Search for the Lost Ships of Columbus
Indiana University’s Center for Underwater Science is currently conducting research and excavations in Isabela Bay, with the goal of discovering the vessels associated with Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to the Americas. The Marigalante, Columbus’s flagship, and several other vessels are documented to have sunk while at anchor during a hurricane outside of the bay of La Isabela, the 1494-1496 first European settlement in the New World. Previous IU surveys of Isabela Bay identified magnetic anomalies which Dr. Charles Beeker, Director of the Center for Underwater Science, calls signatures of what may prove to be the Columbus shipwrecks. Past IU work at La Isabela was featured in the National Geographic Special The Lost Fleet of Columbus, and nearby Taino village archaeological remains were featured in several professional publications, as well as in the Emmy Award-winning documentary Secrets of the Lost Tribe.
This project has two primary goals. The first is to assist the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Culture in preparing the La Isabela settlement for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and to prepare the site for long-term archaeological investigation. In UNESCO’s 2007 technical assistance report on the La Isabela Columbus settlement, it was recommended that conservation and cataloging be carried out on stored archaeological material and that the Columbus house be stabilized from further erosion. In preparation for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Indiana University will work to catalog and conserve these selected Columbus artifacts. Additionally, Indiana University is assisting in preventative measures to ensure that the structure of Columbus' house does not erode further into the bay.
The second goal is to locate one or more Columbus-era shipwrecks in Isabela Bay. Indiana University has previously conducted magnetometer survey, identifying 31 anomalies in Isabela Bay. Some of these anomalies should represent the shipwrecks of 1495, and several of the most promising anomalies will be re-surveyed and tested during these investigations. This work will be carried out in cooperation with colleagues from the Direccion General del Patrimonio Cultural Subacuático of the Dominican Republic, and it will be done as one part of an international underwater archaeology field school in the Dominican Republic. Test excavations will be conducted to identify the remains of shipwrecks associated with the settlement and recovery of diagnostic artifacts.
History of La Isabela
Columbus envisioned La Isabela as the center of a vast trading enterprise, but the town had only a brief and unhappy history. There was never adequate food, and the colonists complained of constant hunger and sickness. The exact nature of their ailment, and whether it was a disease that could have been transmitted to the Indians, are controversial questions. Various authorities have identified the Spaniards’ illness as influenza (particularly swine flu), typhus, malaria, epidemic meningitis, encephalitis lethargica, and some form of bacillary dysentery (perhaps Reiter’s syndrome), any of which could have been transmitted to the native population.
In addition to the medical problems, two hurricanes struck La Isabela in 1495, in June and October. The colonists began to leave when a new capital, Santo Domingo, was founded on the south shore of Hispaniola in 1496, and La Isabela was essentially abandoned by the end of 1498. Thereafter the site was largely avoided because it was believed to be haunted by the ghosts of the settlers who had died. Accounts and interpretations vary, but somewhere between five and 11 ships were sunk in the hurricane, and three to six still lie on the bottom of Isabela Bay. These shipwrecks will provide another line of evidence on Spanish-Taíno interactions, since some of the ships were purportedly sunk as they were preparing to return to Spain, laden with indigenous materials. Yet other than gold, only a small amount of which ever moved through La Isabela, we have scanty information on what Taíno goods the Spanish found desirable. The 1495 shipwrecks would be an unprecedented source of information on the kinds of items Columbus valued highly enough to send back to Spain with the goal of promoting his enterprise.