Welcome to our new Shipwreck Series where we delve into the history and salvage efforts of famous shipwrecks throughout history. And just in time for the holidays, we start with the Christmas eve sinking of Columbus’s flagship from his first voyage to the Americas…
The Santa Maria.
It all started on that fateful night in 1492 on the site of what is now known as Cap-Haïtien, Haiti. After 2 days of not sleeping, Columbus finally went to sleep late on Christmas Eve leaving his steersman at the helm, but with the seas being calm the steersman also decided to sleep leaving the cabin boy in charge of navigating the ship.
Now this was something the admiral had always strictly forbidden, and with the cabin boy at the wheel the currents carried the ship onto the bank, running her aground there in Haiti.
She sunk the next day.
Columbus and crew, with the help of the natives, were able to unload the cargo from the ship before she went down and Columbus instructed his crew to strip the timbers from the ship which where later used to build the fort which Columbus named “La Navidad” or Christmas after the day the ship sank.
After hearing that there was abundance of gold to be had on the island, Columbus instructed the crew of the Santa Maria to build a settlement and decided to leave them to gather the promised gold.
The crew began dismantling the shipwrecked Santa Maria in order to build the settlement and Columbus appointed Diego de Arana (the cousin of his mistress) as governor over the settlement.
Feeling confident in his settlement he noted in his journal “I have ordered a tower and fortress to be constructed and, a large cellar, not because I believe there is any necessity on account of [the natives], I am certain the people I have with me could subjugate all this island … as the population are naked and without arms and very cowardly.”
On January 4th, 1493 Columbus left his crew to build La Navidad and set sail on the Niña in search of the Pinta which had been absent for 6 weeks. Columbus feared that the Pinta had broken off intentionally in order to either beat the admiral to the gold or to speed off to Spain in order to tell lies about the admirals expedition.
However on Sunday morning, January 6th the missing Pinta was spotted and after a heated argument between the admiral and the fleet returned to Spain to gather people and resources for their second voyage.
Late November 1493 Columbus returned to La Navidad and rather than finding the bustling village he expected, he was instead met with a far more grim discovery.
Columbus landed to find the corpses of all 11 of his crew members on the beach and La Navidad destroyed.
It is rumored that the settlers mistreated the Taíno people and were killed in retaliation while other sources say that insubordination within the settlement led to their deaths.
After leaving this unsettling scene, Columbus headed east to settle in present day Dominican Republic. He named this new settlement La Isabela, after his queen.
The Santa Maria Found?
Fast forward to 2014 and famed underwater explorer Barry Clifford believes he has uncovered the centuries old shipwreck.
“Every single piece fits. Now, of course, we have to go through the whole archaeological process, and we plan to do that within the next few months, but I feel very confident that we’ve discovered the site,” Clifford explained in his CNN interview.
Clifford believed that this was actually part of a wreck he and his team discovered back in 2003 when they found an ancient cannon that they believed had been misdiagnosed by archaeologists at the time.
After researching the type of cannon used in Columbus’ time they discovered the cannon discovered was indeed the same type as that used by Columbus.
With this new information, Clifford believed that the 2003 wreck was actually the wreck of the famous Santa Maria.
According to Clifford, the ship was found in the exact area that Columbus had described in his journals and was found a mere 10 feet under the surface of the water.
Clifford was certain this was his white whale and according to him and his team, while an excavation was needed to be certain, their scans indicated that the ship was the right size and that stones found at the site matched the kind from the part of Spain where the ship was built.
It was imperative that they work with the Haitian government to excavate the wreck as Clifford believed that the site had been looted since it was uncovered in 2003.
In September of 2014 the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO was requested by the Haitian government to check out the claims that the wrecked ship was indeed the missing 500-year-old Santa Maria.
However after an extensive review by UNESCO, mission leader Xavier Nieto Prieto reported that “There is now incontestable proof that the wreck is from a much later period,”
After further review they believed that even according to Columbus’ own journal the wreck was too far off shore to be the Santa Maria, and the bronze or copper fasteners found at the site indicated the ship was more likely from the late 17th or 18th century as during Columbus’ time they used wood or iron.
Despite the evidence and the valiant efforts of Clifford and his team, it seems this 500-year-old mystery will remain just that.