Where is the Santa Maria, the ship of Columbus?

In May 2014, the American explorer Barry Clifford announced that he had found the wreckage of the Santa Maria. His announcement made headlines, even though he did not produce evidence. The hype was understandable. The Santa Maria was Christopher Columbus’ flagship on his first voyage to the Americas and one of only three ships to make up the fleet.

When Columbus sailed along the north coast of Hispañola Island, now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the ship ran aground and sank.
Since no traces of the fate of the other two ships have survived, the wreck of the Santa Maria may be the only one we could ever find. Imagine to find the ship that changed world history and what would have happened if Columbus had never successfully completed his voyage (and how happy the local population would have remained)…?

But seriously, where is the wreck of this legendary ship, the Santa Maria?

Clifford claimed to have discovered the ship at Coque Vieille Reef in northern Haiti, but was that true? (Spoiler – no, it is not true, but please stay tuned, because I’ll try to tell you where the Santa Maria might really be…)

The historic background

The best document that could give us clues about the wreck is Christopher Columbus’ diary. Its original has been lost and only a copy of Cristobal de la Casas survives. However, it tells (speaking of Columbus in the third person ) in detail the story of the fatal Christmas Eve when the Santa Maria was lost:

Historical pinting of the arrival of Columbus

“Sailing yesterday with little wind, from the sea of Santo Tomas to the Punta Santa, a league off of which he stood until the first quarter, which would be at eleven o’clock at night, he decided to get some sleep because he had not slept for two days and a night.” Columbus then reports that the prevailing current carried the ship onto a sandbank:  “Our Lord willed that at twelve o’clock at night, seeing that the Admiral [i.e. Columbus] had gone to bed and that it was dead calm and the sea like water in a bowl, they all laid down to sleep. The rudder was left in the hands of a boy, and the currents which were running took the ship on to one of those banks.”

The report is not honoring Columbus. He admits that the rudder had been given to a child and everyone else had gone to sleep, but who knows how much rum he and his Spanish crew had drunk at that moment because it was Christmas Eve and they were happy to be near land after months of travelling. The fact is that the ship ran onto a shallow coral reef and got stuck there. When this was noticed, everything was done to free it, but too late. The Santa Maria could no longer be moved. In the middle of nowhere, on an unknown continent far away from any native waters, the ship was lost. A catastrophe. In addition, the small fleet had lost itself before and the third ship, the Pinta, remained untraceable. Only the little Niña (the “little one”) remained to the sailors.

Let’s see exactly where this mishap occured.

Checking the wood of a wreck that once contained a bronze nail. (c) UNESCO/Nieto

The only indication we are given is the distance between the wreck site and a nearby Taìno village, which was the place Columbus wanted to travel to. “First of all he sent the boat ashore with Diego de Arana, from Córdoba, the bailiff of the fleet, and Pero Gutiérrez, chamberlain of the royal household, to inform the chieftain, who had sent the invitation on Saturday to take the ships to his harbour and whose town was a matter of a league and a half beyond the sandbank.”

His host, the Taino chieftain, was very sorry for the loss.  “As soon as he heard the news they say that he wept, and he sent all his people from the town with many very large canoes to offload the ship. This was done and everything was offloaded from the holds in a very short space of time, so great was the expeditiousness and diligence that the king displayed. . . He ordered everything to be put next to the houses while some which he wanted to make available were emptied and everything could be put there and safeguarded.”

Columbus realises that the crew cannot go home in its entirety with the Niña because she is too small. He decides to leave the Santa Maria crew behind. It is astonishing that no mutiny seems to have taken place. One would think that the prospect of being left behind in an unknown place, while the ‘liaison ship’ may not survive the journey home, should have caused little enthusiasm.

Nonetheless, the agreement is reached quickly: “Now I have ordered a tower and fortress to be built, all in good order, with a large moat . . . they will have planks from which to build the whole fortress and supplies of bread and wine for more than a year. . .”

So to sum up: We look for the Santa Maria in a place in Northern Haiti, very close to the shore, close to a Taino village and a kind of Fort that has arrival ‘channels’.

He calls the place La Navidad. Finally Columbus gives us in his story a little hint what we can expect in the surroundings. He says there are “channels” to approach the place by ship.

To sum up: We are looking for the Santa Maria in a place in northern Haiti, very close to the shore, near a Taino village and a kind of fort that has arrival channels through the coral reefs.

Did Clifford have the right wreck?

As reported earlier, the American explorer Clifford suggested that a wreck at Coque Vieille Reef near Cap Haitien could be the wreck of the Santa Maria. It consists of two hills of ballast stones and is located a few kilometers from the shore in a very poor state of conservation. Unfortunately, despite the hypes in the press, there is nothing to suggest that this wreck is the Santa Maria‘s. Nevertheless, it serves us to explain arguments and to show where to look for the actual Santa Maria, if there is anything left of it.

The village

When the Santa Maria was destroyed, it was on its way to the Taìno chief Guacanacaric, as already reported. According to Columbus, his village was “one and a half leagues” away from the wreck site. It should therefore be possible to locate the site if one knew where the village was. Unfortunately, it has not yet been identified with certainty. What we do know is that “the Admiral felt safe from sandbanks and rocks, because on Sunday, when he sent boats to this chief, the travellers had passed a good three and a half miles east of Punta Santa, and the sailors had seen the whole coast and shoals from Punta Santa to the ESE for a good three miles. . .”

