Haitian shipwreck: Columbus’ long lost Santa Maria?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

A hand-drawn map by Christopher Columbus of the sunken Santa Maria’s location.

Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sailed westward across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, as part of an expedition for the Spanish crown. He traveled on three ships, the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Niña, hoping to find a profitable trade route shortcut to the East Indies. Archaeologists recently identified what they believed to be the shipwreck of the largest vessel, the Santa Maria, off Haiti’s northern coast. Unfortunately, the United Nations’ Cultural Agency reported that it’s not Columbus’ legendary flagship!

Contrary to popular belief, Christopher Columbus never landed in what’s now the United States, and instead made several voyages to areas south and southeast of North America. In addition to landing in Central and South America, Columbus also explored the Bahamas and the island later known as Hispaniola.

As the 22nd largest island in the world, Hispaniola contains the nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the second of which was where the Santa Maria ran aground on Christmas Day, 1492. The sunken remains of what appeared to be the Santa Maria were first found in 2003, when underwater wreck hunter Barry Clifford saw it among the reefs near Haiti’s northern coast. After missing for over 500 years, the shipwreck believed to be the Santa Maria was uncovered by using a blend of sciences including geography (the study of the Earth’s surface), underwater topography (a detailed map of a region’s physical features), and archaeology (the study of past human life through material evidence).

Clifford examined clues in Columbus’ diary, like a hand-drawn map of Hispaniola’s coast, and took photos of the ship’s site, where there was a cannon similar to what the Santa Maria would have used. Unfortunately, thieves have taken many of the objects that could’ve helped identify it, and a full excavation (exploratory dig) had to be carried out. Archaeologists were hoping to confirm what Clifford calls “the Mount Everest of shipwrecks.” Instead, a team of experts concluded the shipwreck was from a more recent vessel, because it included parts like copper nails and pins that would have been made of iron or wood in Columbus’ time period.

Featured image courtesy of Valentin Schwind.