Mysterious Shipwreck Reveals how the Spanish Built Their Boats

Search for Captain Morgan’s fleet turns up treasure trove of Spanish cargo

Encarnacion shipwreck
The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment

A sunken ship discovered during a search for the real Captain Morgan turns out to be a treasure trove of archaeological artifacts.

Back in 2011, a team of underwater archaeologists hunting for the fleet of infamous pirate and rum mascot Captain Henry Morgan when they discovered a remarkably well preserved wreck off the coast of Panama. Four years later, researchers have finally identified the mysterious wreck as the Spanish merchant vessel Nuestra Señora de Encarnación.

According to archaeologists from Texas State University, the Encarnación was part of Spain’s Tierre Firma fleet, which was critical for maintaining trade routes between its colonies in the New World. Built in Veracruz, Mexico, the merchant ship, or naos,  sank during a storm off the Caribbean coast of Panama in 1681. The researchers were surprised to discover that on further investigation, the lower hull and the cargo hold of the ship were almost completely intact and filled with artifacts that the Encarnación had been carrying.

"Very few Spanish merchant naos have ever been found, making this one an extraordinarily significant find because it is so well preserved,” project archaeologist Melanie Damour said in a statement. "In addition to what we can learn from the artifacts, the hull remains will inform us about Old World ship construction techniques using New World materials."

While the cargo hold wasn’t filled with jewels and gold, divers did find a wide range of goods, including sword blades, scissors, mule shoes, nails and ceramics. While this manifest might not seem dramatic, the find will give archaeologists new insight into the political and economic relationships between the Spanish colonies.

"The presence of mule shoes for example, suggests a direct link to the overland trade routes used by the Spanish Crown where goods and wealth from places such as Peru were carried through the Isthmus of Panamá, loaded onto ships, and carried back to fill the crown’s coffers," said project archaeologist Christopher Horrell in a statement.

Shipwrecks discovered in the Caribbean are often heavily damaged by shipworms and have had their cargo long since looted. As a result, archaeologists know very little about how the vessels were designed and constructed, writes Jane J. Lee for National Geographic. The Encarnación is one of only 16 Spanish merchant ships found in the Americas and it’s intact hull has already given clues as to how the ships were built, Lee writes:

An initial examination revealed the use of a material called granel, a kind of permanent ballast, says Chris Horrell, a maritime archaeologist working with Hanselmann. It's "basically a cement consisting of sand, lime, and pebbles," he explains, that shipbuilders used to coat a ship's hull with a thin veneer.

Researchers think granel stabilized ships and was also used as a construction material for buildings throughout the New World. Horrell is not yet sure whether granel was a New World invention or an Old World import, but finding out is part of his research agenda.

While the search for Captain Morgan’s fleet goes on, the surprise discovery of the Encarnación is a treasure in and of itself.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.