Miami-Dade County

Did this corroded bell stashed in a Miami vault really ring aboard Columbus’ flagship?

A bell allegedly from one of Christopher Columbus’ ships locked away in a bank vault in downtown Miami.
A bell allegedly from one of Christopher Columbus’ ships locked away in a bank vault in downtown Miami. Miami Herald

Talk about Christmas in July. For only $5 million — well, maybe a bit more if your greedy neighbors start bidding against you — you can have a brass bell that once dangled from the mast of Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria; or, possibly, just a corroded old fraud.

This latter possibility, sniffs Manuel Cambó, the guy selling the bell, is not a matter worthy of concern. “No one alive was around 550 years ago,” he observes. “So who cares what the experts say?”

Cambó, who operates a low-power rock’n’roll radio station on Key Biscayne, is using its airwaves to conduct an auction for the secretive owner of the bell. The highest bidder (minimum: $5 million) gets the 10-inch-tall, 31-pound bell, or what’s left of it.

Corrosion has eaten a large hole that stretches halfway around the bell — its ringing days are definitely through — and turned most of the rest of it a sickly green. No extra charge for the tiny fragment of seashell embedded near the bottom. But then, history isn’t always pretty.

“And this bell has plenty of history!” enthuses Cambó.

That’s true even if the part about Columbus, as a lot of scholars and archaeologists believe, turns out to be tropical poppycock. (More on that later.) The bell was verifiably dug out of the seabed near the wreckage of another Spanish ship just off the coast of Portugal in 1994.

When the bell was put up for sale by a Spanish auction house in 2003, the governments of Spain and Portugal squabbled over who had the rights to it. After a year or so of legal wrangling, a Spanish court said it belonged to the diver who recovered it and sent it back to him.

But the auction, apparently, did not resume. And the story fades away for 15 years until the phone rang a few months ago at WSQF, Cambó’s little radio station. A friend offered what Cambó understood to be an offer of an interview with the owner of the bell.

Cambó agreeably packed up his tape recorder and went over to meet the owner, only to discover he had misinterpreted the offer. “I don’t want to give you an interview,” the owner said. “I want to give you the bell.”

Well, sort of. The idea was that Cambó would run an over-the-air auction for the bell. “He wanted me to sell the bell, and then he would donate a part of the proceeds to the radio station,” says Cambó. And he’s been doing just that, taking bids at the email address maccambo@comcast.net: “There’s been a lot of serious interest.” (Note the phrase “serious interest,” which is not the same as “actual bids,” of which there have been none as of Friday afternoon.)

This invites a lot of questions, starting with, who is this mysterious owner? “I can’t say,” replies Cambó. “That was part of our agreement. Notice that I don’t even refer to the owner as ‘he’ or ‘she.’ I can’t even tell you the gender.”

Cambó will disclose, however, that the owner is not a U.S. citizen and does not live in South Florida. So maybe it’s Roberto Mazzara, the Italian diver who recovered the bell from the ocean floor in 1994? “Can’t say,” repeats Cambó, vigorously shaking his head from side to side.

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WSQF 94.5FM Blink Radio station manager Manuel A. Cambó at the station’s studio in Key Biscayne. Cambó and the station are auctioning off a bell allegedly from one of Christopher Columbus’ ships. Ellis Rua Miami Herald

But the disclosure that the bell is owned by somebody who isn’t an American and doesn’t live around here adds some zip to the next question: Why would he or she try to sell the bell through a nonprofit Key Biscayne radio station with a measly 10-watt signal that can hardly be heard anywhere west of U.S. 1? Why not a big international auction house that has plenty of millionaire customers, like Sotheby’s?

“The owner lost control of things when he [oops; it’s a he] did it the other way,” says Cambó. “What happened in Europe speaks for itself. Nobody took the bell seriously until it was put up for auction. Then everybody came after it. ... Why would you want to put yourself through that again? A year of legal fights is tough for a person of limited means.”

The final question probably should have been the first: Why would anyone think a bell found near Portugal had anything to do with the Santa Maria, which sank just off the shore of what is now Haiti? “That’s a pretty interesting story,” says Cambó, accurately. The question is whether it’s true.

The tale starts with a flashback to 1492, as Columbus and his ships the Niña, the Pinta and Santa Maria were returning to Spain after their first voyage to the New World. Late on Christmas Eve, Columbus went to bed aboard the Santa Maria and left a cabin boy to steer the ship. Anybody who ever gave a set of car keys to a teenager can guess what happened next: The ship hit a sand bar just off what is now Cap-Haïtien and was stuck.

