The Lost Fort of Columbus

On his voyage to the Americas in 1492, the explorer built a small fort somewhere in the Caribbean

What became of the settlement that Christopher Columbus' crew built after his flagship ran aground? Clark Moore (in Haiti near the Bay of L'Acul, where the <em>Santa Maria</em> is believed to have foundered) is on the trail: "We know Columbus built the fort inside a large Indian village." (Les Stone/Polaris)
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As we hiked, Moore explained the theory behind his search for La Navidad. He takes what might appear to be an indirect approach, locating as many former Indian sites as possible. That's partly because it is believed that Columbus built the fort inside an Indian village. "The Taino built a large village inland every 12 miles and paired it with a smaller village on the coast," he says. "The small village took care of the boats, caught shellfish and such to feed the larger. I mark the map with each village I find. A pretty pattern. I think it will eventually show where La Navidad was."

The guides stopped in front of a cave hidden by brush and ropy liana vines. Caves were holy places to the Taino. They believed that human life originated in one, and that people populated the earth after a guard at the cave entrance left his post and was turned to stone. Before entering a sacred cave, the Taino made an offering to the spirits. Because they did not believe in blood sacrifice, they gave the contents of their stomachs, an act aided by beautifully carved tongue depressors.

A mellow light filled the cave's large, domed entry chamber; to one side, a row of heads resembling a choir or jury was chiseled into the face of a boulder, their mouths wide open in an eternal song or scream. Fierce-faced carved figures marched across the opposite wall. The Taino carvings appear to warn intruders to stay out. Moore has no explanation for the figures' expressions. "I leave interpretation to others," he says. A tiny elevated room held the source of the light: a chimney hole latticed with greenery. Stick figures held forth on a wall. Candle butts and an empty bottle rested in an altar niche carved in a boulder. Under the bottle lay folded papers that Moore did not read. "Voodoo," he said.

One night, when Moore was entertaining friends at his harborside cinder-block house in Cap-HaÔtien—he lives there with his wife, Pat, a nurse from Nebraska with 16 years' service in Haiti's rural clinics—the conversation turned to the fate of the Taino. "The Taino really weren't all wiped out," Moore said. "There are groups in New York, Puerto Rico and Cuba who call themselves the descendants. They're reviving the language and ceremonies and want the world to know 'Hey, we're still here.'"

"The descendants in Haiti are secretive," a visiting archaeologist chimed in.

A guide named Jean Claude led Moore up a narrow mountain trail to a high, flat ridge that could be reached only by climbing three other mountains, a destination recalling the Creole proverb, Deyo mon ge mon ("Beyond the mountains are more mountains"). Jean Claude's brother had found a site he thought Moore should see.

The ridge had dark brown soil, which Moore said indicated that fires had burned there long ago. He took the GPS coordinates and then probed the soil with a stick, pulling out large potsherds and many seashells. There were three Indian houses here, Moore concluded. "I'm standing in the garbage dump."

Moore sat down and adjusted his hat against the sun. We were at 1,700 feet, and the trade winds dried the sweat as soon as it broke. "A fine place for a house at any time," Moore said. "Lookouts would have lived here," he added, pointing to the sweep of Atlantic coastline on the horizon. "Anyone living here would have seen Columbus' fleet come along the coast. They would have seen the fires lit by other lookouts to mark its progress, then lit their own to warn people down the way that invaders were here."

He went on: "Invaders they were. They made slaves of the Indians, stole their wives. That's why the Indians killed the Santa María crew and burned La Navidad." He gestured at a point on the horizon. "Bord de Mer de Limonade. That's where I think La Navidad is. Samuel Eliot Morison thought so. Dr. Hodges too.

"When I come back, I'll do a little spade-excavating there, at least eliminate it," Moore said. "Of course the coastline will have changed since 1492. We'll see."

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