Based on these data, one would expect to find the village 3-3.5 leagues of Punta Santa. Punta Santa is now known as Point Picolet. However, since the league (“Legua”) is not a precisely defined unit of measure, this has led to different conclusions as to where the Taino village might be located. They range from the present village of Caracol to the small villages of Limonade Bord de Mer/En Bas Saline or La Petite-Anse. If you go to Google Maps, all these places are easy to find. To make it stress-free, Columbus has included a sketch for you.


Map attributed to Columbus (Archives de la Casa de Alba, Madrid)

The most likely candidate for the ancient Taino village is the village of En Bas Saline. It is a former Taìno hamlet, archaeologically researched and inhabited from the 14th to 16th centuries. Numerous artefacts of European origin have been discovered on the site, suggesting that it was inhabited during the early contact period. Most European artifacts were found in the remains of a large wooden structure destroyed by an extremely hot fire. That sounds good as a candidate for Fort Columbus, doesn’t it? The carbon dating of the wood also places it in the early contact period and a pig’s tooth was also found here, the original owner of which is proven to have come from Spain. This tooth dates the site between 1492 and 1503, as all imports of pigs from the Old World ended with the spread of the local pig population in the late 1490s. On the basis of this evidence, Dr. Kathleen Deagan, director of the excavations at En Bas Saline, believes that La Navidad was built within the village of Guacanacaric and that this site represents both the village and the fort (and this is quite likely).

Another possible location is proposed by the French scientist Loic Menanteau, an excellent expert on the region, at La Petite Anse. He argues that Columbus’ League was indeed much shorter than previously thought. Therefore, the wreck of Santa Maria must be found off La Petite Anse and much closer to the shore than previously assumed. The village of Guacanacaric would be no further than 3.2 km from the wreck. The map attributed to Columbus, which indicates the location of Fort Navidad, seems to support this argumentation.

After all this, it is difficult to identify a wreck site as Santa Maria, if one relies solely on the distance of the wreck from the location of the village, even if we have a certain idea.

The distance from the shore

The second clue in our wreck hunt refers to an event in which Columbus fired one of his Lombard cannons towards the Santa Maria. In his diary, Columbus describes how he fires the cannon into the side of the ship or next to it towards the sea to impress the locals. The Spanish text is not clear, but since Columbus left about forty members of his crew on the site, and he did not even know which continent they were on, this shot certainly served to frighten the locals. It may have had the opposite effect. When he returned a year later, all the Spaniards that stayed were dead.

Anyhow, here is his description:  “In the morning he went ashore to take his leave of Guacanacarí. . .”  He “sent for a lombard to be loaded and fired towards the side of the ship which was aground. . .”. As the term “en tierra” is still commonly used by Spanish sailors to designate a vessel that is very close to the coast in contrast to one that is farther away, it can be assumed that the ship towards which he fired was the Santa Maria and not his other ship present in the bay, the Niña. Finally, the journal mentions that, “he saw the range of the Lombard and how the shot passed the side of the ship and went into the sea way beyond.”

It is the subject of interpretation whether the shot was fired from the land or from the Niña. However, if it had been fired from land, and there is much to be said for it, then the wreck must have been very close to the shore, otherwise the exercise would not have been possible.

The effective range of a Lombard cannon is 300m, the maximum range being approx. 500m. According to these estimates, the Santa Maria must have been located a maximum of 500 m from the shore, otherwise the cannonball would not have touched or passed it. This alone would rule out the location at Coque Vieille Reef as the wreck of the Santa Maria, as the nearest coast is more than four times further from this wreck than the maximum range of a lombard.

The artefacts

The strongest argument against identifying the site at Coque Vieille Reef as the Santa Maria is found in the artefacts recovered from it. There were six cylindrical bronze pins recovered by UNESCO experts controlling it. This type of fastener is well documented in the naval architecture of the modern period. The technique of ship construction that utilised these particular fasteners did not exist before the late 17th century, and did not become common until the 18th century.

So where is the Santa Maria really?

The Anchor found close to Cap Haitien. (c) UNESCO/Nieto.

We have now learned that the Santa Maria is either near En Bas Saline or near La Petite-Anse and wrecked very close to the shore, not more than 500 m away.

So, where is such a place?

And here comes the joker that changes everything – the current shoreline was formed by the accumulation of sediments deposited by the Grande Rivière du Nord after a severe coastal erosion by the deforestation of Haiti’s forests. The shoreline at the time of Columbus was much further inland than it is today. So the Santa Maria does not rest under water. It lies under land. Doubts excluded.

A hint to the place could give a historical pillar, which indicated the place on which a large anchor was found that is today in the museum in Port au Prince. This column is already half submerged in sediment itself, as it is also old and has been affected by sediment deposition. But it may well be the place around which the Santa Maria can be found there.

If there was anything left of it, we could expect some woods and ballast stones. And a lot of history.

Read more on the UNESCO mission to identify the Clifford wreck and which this blog has used for information. Images (c) UNESCO.

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