December 2001...

The Spanish Conquest comes back into view

story by Eric Jackson
graphics by Eric Jackson and Warren White

"In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." That much is commonly known about the man whom Arawaks discovered on their beach in what was later to become the Bahamas that October 12 way back then.

But of course, Columbus sailed to the Americas three more times, looking for a passage to Cathay's fabled riches. He never did find that passage, but on his fourth voyage he did touch upon Panama.

That last trip was a disaster, even by Columbus's standards. You have heard about his flagship on the first voyage, the Santa Maria? That fair ship never made it back to Spain. Its remains, somewhere off of Hispaniola, have never been found. At least he also had the Pinta and the Niña. On his fourth voyage, however, Columbus lost several members of his crew to battles with the people he met in Panama, and all of his ships to the elements. He and the survivors were marooned for a year before they were rescued and shipped back to Spain, and when the man who is said to have discovered America got there, the king and queen no longer wanted to talk to him.

Coming out of the Gulf of Mexico and down the Central American isthmus, Columbus scouted out the coast and paid special attention when he got to Panama, to a place that he called "Veragua" for the green Caribbean waters. Here Columbus found the locals had gold.

During a long stopover on the Rio Belen, Columbus persuaded the people to show his men where gold was found, and the local cacique, one Quibian, was persuaded that the visitors' intentions were not benign. Actually, it was an easy conclusion to reach, once Columbus had imprisoned the cacique and most of his family.

The result was war, with the Spaniards and their Italian leader driven back to their ships. They fled the Rio Belen, but had to leave one of the ships, the Gallega, behind. That ship had become unseaworthy, mainly due to the appetites of the teredo seaworms that fed on its hull's timbers.

It soon turned out that all of the ships were seriously affected, and one more, the Vizcaina, had to be abandoned off of Panama. It has long been said that the Vizcaina was left behind somewhere near Portobelo.

Portobelo, however, was not founded by the Spaniards. It had a large pre-Columbian population, and wouldn't have been the sort of place where an expedition that had just fled from a battle up the coast would pick to strip a ship of that which might prove useful and could be carried.

After leaving the Vizcaina, Columbus and his men set sail, but had to abandon their remaining ships in Jamaica, where they waited to be rescued. The Vizcaina and the Gallega faded away from living memory, and their whereabouts were forgotten.

Then, one afternoon in 1998, Warren White, a transplanted Floridian who spends most of his time on a boat that docks at the Cristobal Yacht Club, was lobstering with his son Wesley (now a Marine, stationed in Hawaii) when they swam over something odd. It was a coral formation, in the unmistakable shape of a very old late 15th or early 16th century Lombard cannon. Further investigation on a visit about three months later revealed stone mortar balls, munitions that went obsolete well before the 17th century.

White knew that he had located a very old ship, and showed one of the mortar balls to archaeologist Carlos Fitzgerald. However, Panama's budget for archaeology was next to nothing at the time, and some interesting pre-Columbian sites had priority. Fitzgerald wasn't too impressed, and the National Institute of Culture (INAC) didn't check out the site.

Several years later, White met Nilda Vásquez, a longtime amateur diver, history buff and in the Moscoso administration the parttime coordinator of INAC activities at the colonialera Portobelo Customs House, which has been restored and turned into a museum and community center with generous assistance from the Spanish government. White showed Vásquez one of the mortar balls he recovered, and showed her the site. Her interest was piqued, and she approached her superiors.

They pleaded poverty at INAC, but Vásquez had an idea. A company formed by her son and nephew, Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo, SA, (IMDI) could get American backing and recover the artifacts from the ship at no cost to INAC. Thus in May of 2000 a contract was signed between INAC and IMDI, which provides that the company will be paid half the fair market value of anything of historical interest that Panama wants to keep.

Diving got underway, and clues mounted.

