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Athena Review: Vol.3, no.2: Recent Finds in Archaeology 

Lost Spanish caravel found in Panama may be from 4th Voyage of Columbus

For the past few years, Panamanian salvage divers have been recovering remains of the wooden hulk of a wrecked Spanish caravel, found in 1997 under 6 meters of water at the Caribbean port of Nombre de Dios. Little by little, archaeologists from the National Cultural Institute of Panama at nearby Porto Bello have accumulated evidence that this may have been one of four ships used by Columbus during his last voyage in 1502-1503, when the Genoese mariner sailed along the coast from Honduras to Panama.

On May 9, 1502, Columbus and 135 men left the Spanish port of Cadiz with a small fleet of four caravels named La Capitana, Santiago de Palos, La Gallega, and La Vizcaína (Morison 1942). Caravels (fig.1) were high, square-rigged ships about 60-70 ft long, with 50-70 tons cargo capacity. Other examples were the Niña and the Pinta of Columbus’s first voyage (see AR 1,3 p.39).   By July 30 the Spaniards had reached the Bay Islands off Honduras, where they encountered Maya-like traders carrying textiles, cacao beans, and copper implements in large canoes with awnings (see AR 2,1, p.33). As reported in the memoirs of Columbus’ nephew Ferdinand Colón, the Spanish ships then turned east along the so-called Costa de las Orejas (“coast of the ears”), named for the long earlobes of Jicaque and Payan natives wearing egg-sized earspools.

Sailing south from Honduras to Panama (often amid bad weather and contrary winds), and landing at a few shore points to barter for gold ornaments, in January 1503 the Spaniards stopped at the mouth of the Río Belén. There, learning of rich gold sources through local Guaymis, they attempted to found a colony called Santa Maria de Belén. By the spring of 1503, however, hostilities had commenced with parties of Quibián (Guaymi) warriors. The Spaniards took hostages, and a boatload of Spaniards were killed a few miles up the Río Belén. Columbus decided to evacuate, and after abandoning one of the ships (the Gallega) which had been careened behind a sandbar, sailed from Belén on April 16, 1503.

Fig.1: Drawing of a Spanish Caravel ca. 1493 (Letter of Columbus, Lenox Library).

A week later, upon reaching Porto Bello, the Vizcaina was leaking so badly from wormholes it too was abandoned, and on April 23, 1503 the Spaniards crowded into the remaining two ships and sailed for home. It is the scuttled remains of the Vizcaina which Portobello archaeologists now think they have found. Artifacts from the wreck seem consistent with this theory. Lying on a shallow sandbank, the twin-masted, wooden caravel hulk still held its anchors, but had been stripped of all rigging and material possessions of the crew. Archaeologists from the Instituto Cultural, working with salvagers from Conquest Panama Inc. and Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo S.A, believe this shows evidence of deliberate abandonment or scuttling. A variety of other details on hull construction, cannon types, pottery, and food remains all appear to corroborate that this ship may indeed be La Vizcaina. Stone cannonballs were among the first artifacts recovered from the site. Five cannons of two early types called Versos and Lombards were left on deck, now encrusted with coral and barnacles. The swivel-mounted, breach loading Lombard was a fault-prone weapon known to have been used on Columbus’ expeditions. Due to their tendency to misfire (and sometimes blow up the shooter), the Spanish stopped using them after about 1520.

Construction details have also helped date the ship. Its hull timbers, hammered together with wooden pegs, were not sealed in lead, which protected the hulls against wood-boring worms (such as had infested all four ships on the 1502-3 voyage). Lead sheathing became mandatory among Spanish shipbuilders by royal decree in 1508. Sherds from pottery amphorae for olive oil, typical of early 16th century New World voyages, have also come from the sunken vessel. Food remains including coconut husks and shellfish show Spaniards were living off local resources by the time they reached the spot where they abandoned La Gallega. Based strictly on chronology, the wreck could also be that of a ship known to be lost by Francisco Pizarro en route to Cartagena, Colombia as part of the attempt by Alonzo de Ojeda to colonize that region (1508-1509). Whether or not it is confirmed to be La Vizcaina, it would in any case be the first ship to be found from the early part of the Spanish Conquest, for which there are few contemporary images or related material remains.

[Gaynor, T. in The Guardian, 5 Nov. 2001; Fernando Colon, 1530, Journals; Morison, S.E., 1942, Admiral of the Ocean Sea; “New World Explorers I: The First Voyage of Columbus,” Athena Review Vol. 1, no. 3 (1997); “New World Explorers II: The Fourth Voyage of Columbus,” Athena Review, Vol. 2, no. 1 (1998)]

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