Wreckage of Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria Found off Haitian Coast (Maybe)

The Santa Maria ran aground off Haiti in 1492

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Christopher Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, and his companion ships Pinta and the Nina approaching land. Undated Woodcut. Bettmann/CORBIS

On Christmas Day of 1492 Christopher Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, ran aground off the northern coast of Haiti. In his journal Columbus recorded the location of the ship's wreck, and over many, many years researchers have worked to figure out how the famed explorer's descriptions and maps align with the coastline, and to pin down where, exactly, the ship ended its voyage. Now, The Independent is reporting that a team of archaeologists led by Barry Clifford think they've found the remains of the Santa Maria.

Determining whether or not the ship—first spotted by Clifford and his team in 2003—is actually the Santa Maria will take more work, but for now the evidence described by The Independent is compelling: the ship is where Clifford thought it should be, based on Columbus' journal; the debris' footprint is about the right size; and artifacts seen among the wreckage, like an old cannon, match those known to have been aboard the ship.

The wreck of the Santa Maria is not, as one might think, a full boat resting on the sea floor. Rather, says the Santa Maria museum in Columbus, Ohio, the grounded ship was stripped down, the wood used “to build a fortress in what Columbus called La Navidad, the first Spanish settlement.”

That Columbus and his crew set up camp at Navidad, says Arthur Davies from the University College of the South West, was a direct consequence of the grounding of the Santa Maria. The museum says that, because of the lost ship, 39 crewmembers had to stay behind in Haiti while Columbus returned to Spain with the Nina and Pinta.

The fortress, says Davies, “lasted less than a year, but its brief existence had important consequences for American history. It provided proof of occupation by Spain, necessary to gain the papal award of these new lands in the west. And the massacre of its garrison gave excuse, if excuse were needed, for Spanish persecution of the native population of Espanola and the Antilles.”

Unfortunately, says The Independent, follow up work to confirm the identity of the ship have been hindered because “all the key visible diagnostic objects including the cannon ha[ve] been looted by illicit raiders.”

An excavation of what's left of the wreck should hopefully follow soon, they say.

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