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Holy Mary!

An American explorer claims he has found the wreck of Christopher Columbus' flagship carrack 500 years after it sank off northern Hispaniola

Rajat Ghai 

Rajat Ghai

Let me begin this with a fable that I read as a kid. More than five hundred years ago, a baby boy was born to a weaver and his wife in the great port city of Genoa on the Ligurian coast of present-day Italy. The couple named him after Saint Christopher, the Catholic martyr and patron saint of mariners. As a child, Christoforo, as he was called, used to listen wide-eyed, to tales from his parents, of sailors sailing the high seas and the demons and monsters they encountered. As he grew up, Christoforo resolved to become a seaman. In his thirties, he was finally able to convince the king and queen of a great realm to finance him for his voyage to discover new lands. The royal couple agreed, though hesitatingly. One fine day in August, in the year of our Lord, 1492, Christoforo sailed with 3 ships on the wide blue ocean. After sailing southwest for 37 days, he finally reached land. He stayed there for some time, before sailing back to his homeland. He reached home and was hailed as a hero, and has been known ever since to all humankind, as ‘the greatest explorer ever’.

That man was Christoforo Colombo or Cristobal Colon, better known to us as Christopher Columbus, who ‘discovered’ a ‘New World’. In the centuries that followed his landing on that island, the world, as humans knew it, changed forever, for better or for worse, and Columbus has been hit with bouquets and brickbats in equal measure. But the importance of his discovery has never reduced and never will.

Yesterday, Britain’s Independent published an exclusive story about well-known American maritime explorer Barry Clifford claiming to have finally discovered the remains of Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, off Cap Haitien in Haiti. For archaeologists, historians, oceanographers as well as history buffs (like me for instance), the finding, if true, is ground-breaking.

That is because for years, the whereabouts of the Santa Maria have remained a classic mystery of sorts. Let me explain.

As is known to most people who have read about Columbus, he sailed on 3 August, 1492 from the Andalusian port of Palos De La Frontera in a fleet of 3 ships. There was the La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción (Spanish for The Holy Mary of the Immaculate Conception), or La Santa María, the flagship or lead vessel, a carrack or nau, a vessel which had revolutionized maritime voyaging in its time, and two caravels, which were relatively smaller vessels - the Santa Clara, renamed as the La Nina (‘The Girl’) and the Pinta (‘The Painted’).

On 12 October, at 2.00, the fleet sighted land. Columbus disembarked and named the place San Salvador (‘The Saviour’). Today, we know that this landing took place in the archipelago of the Bahamas though the exact island or cay is still a matter of dispute.

From the Bahamas, the Santa Maria and Nina sailed to the Greater Antilles – first Cuba and finally to Hispaniola. The Pinta, under its captain, Martin Alonso Pinzon had wandered away, after the native Tainos at San Salvador told the crew about a nearby island where there was lots of gold to be found.

Christmas Eve, 1492 found the Santa Maria and Nina in the seas near Hispaniola. The seamen had a party on board that day and one by one, the crew fell asleep till only a half-asleep cabin boy was commandeering the Santa Maria. Soon, the ship struck a coral reef and began to sink, very slowly.

Columbus got the crew to immediately offload cargo from the Maria into the Nina. He even commanded them to strip the ship of all available timber and take that to land. Once this was done, the Maria was bombarded with cannon fire and sunk even faster into the shallow depths of the Caribbean, where it remained till yesterday, when Clifford claimed he had found it.

Though critics are skeptical about Clifford’s claim, the explorer, who is being financed in the current project by the History Channel, is absolutely sure of his findings. In the interview to the Independent, Clifford said that his team had come up on the wreck 11 years ago, in 2003. Then, the team had just photographed the site. At the time though, the team did not think that this could indeed be the wreck of the Maria.

Two weeks ago, the team returned to the spot, made a new reccee of the area, photographing it and reached some new conclusions, in the light of new developments.

On comparing snaps, they found that the 2003 photographs had captured a ‘Lombard’, a 15th century cannon popular in Columbus’ time and could be the same that blasted the Maria. In 2014 though, the cannon had vanished from the wreck site, probably looted by undersea treasure hunters.

They also found ballast stones, which were consistent with what has been described about Columbus’ ship.

Most importantly, in 2003, researchers had concluded the land near the wreck site (the town of Limonade in present-day Haiti) was the location for the wooden fort that Columbus had constructed soon after the Maria had been sunk. Columbus had used timber from the ship to construct the garrison, which he had christened La Navidad (‘Christmas’). After taking permission from the Tainos of Hispaniola, Columbus had left the island in the Nina, leaving 39 Spaniards in the fort. En route, he had reunited with the Pinta near Hispaniola and together, they had sailed back northeast, towards Spain.

According to Columbus’ journal, La Navidad was located one-and-a-half leagues from the spot where the Maria sank. Clifford found that the wreck site was the same distance from Limonade.

Clifford’s claims will now be thoroughly scrutinized. If true, the discovery would be the most important in the oceanographic exploration of ship wrecks since National Geographic explorer and Clifford’s compatriot, Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic in the North Atlantic in 1985.

Clifford says that after examination, the wreck would be removed from its site and displayed in a Haitian Museum, where it could draw hundreds of potential tourist visitors, thus galvanizing the economy of a poor country like Haiti.

Besides economics, the findings have historical, cultural and scientific importance. Few can deny Columbus’ importance as a ‘father figure’ in Western Civilisation. Though he was beaten to the Americas by Norseman Leif Ericsson in 1000 AD and possibly by Irish monk, St Brendan in 512 AD, Columbus’ discovery is by far, the most important. Because he lived to tell his tale. And the scale on which his feat influenced narratives of colonization, imperialism, people-to-people contact, economics, history, religion and science is immeasurable.

Clifford’s findings also highlight the importance of preserving shipwrecks as repositories of historical legacies. While archaeology on solid land has well-defined rules, archaeological material under the oceans is up for grabs. As Clifford himself revealed, the ‘Lombard’ his team had photographed in 2003 was missing in 2014. There is a treaty to safeguard maritime treasures like shipwrecks. The Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, adopted on 2 November 2001 by UNESCO, aims at protection of "all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character", which have been under water for over 100 years. But as of April 2014, only 46 states are party to the convention. Besides, the time period of 100 years leaves older wrecks (like the one in question) vulnerable to looters.

One only hopes that Clifford’s finding does indeed turn out to be Columbus’ Maria and that it is taken out of the sea and is preserved for future generations. All the best to Clifford and Co.

First Published: Wed, May 14 2014. 13:12 IST