If the remnants of a long-lost ship at the bottom of the sea off Haiti’s north coast are confirmed as belonging to Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria, it will be a cause for celebration for the underwater explorers who found it.
But despite recent reports and the media storm over the possible 500-year-old discovery, it will not be the first time that wreckage said to be from the storied flagship that led Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas has surfaced.
For centuries, Haiti has laid claim to an anchor — currently on display at its national pantheon museum in Port-au-Prince — that scholars and academics say belonged to the Columbus vessel that met its demise at midnight on Christmas Day 1492 after it lodged in a reef off the northern coast of present-day Haiti.
Across the border in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic also claims to have one of the ship’s anchors at its Faro a Colón, a cross-shaped museum dedicated to Columbus.
“The discovery of one anchor doesn’t mean that you cannot discover other anchors,” said Haiti Minister of Culture Monique Rocourt.
Still, Rocourt and the head of the Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien (MUPANAH) say they were baffled by the global frenzy over recent news that underwater researchers had discovered what some reports portrayed as the first substantial evidence linking the Santa Maria to Haiti.
For one, there was no mention of the anchor, found in the late 1700s on a plantation in the same general vicinity in northern Haiti where the Santa Maria was wrecked, and in the 1950s was paraded through the streets of Italy.
“It’s not an anchor that has just been discovered,” said Michèle Frisch, executive director of the MUPANAH, noting that the museum has documentation to back up the anchor’s authenticity.
Second, the underwater archaeological discovery on a reef northeast of the city of Cap-Haitien calls into question much of what Haitians and others had been taught about the Santa Maria’s fate: all of its valuables were unloaded, and with the help of the local Taino Indians, Columbus had his crew dismantle the ship and used its timbers to build a fortified village, La Navidad.
“When I heard the news I was puzzled because, historically speaking, there were so many things that we learned since childhood about that ship,” Rocourt said. “This [supposed] discovery of the Santa Maria leads us to ask ourselves questions, ‘What really happened during that period? Was it used totally like they taught us in school to build the fort, La Navidad?’ ”
Underwater explorer Barry Clifford, who found the wreck, said there are a lot of misconceptions about what, exactly, happened to the Santa Maria, which “went aground so quietly it didn’t wake anybody up.”
“It’s all a matter of people misinterpreting” Columbus’ daily log, Clifford said. “One is that they took everything off the ship — no way. Columbus said in his [logbook] that they fired a cannonball through the ship on his way home. There was enough of the ship sitting above the water to do that — so what about the stuff below the water, which is what we have now?”
What he has, he said, is a “tractor-trailer load of stones on top of a coral reef in about 10 to 15 feet of water,” or a ballast pile that was used in those days to stabilize ships. He also has photos of a 15th century cannon, or lombard, that was next to the pile, but has since disappeared.
Clifford, who is seeking Haiti’s help in securing what is left of the site from looters, plans to lay out his findings to Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, Rocourt and other government ministers on Wednesday during a visit to Port-au-Prince. He said that while an archaeological investigation must still be conducted, he remains confident that he has found the “best candidate ever for the Santa Maria.”
“This is exactly . . . 4.7 miles from Navidad, in exactly the depth of water the ship would sink in,” he said. “The lombard is the smoking gun.”
And while Clifford did not acknowledge the existence of Haiti’s anchor in previous interviews — an oversight that puzzled many Haitians — he told the Miami Herald that it, too, was among several clues, “an incredible clue,” that together with others culled from Columbus’ journal entries help further substantiate his team’s discovery.
“The anchor, coincidentally, is exactly in a straight line with the shipwreck on the edge of the reef,” he said about the life-size rusty iron that was discovered on a plantation north of the village of Limonade in the Plaine-du-Nord during French colonial times. “Nobody knew where the shipwreck was, but they knew where the anchor was. Directly in front of that anchor is where that ship wrecked.”
Rocourt, the culture minister, said she is eager to examine Clifford’s evidence.
Like others, she expressed skepticism as she visited South Florida last week in celebration of Haitian heritage month. She questioned Clifford’s assertions that he used La Navidad’s location as a guide, saying the fort’s exact location remains a mystery despite excavations by archaeologists.
“The fort was made of wood and dirt,” she said. “It was destroyed when Christopher Columbus left to go back to Spain.”
Daniel Koski-Karell, an archaeologist who once thought that he, too, had found the Santa Maria’s remains while snorkeling off the Haitian coast, echoed Rocourt’s concerns.
Koski-Karell said he visited the site suggested to be Navidad while it was being excavated by a team from the University of Florida led by archaeologist Kathleen Deagan. He also was close friends with the late Dr. William Hodges, an American missionary and archaeologist who discovered the Taino village site and Spanish city of Puerto Real, south of what is today the rural village of Bord de Mer Limonade, while searching for La Navidad.
Hodges, who died in 1995, would later dismiss the site he named “En Bas Saline” as being home to La Navidad.
“This whole problem has two parts: La Navidad and the Santa Maria. If you find one, it gives you an indication, a clue, on where to find the other,” said Koski-Karell, who has a doctorate in anthropology with a specialty in archaeology, and is himself an underwater explorer.
“I have much respect for the cultural history and richness of the cultures of Haiti. I don’t want to discourage anyone from investigating that, so more power to Barry Clifford. It would be great if he found it, but I remain skeptical,” he said.
Koski-Karell does believe, however, that the anchor in the Haiti museum is among at least six anchors that were on the Santa Maria. He calls it “a remarkable artifact” whose configuration dates it to the late 1400s to early 1500s, making it consistent with anchors carried aboard Spanish ships of that period.
“I believe it is genuinely from the Santa Maria,” he said.
For Haiti, the possible discovery of what could be the Holy Grail of shipwrecks has come at a time when its government is trying to focus attention on its heritage below the sea, where there is no shortage of wrecked ships, including a fleet of Europe-bound Spanish ships wrecked in the area in 1528, during a hurricane, after leaving Puerto Real.
Clifford said that as his team scoured the ocean to eliminate about 450 targets, they came across other shipwrecks, including one that was “very intriguing about 120 feet away” from his Santa Maria find. Tests of the wood, however, proved that the ship was from the 16th century.
“We have hordes of wrecks in the whole north coast from the northwest to the northeast, and we are not always sure which ships they are,” Rocourt said. “Every time we discover a wreck, it is a whole page of history that we are helping to write.”
A history buff and preservationist, Rocourt has long been fascinated with Columbus and the period before Haiti gained independence in 1804. She worked for years with Haiti’s Institute for the Preservation of National Heritage as both a consultant and director, before her recent appointment to head the culture ministry.
Caution aside, the global attention Haiti is receiving, she said, has piqued interest in a period of the island’s history that few know.
“We have a tendency in Haiti to consider our history often starts in 1804 after the victory we had,” she said. “We tend to forget that this is a history of a land, not just of each person that brought their own participation in that history.
“The Haitian population is not a population that came from just one root. It has so many roots, and we have to understand that is what makes the richness of our culture,” she added. “We are not African; we are not European; we are not Amerindian. We are all of them, and we are extraordinary in that diversity.”