Search for Columbus's Lost Ship The Santa Maria: History of the Search Part 2

About the search for Christopher Columbus's ship the Santa Maria which he sailed to America, history and background.

The Continuing Search for . . . the Santa Maria

Leaving a boy instead of a seaman at the tiller was the 1st disobedience to the admiral's orders. The 2nd was more serious. After the accident, Columbus ordered the ship's captain to take his longboat and an anchor out into deep water, so that they could heave on the cable connecting the small boat and the ship, and thus kedge the Santa Maria off the reef. Instead, the captain rushed to the Nina for help, and by the time he had returned with extra men, the tide had dropped. Sand had now filled around the ship and the swells, lifting and dropping the Santa Maria, burst open her seams.

After cursing the ship's captain as a wicked traitor, the superstitious Columbus was, within a matter of days, describing the wreck as "great luck" and a "heaven-sent omen." God was telling him to build a fort here for the glory of the Catholic rulers, Los Reyes Catolicos, one which he would name La Navidad in honor of Christmas. The fort would be manned by the 39 men who could not be crowded into the small Nina.

The crews of the Santa Maria and Nina--with the help of the Taino Indians, whose canoes were large enough to accommodate 50 or 60 men--dismantled the Santa Maria, stripping it of all its timber and gear, but leaving the keel, some frames of the hull, and the bottom planking. To impress the natives, Columbus used what remained of the Santa Maria as a gunnery target, firing a cannonade of shots from the Nina at a distance of a few hundred yards. The fort La Navidad was built in a week. Columbus took aboard some Taino Indians, a flock of parrots, and a variety of tropical fruits to present to the Catholic rulers in Spain. Promising to pick up the men remaining in the fort the next year on his 2nd voyage, Columbus set sail to find the missing Pinta--which he did--and returned home.

CLUES FOR THE HUNT: In December, 1493, Columbus returned to the area, but La Navidad had been razed by fire, all the men had been killed by hostile Indians (who had resented the white man's mania for gold and women), and everything of value had vanished. He found one of the Santa Maria's 7 anchors in an Indian camp down the beach, a league from the site of the fort. Columbus made no attempt to look for the remains of the Santa Maria, nor did he pinpoint for posterity where the wreck actually took place.

At best Columbus' freehand maps were sketchy, with distances more vague than accurate. In modern geographical designations, we know that the Santa Maria grounded somewhere between Cap Haitien and Caracol Bay, a distance of a mere 12 mi. We further know that the ship foundered "gently and slowly," the weather was calm, and that it sat on sand, not rocks, on the protected side of a reef. But where exactly? As the late marine archaeologist Fred Dickson, Jr., wrote, "Here we have one of the most interesting, exciting, famous, and perhaps informative shipwrecks in history lying buried ... covered with from 5' to 10' or sand, coral chips, and mud. Harder to find, yes. But think of the state of preservation, when we do find her."

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