A replica of the Santa Maria shown in 1892. (Photo: REUTERS/U.S. Library of Congress/Handout via Reuters)
More than 500 years ago (in 1492, to be exact), Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic looking for a Western route to Asia. Instead, he came across North America, forced indigenous people into slavery and helped open the Americas to European colonization. Also, he lost one of his ships.
The Santa Maria was the largest of the three ships Columbus used on his first voyage overseas. It famously ran aground off the coast of Hispaniola (what's now Haiti) on December 25, 1492. It was abandoned and sank. Parts of the ship were salvaged — the anchor, for example, currently sits in a museum in Columbus's native Spain — but mostly the Santa Maria became another mysterious shipwreck lost to time.
Until this week.
A reconnaissance mission led by marine investigator Barry Clifford claims to have found the wreck of the Santa Maria just off the coast of Haiti — about 500 years after it first disappeared.
“All the geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is Columbus’s famous flagship, the Santa Maria,” he told The Independent. “The Haitian government has been extremely helpful – and we now need to continue working with them to carry out a detailed archaeological excavation of the wreck."
The team was able to tentatively identify the wreck as the Santa Maria thanks to other, separate discoveries made in 2003, which located the site of Columbus's fort nearby. Clifford also used Columbus's diary to help lead him to this location.
It's taken Clifford and his team a number of years to land at this exact shipwreck, having investigated more than 400 anomalies in the seabed (so, anything that looks like it could be a 500-year-old pile of rubble) off the north coast of Haiti.
In fact, Clifford and his team actually photographed the wreck more than a decade ago, but didn't realize what they'd stumbled upon. This week's discovery came after taking a second look at those photographs, in conjunction with other non-invasive methods for studying the wreckage. The next step is to dive down and get closer — and to work to preserve this piece of sunken history.
“I am confident that a full excavation of the wreck will yield the first ever detailed marine archaeological evidence of Columbus’s [voyage to] America," said Clifford.