History In The Headlines

Has Wreckage of Christopher Columbus’ Flagship Been Found?

By Barbara Maranzani
A recent reconnaissance mission may have led to one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in history—the long-lost remains of the Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus’ flagship during his first voyage to the New World, which the explorer was forced to abandon off the coast of modern-day Haiti in 1492. HISTORY has exclusive access to the historic search for the Santa Maria, which will be the subject of an upcoming program.
Credit: Brandon Clifford Photography

Credit: Brandon Clifford Photography

A team led by Barry Clifford, one of the world’s premiere underwater archaeologists, made the discovery earlier this month. This latest find builds on a series of earlier expeditions, including one by Clifford himself in 2003, which photographed the site but failed to identify the remains as those of the Santa Maria. Located off the northern coast of Haiti, the wreckage is l odged on a coral reef 10 to 15 feet below the water’s surface, a spot consistent with Columbus’ diary entries regarding the loss of the ship.

Clifford’s interest in this location as the probable resting place of the Santa Maria was bolstered by recent archaeological finds nearby relating to the fort Columbus built following the loss of the ship. The first European settlement in North America since the Viking era, the fort was hastily built using stripped timber from the Santa Maria and was named La Navidad (Christmas), a nod to the ship’s sinking on Christmas Eve, 1492. La Navidad became home to the 39 crewmembers Columbus left behind when he was forced to consolidate men and cargo onto the Nina. His third ship, the Pinta, had been separated from the other vessels weeks earlier and was not located until after Columbus had set sail for Spain.

Check out footage from the search for the Santa Maria

When Columbus returned the following year with a 17-ship fleet he found a ghost town; the fort in ruins and no traces of his men—who were likely killed during altercations with the island’s Taino natives. Rather than rebuild on the site of La Navidad, Columbus moved further westward along the island he had named Hispanola, establishing La Isabella (named after Queen Isabella of Spain, who along with her husband Ferdinand had financed Columbus’ expeditions) and eventually a permanent settlement at Santo Domingo, in what is now the Dominican Republic.

The search for what was La Navidad has rivaled the hunt for the Santa Maria, and when land excavations carried out in 2003 and 2013 tentatively located the remains of the fort close to the spot of the shipwreck, Clifford began a re-examination of the photographs of the wreck site. Further study revealed a series of underwater anomalies, which Clifford identified as the remains of a cannon, heavy rocks that may have been used as the ship’s ballast and other artifacts. After researching the types of cannons common in Columbus’ era and studying both the famed explorer’s diary and modern-day underwater current charts, Clifford was convinced that the once-overlooked wreckage was in fact the Santa Maria.

He returned to the site this spring for more extensive investigations, only to discover that many of the artifacts, including the cannon, had been looted in the preceding years. Using side-scan sonar, magnetometers and underwater divers, Clifford’s team carried out a series of non-invasive studies of the site, further narrowing down the precise location where they believe the Santa Maria lies and mapping out the ship’s footprint. The ship’s size is consistent with the likely dimensions of the Santa Maria, which had 115-feet long keel, and its location matches Columbus’ diary descriptions precisely. As Clifford told The Independent, “All the geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is… the Santa Maria.”

Clifford’s extensive experience in the field, which includes locating the remains of the Whydah (the first fully verified pirate ship ever discovered), and vessels once commanded by privateer William Kidd, has made him a pioneer. But, even he realizes the significance of his most recent find, referring to the Santa Maria as “the Mount Everest of shipwrecks” in an interview with CNN. Eager to protect the previously looted Santa Maria site, Clifford plans to work closely with the Haitian government to preserve the wreckage, while plans are made for a full-scale excavation. Clifford even believes that more than 520 years after Columbus first set sail for the New World, the remains of his famed flagship may one day be raised and put on display in Haiti.

Categories: Christopher Columbus