In 1508, largely due to experiences like that of Columbus on his fourth voyage, the Spanish crown ordered that ships sailing to the New World should be sheathed in lead, to exclude the teredo worms. This ship had no such metal sheathing.

The Lombard cannons aboard were old in any case, but these ones had been held in place by lashing them to a board with ropes. That was 15th century technology, something that wasn't done very long into the 16th century.

The ship's anchors were there, and more than the number of cannons that a ship that size would carry. There weren't many ballast stones. There were hardly any personal possessions on the site, nor was there much in the way of rigging left behind. As in, a ship that had been abandoned rather than wrecked, after having first been stripped of her rigging.

Moreover, as in a ship that already carried cannons salvaged from another ship, which were used as ballast instead of stones.

Is this, then, the remains of the Vizcaina?

As dry season sets in, rainy seasons winds that blow steadily from the south and are broken by the land of Panama start coming from other directions, and the Caribbean Sea turns from a glassy calm to choppy and murky. I set out to visit the site where the Vizcaina may have been abandoned on the last day of recovery work for the season. Objects had been marked and readied for lifting, but visibility was poor and would get worse until next March or April.

First, we stopped at Nilda Vázquez's house in Portobelo. She lives a couple of doors down from INAC's recovery tanks, which were built at IMDI's expense and in which objects from the ship that might be the Vizcaina, as well as from other underwater sites, are carefully preserved in frequently changed fresh water, the first step in a restoration process that can take two years.

That morning, La Prensa was alleging corruption. Cartoonist Julio Briceño, who goes on trial for criticizing former Vice-President Ricardo Arias Calderon on December 28, was portraying INAC as a collection of pirates. The news story used the word "nepotism." Vásquez's phone kept ringing. Her ex-husband, who has a name similar to her son's, was being called by reporters, and wanted to know what was up. The 1966 Cristobal High School grad saw herself as the entree in a media feeding frenzy and wasn't happy about it. She complained about unfair speculation, and about how none of her critics seemed willing to give her credit for having learned anything in the more than 20 years that she has been diving around Atlantic side shipwrecks.

We headed east toward Nombre de Dios, there to get a launch to take us to the diving boat Castile, from which recovery operations were taking place. With us went National Police Sergeant David Moran, there to note what was recovered and to keep the pirates away. This was the sergeant's first assignment of this type. Panama doesn't train its cops in protecting archaeological sites, but given the public uproar and the priceless nature of the artifacts if they are indeed from the Vizcaina, the police rightly perceive a need for protection.

The object above is a servidor for a breach-loading cannon, but the object to its right has those who are working on what they believe to be the remains of the Vizcaina baffled.

While waiting for our ride out to the dive site, I talked with Warren White about his find. A former North Lauderdale cop and Montana bed and breakfast operator, White has been an amateur historian for most of his adult life, and has been diving around shipwrecks since 1967. He has visited archives in Spain, Portugal and elsewhere. He constantly refers to archives available on the Internet. He is convinced that he has found one of Columbus's ships.

"You come back 500 years, almost touching him," White said of the diving experience. "Columbus was on that ship at one time. Maybe this goes to show that the Age of Discovery isn't over, after all. It's an incentive to go out there and find something."

The public uproar, some of which marks him as as gringo treasure hunter eager to strip Panama of its valuables, incites various emotional responses from White. The rumor that six boatloads of gold were taken from the site makes him laugh. The possibility of the project being scuttled by political infighting, and by aspersions cast by rivals who want to take away the recovery effort for their own enterprises, cause him exasperation. "Hopefully, people will get together and stop all this pettiness," he said, adding that "fortunately, now some of this is going to be preserved." He was particularly annoyed with some of the criticism in the press. "They didn't ask anybody," he complained. "They just made an assumption about something somebody told them."

These stone mortar balls, now in one of INAC's preservation tanks, were one early indication of how old the ship off Playa Dama really is. Such munitions were obsolete well before the 1600s.