As Columbus recounted in his diary, that posed a serious problem: There wasn’t room aboard the two remaining ships for the entire crew of the Santa Maria. Columbus told 39 men they’d have to stay behind as he continued to Spain, but that he would return for them. Nobody doubted his sincerity about that, because the local Taíno natives sported ornaments made of gold, which meant there must be deposits on the island just waiting to be looted.

Though the Taínos seemed friendly, Columbus nonetheless ordered the stranded Santa Maria to be stripped bare right down to the waterline. He told the stay-behind crewmen to use it to build a fort called La Navidad, after the day they had come ashore. With everything seemingly in good shape, he departed for Spain.

But when Columbus returned nearly a year later, the fort was nothing but a pile of ashes, and the crewmen had disappeared. “Columbus went to the local Taíno chief and asked him what had happened,” says retired University of Florida archaeologist Kathleen Deason, who has conducted a number of digs in the area.

“The chief said another tribe had attacked the fort and killed everybody. Columbus didn’t really believe it, but he was outnumbered and didn’t want to push it, and he left. There’s no way to know exactly what really happened. But it’s a good guess the men Columbus left behind got greedy about the gold, mistreated the Indians, stole their women, and finally the Indians struck back. That was a very common story in those days.”

The story about Columbus is all very well-documented fact so far. But what follows — the theory of why that bell residing in a Miami bank vault must be from the Santa Maria — is almost entirely supposition and guesswork. Here it goes:

The crew must have removed the bell from the Santa Maria when they were stripping it, then hung it in their new fort. Because it was made of brass, it survived the fire in the fort, was found when Columbus returned, and was sent back to Spain in a cargo ship called the Salvador. But the Salvador ran into a violent storm near Portugal and sank. The reason we know the bell was aboard the Salvador is that it was — supposedly — listed in the ship’s cargo manifest, which survived the wreck and can be seen in a Spanish government archive today.

Historians and archaeologists say that story makes for fascinating reading — much too fascinating to actually be true.

“It’s a really good tale,” says Deason. “Either it’s a very creative scam, or somebody’s weird interpretation of fake news. There are just a huge number of things wrong with it.”

The major problem, she says, is that although the story of the wreck of the Santa Maria and the disappearance of the 39 crewmen is documented in detail in Columbus’ diaries and a written account by a doctor who accompanied him on his second voyage, there is not one word about the ship’s bell: not that it was taken ashore, not that it was hung in the fort, not that it survived the fire, not that it was sent back to Spain, not even that it existed at all.

“My colleagues and I, all of us who worked on the dig in Haiti, read every single word ever written about Columbus’ time there, and there’s nothing at all about a bell,” says Deason. “You can say ‘could have been this, could have been that,’ but there’s just no evidence for any of it.”

There are also giant loopholes in the part of the story about the bell being sent back to Spain. The Salvador, the cargo ship supposedly carrying it, sailed from Puerto Rico. Columbus’ fort was in Haiti. How did the bell move from one place to the other?

And why did it take so long? Columbus’ return to Haiti, when he would have found the bell in the ruins of the burned fort, took place in 1493. The Salvador didn’t leave Puerto Rico until 1555. Where was the bell during all those years?

And as for that cargo manifest that supposedly shows the bell was aboard the doomed Salvador, it lists the item in Spanish as the “signo” of Villa Navidad. Signo means sign or signal and there’s no known usage of it to describe a bell. The usual Spanish word for bell is campana, and a ship’s bell is known as campana de barco.

“This story about the bell is as ridiculous a claim as anything I’ve ever heard in archaeology,” says John de Bry, head of the Center for Historical Archaeology in Melbourne Beach. “You’ve got all kinds of problems with chain of custody and documentation. It’s just not possible to take this seriously...

“If you’re looking for publicity, you can say anything you want: ‘I’ve got this, let everybody else try to prove it isn’t what I say.’ I don’t believe it.”

Cambó doesn’t go quite that far. But he won’t engage in arguments about the bell’s authenticity. “Everybody’s got to decide that for himself,” he shrugs. “Read the Internet. There’s a lot of stuff about the bell. Work it out.”

But do it soon; bidding closes on July 31. (Though Cambó says it might be extended if a lot of interest develops in the next few days.) His hope is that Miami-Dade County will want the bell to hang in a museum or gallery in the Freedom Tower.

After all, he asks, “The opening of the western hemisphere was all about freedom, wasn’t it?”

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