A UNESCO mission of experts, requested by the Haitian Government, confirmed that a shipwreck near Haiti could not be the ‘Santa Maria’ flagship of Christopher Columbus on his first voyage to America.
“There is now incontestable proof that the wreck is from a much later period,” according to the report drafted by mission leader Xavier Nieto Prieto, who visited Cap-Haitian, north of the island, from 9 to 14 September. Mr Nieto Prieto was selected by the Scientific and Technical Advisory Body of UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. A former Director of Spain’s National Museum of Underwater Archaeology and a leading expert on Spanish shipwrecks, Nieto Prieto was accompanied by Tatiana Villega, of UNESCO’s Office in Haiti, Kenrick Demesvar, of the Haitian Ministry of Culture, and Maksaen Denis, of Haiti’s National Bureau of Ethnology.
The bronze or copper fasteners found on the site, near the Coque Vieille Reef, point to shipbuilding techniques of the late 17th or 18th centuries, when ships were sheathed in copper. Prior to that period, only iron or wood fasteners were used in shipbuilding. The Santa Maria ran aground on the night of 24 to 25 December 1492. Moreover, in view of contemporary accounts—notably the journal of Christopher Columbus, transcribed by Bartolome de las Casas—the wreck is too far from the shore to be that of the Santa Maria.
The report recommends further exploration to find the Santa Maria and draw an inventory of other major wrecks in the area. It also calls on Haiti to adopt legislative measures to enhance the protection of underwater heritage, notably with regard to the attribution of authorizations for the excavation of underwater archaeological sites, and meet the standards of UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which Haiti has ratified.
On 14 May this year, U.S. underwater explorer Bill Clifford said he had identified the wreck of the Santa Maria, one of the three ships Christopher Columbus led during his historic crossing. Following the announcement, the Culture Minister of Haiti, Monique Rocourt, asked for the support of the Scientific and Technical Body of the Underwater Cultural Heritage Convention to send a mission of experts to the site.
Adopted in 2001, the Convention aims to ensure the protection and safeguarding of underwater heritage as well as supporting research and international cooperation in this area. States that ratify the Convention—49 to date—undertake to safeguard this heritage, refrain from its commercial exploitation and fight illicit trafficking in pillaged goods.
The Scientific and Technical Advisory Body of the Convention consists of 12 internationally renowned experts, appointed by the Meeting of States Parties to the 2001 Convention.