Lifting was underway by the time that we got to the Castile. "The cannons we're going to lift out today are supreme examples of 15th century weaponry," White told me as he was suiting up to join th dive. Already on deck there were a servidor the lock of a breach loading Lombard cannon and a mysterious mass of things with a ring that looks like it could have been a barrel hoop, or part of a navigational instrument. The first cannon up was a Lombard.

The next cannon, which was smaller, was a swivel-mounted Verso. It was locked and loaded, and taken from the side of the ship toward the shore.

So was Columbus worried about an attack from the land while stripping the Vizcaina? Considering what happened on the Rio Belen, it would have made sense.

Then came the remnants of a barrel full of tools, and some coral that had formed around iron chains.

The day's prize, however, was neither rusted nor coral encrusted. It wasn't even all that big.

It was a bronze servidor, from a very old cannon.

Vásquez pointed out certain inscriptions on the piece: "This is the date 83. This Roman numeral V, with four points, is the caliber. It's a beauty."

If she is right about the number 83 standing for a date, that has powerful implications. Such gun parts were not used after the mid-1500s, which means that the marking would date the weapon to 1483. That would fairly well identify the ship as the Vizcaina.

[Editor's note: subsequent research cast some doubt on Vásquez's interpretation of the markings. More likely, the 83 stood for the gun's weight, and the VIIII stood for the specific gun to which the servidor belonged.]

After an afternoon of diving and lifting in the sun, it was time to call it a season. But what if politics intervene, and this was Nilda Vásquez's last day on the site?

"It doesn't bother me," she said. "I'm not a politician. The people behind me are, but I do this for fun."

This servidor for a Lombard cannon is now in one of INAC's freshwater tanks. After some time in frequently changed fresh water, much of the salt will be removed from the relic. Then comes a process by which the rust is restored to metal and the coral accretions are cleaned off. After about two years of careful work, the object will look much more like its old self.

Warren White discovered the site while lobstering in 1998. He had a hard time getting Panamanian officials interested in the find, but now he's working as a volunteer with INAC and IMDI.

The shape of this coral encrusted weapon and the method by which it was attached into firing position identify it as a Lombard cannon of the sort used in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

We don't know what this amphora raised from the site off of Playa Dama contains. The wax seal on the ceramic container, which is about 500 years old, remains intact.

Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo has provided INAC with the water tanks needed to desalinate fragile maritime artifacts in the initial stages of the restoration process.

January 2002...

Recovery efforts at possible Columbus ship change gears

by Eric Jackson

In 2000, when the people at INAC didn't have a good idea about the value of a shipwreck off of Playa Dama, near Nombre de Dios, the cash-strapped agency signed a standard contract with Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo (IMDI), that would have given the company half the market value of anything recovered that the Panamanian government wanted to keep. That was before evidence began to mount that this was the remains of the Vizcaina, one of the ships from Columbus's fourth voyage of discovery. If that's the case, the coral-encrusted metal and sand-preserved wooden objects, which have none of the intrinsic and easily appraised value of gold, silver and precious stones, are so priceless that there can be no realistic assessment of market value. And indeed, on December 7 the directors of the National Institute of Culture declared the entire shipwreck and all the objects related to it a National Historic Site. That meant that nothing would go on the market, Panama wouldn't pay forartifacts that it claims as its sovereign property, and IMDI wuldn't be compensated as contemplated.

However, IMDI has media rights, and if the site that they have been working without pay turns out to be the Vizcaina, the fame involved and the worldwide public interest could still make it a profitable business venture for IMDI. The Panamanian company, which is backed by US investors who more usually fund searches for the golden kind of treasures, has brought in top-notch scientific advice and attracted renowned documentary makers to take advantage of those opportunities. On January 20 IMDI, INAC officials, Panamanian museum boosters and the new experts who have been called in gathered at the Union Club for a press conference and then a professional discussion about policies and procedures.

