Archaeologist likely solves 500-year-old mystery of Christopher Columbus’s missing Santa Maria

An archeological investigator believes his team has found Christopher Columbus's ship, the Santa Maria. (Reuters)

 

The story begins, as many do on the high seas, with a party.

A painting of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo is seen, Sept. 19, 1943 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. No portrait of Columbus from real life is known to exist but there are five standard types of which this is one. (AP Photo) A painting of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo is seen, Sept. 19, 1943 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. No portrait of Columbus from real life is known to exist but there are five standard types of which this is one. (AP Photo)

It was Christmas Eve, 1492. The setting: Christopher Columbus’s Santa María, the flagship vessel that he had commandeered to visit the New World. One by one, the crew fell asleep until only a cabin boy was left steering the ship in the Caribbean Sea.

Soon, the boy crashed the ship into a coral reef off of the northern coast of Hispaniola, or near Cap Haitien in Haiti. The ship sank to the bottom of the sea, and the crew spent that Christmas saving Santa María‘s cargo. Afterward, Columbus boarded one of his other ships, the Nina, and the explorers sailed back to Spain, leaving behind the wreckage of the Santa María — fueling a 500-year-old mystery over its remains.

That mystery has likely been solved.

Archaeologist Barry Clifford says he’s discovered the remains off Haiti’s coast. “All the geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is Columbus’s famous flagship, the Santa María,” he told the Independent in an article published Tuesday. “The Haitian government has been extremely helpful – and we now need to continue working with them to carry out a detailed archaeological excavation of the wreck.”

Diver Barry Clifford holds a cannon ball on Nov. 1, 1998, that came from a fleet of pirate and French warships that sank off Venezuela's coast about three centuries ago. An expedition led by Clifford found what are believed to be only the second and third pirate ships ever discovered in the world. (AP Photo/Margot Nicol-Hathaway) Diver Barry Clifford holds a cannon ball on Nov. 1, 1998, that came from a fleet of pirate and French warships that sank off Venezuela’s coast about three centuries ago. An expedition led by Clifford found what are believed to be only the second and third pirate ships ever discovered in the world. (AP/Margot Nicol-Hathaway)

This wouldn’t be Clifford’s first major discovery. In 1984, the renowned underwater archaeologist discovered the Whydah — possibly the only verified pirate shipwreck ever discovered — after years of searching. It was under just 14 feet of water and 5 feet of sand and contained, among other treasures, 10,000 coins and 400 pieces of gold jewelry.

But in some ways, this recent discovery, if true, is more valuable, and brings greater understanding to perhaps the most pivotal sea voyage in human history. “I am confident that a full excavation of the wreck will yield the first ever detailed marine archaeological evidence of Columbus’ discovery of America,” says Clifford, whose team hasn’t excavated the vessel yet, but merely photographed and measured it.

Graphic: Tobey - The Washington Post.
Graphic: Tobey – The Washington Post.

There is reason for such confidence. The discovery, the Independent reports, was prompted by a batch of 2003 discoveries that suggested the probable location of Columbus’s fort nearby. Clifford cross-referenced that work with data in Columbus’s diary to pinpoint the location of the shipwreck.

Sounds pretty easy. Why wasn’t the vessel discovered before?

It actually was. Clifford’s team photographed the wreck more than a decade ago, but didn’t then realize what it was. Only after reexamining those photographs and newer images captured this month has Clifford figured out the wreck’s probable origin.

The evidence: According to photographs, the vessel’s design is consistent with Columbus’s era, and it had a cannon like the one on the Santa María. Also, the wreck’s location and topography match Columbus’s description. “The local currents are also consistent with what is known historically about the way the vessel drifted immediately prior to its demise,” the Independent said.

More striking, the wreck’s footprint appears to coincide with what would remain of a vessel the size of the Santa María.

“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,” Indiana University’s Charles Beeker agreed. “But an excavation will be necessary in order to find more evidence and confirm that.”

Clifford says the discovery could mean big things for Haiti’s tourism industry. “Treated in this way,” he said, “the wreck has the potential to play a major role in helping to further develop Haiti’s tourism industry in the future.”

Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.

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