will be at least partially recoverable so it could go on exhibit in Haiti.
Clifford's explorations have been aided by technology.
Besides underwater photography, his team uses sonar equipment and marine magnetometers to scour the ocean bottom in search of historically important shipwrecks.
The magnetometer is a device that measures changes in the magnetic field along the seabed.
It can help detect submerged materials, like iron used in ships and cannons.

If the ship is the Santa Maria, it would be the oldest known European shipwreck in the so-called New World and a find of major archaeological significance.
But scientists say it's far too early to make any such declaration especially since there is likely to be very little left of the vessel.
"The evidence, as you can imagine, after more than 500 years is not going to be very much because of time and the environment that the site is in," said Roger C. Smith, the State Underwater Archaeologist for Florida.
"It's going to require some careful archaeology."
Smith, who has searched for wrecks of Columbus' ships in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Panama, said it's possible the ship found by Clifford is the Santa Maria, but he noted that there was at least one wreck in that area that was once mistakenly thought to be the ship but turned out to be a much later vessel.
Kevin Crisman, director of the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M University, said many Spanish ships sank off Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and it will be difficult to confirm that this is the Santa Maria.
"Anything is possible in this world, but I would like to see all the evidence, and so far this is not too promising," Crisman said.

The rest of Columbus' famous trio of ships also met mysterious fates.
The Pinta and Niña both made it back to Spain after Columbus' original transatlantic voyage, but what became of the Pinta after that is not known.
The Niña was last noted to have been traveling along the Pearl Coast near Venezuela in 1501 on a trading voyage.

Whatever your thoughts on Columbus and his mixed legacy, the discovery of one of his ships would be a huge historical find that could shed more light on a fascinating era of exploration.

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