Before any of the archaeologists or documentary makers had their say, however, IMDI's secretary, attorney Saturio Segarra, quietly dropped a hint of another important find. He said that the company has a pretty good idea of where the remains of the other ship that Columbus abandoned in Panama, the Gallega, are to be found. According to Spanish archives the Gallega was left on the Rio Belen, but over the years a number of expeditions have sought and never found the ship there.

Dr. Diógenes Cedeño Cenci, president of the Fundacion Cultural de las Americas, started out the professional discussion by noting the importance of the find, if it turns out to be the Vizcaina. The colonial town of Nombre de Dios had not been founded when Columbus visited the isthmus, and Cedeño explained that modern historians believe that Nombre was part of an area that was called Bastimientos by the first European to chart Panama, Rodrigo de Bastides. Columbus left records saying that he abandoned the Vizcaina in Portobelo, and thus the ship's discovery well to the east of what we now know as Portobelo would require what Cedeño called "a rectification of history."

"This discovery will give us new points of reference," Cedeño opined, noting as well what an important development the location of the Gallega would be.

Dr. Bertalicia de Corró, from the Amigos de Museos, concurred. "There are many gaps in the story of the mixture of cultures" at the time of the Spanish conquest, she noted, predicting that whether the ship off Playa Dama is the Vizcaina or some other early 16th century vessel, it will contain important information for ethnologists.

Cedeño and Corró both had praise for INAC officials, who have faced much criticism from that part of the national press with a partisan orientation against the Moscoso administration's for the original deal with IMDI. Cedeño noted the efforts of INAC's director of national patrimony, Carlos Fitzgerald, for his unceasing but largely unfunded efforts on many fronts to recover and preserve the nation's archaeological legacy. Corró praised Nilda Vásquez, who runs INAC's activities at the restored colonial-era Portobelo Customs House as a part-time employee, as "one of Panama's important cultural figures" because of her years of dedication to the country's underwater archaeological treasures.

IMDI's president, Captain Ernesto Cordovez V. --- a controversial figure to La Prensa readers because he's Nilda Vásquez's son --- explained that the company was founded by Panamanians to specialize in the rescue of submerged archaeological and historical artifacts, and to do so with "honesty, integrity and professionalism." He explained the work that has been done so far, using metal detectors, blowers that channel propeller wash downwards to move sand away from a site, and suction tubes that can recover small objects from the sand. He noted that the things that have been recovered so far were objects found lying around the wreck, because the site is fragile and the work of removing objects from the structure and the raising the hull itself are tasks that require specialists who are trained to do the job without doing any damage. He also said that careful records have been kept of objects taken from the site, and that in addition to INDI people, there have been INAC and police observers at the site to verify everything and prevent looting.

Cordovez mentioned the preservation tanks into which most of the objects recovered are being preserved. IMDI built the tanks for the INAC facilities in Portobelo, and maintains the water at a five percent salinity and a PH of 9 to 10, which provides the proper chemical environment for salt to leach out of the objects that it has permeated for centuries. When this slow process has run its course, the oxidized metal will be restored by an electrolysis treatment, in a facility that IMDI will be setting up. "We haven't come to this stage," Cordovez noted, adding that when the time comes the process will be managed by specialized archaeologists to be chosen by INAC.

The preservation tanks are simple concrete affairs, with no signs proclaiming their presence to the people who drive through Portobelo. However, Cordovez said that tourists from cruise ships calling in Colon have asked to see the first objects recovered from what may be the Vizcaina, and thus the find has already brought more than 300 foreign visitors to Portobelo. He raised the possibility that one day a museum showing off the Vizcaina could become a tourist draw that rivals Cartagena's and Puerto Rico's historical attractions. "It benefits everybody. It's good for all Panama," he said of his company's efforts.

Next to speak at the press conference, and the main person at the policy and procedures session with IMDI and INAC people afterwards, was an important figure in the world of underwater archaeology, Dr. Donald Keith. Complimenting American diving enthusiast Warren White for discovering the wreck, