National Geographic Grantee and Texas State University Research Faculty Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann and a top-notch team of archaeologists from Colombia and the United States are leading an expedition to locate and document historic shipwrecks off of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Follow along with Fritz’s updates from the field.
Prior to our surveys off of the coast of Cartagena, we dove on a shipwreck site in the bay in December 2012 located by the Colombian Navy’s Centro de Investigaciones Oceanográficas e Hidrográficas (CIOH). This site might have as many as four shipwrecks potentially from the Spanish defense of Cartagena during England’s siege in 1741.
With limited trade between Spain and England in the Western Hemisphere, tensions ran high. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back occurred when the commander of a Spanish patrol boat cut off English merchant Robert Jenkins’ ear for smuggling. The ear was subsequently preserved and taken to Parliament in England, following which England declared war on Spain and attempted to take over the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Known in English as the War of Jenkins’ Ear, major battles occurred from 1739-1742, ending in England’s defeat. The most crucial battle took place at Cartagena de Indias.
In 1739, British naval forces under the command of Admiral Edward Vernon easily took Portobelo and the Castillo de San Lorenzo in Panamá, en route to laying siege to the port of Cartagena. In 1741, the vastly outnumbered Spanish forces led by the shrewd one-eyed, one-legged, one-armed Admiral Blas de Lezo withstood a massive two-month long siege by consistently delaying and blocking British entry into the harbor, purposefully sinking several ships in order to do so. Eventually, the extended length of the struggle resulted in being Spain’s greatest weapon against the British, as sickness and lack of provisions and water proved to be too much for the now battle-weary British forces and they retreated, even though Vernon had already had medals made commemorating a British victory. This proved to be a huge blow to the British navy and had global repercussions that rippled throughout the rest of the British empire.
The wreck site exhibits a number of interesting features. There are a few ballast piles in a variety of shapes, several large cannons, exposed hull structure, and other features. This site could possibly be a number of the Spanish naval vessels Blas de Lezo sunk to bar British entry to the harbor, including one of the larger ships El Conquistador. Blas de Lezo also sank several commercial merchant vessels as well. Historians José M. Espinosa and Esther Gonzalez are working to obtain even more specific information about these ships and their cargo from the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain, including Blas de Lezo’s journal.
As this field season was brief, we focused mainly on offshore sites and did not have time to return to this site, knowing that this and other sites in the harbor and bay are protected as diving is highly restricted and requires clearance. However, our excitement over these shipwrecks continues to grow as we learn more from the historical information coming to light regarding the identities of all of the Spanish naval and merchant vessels that were sunk. At the same time, CIOH will continue the bathymetric survey of the harbor and bay, expanding the search area of the known site, as well as looking for new sites in other key locations. While it isn’t the clearest visibility, the combination of the sediments on the seafloor, the depth of the site, and the mixture of freshwater, preservation of the organic portions of this site such as the hull structure is quite high and we remain extremely excited about the potential for future discoveries to be made in the harbor and bay!
Funding and support provided by a National Geographic Society-Waitt Grant, the Universidad del Norte, the Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia, the Centro de Investigaciones Oceanográficas e Hidrográficas of the Dirección General Marítima, the Agencia Presidencial de Cooperación Internacional de Colombia, Halcyon Dive Systems, the Way Family Foundation, and The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.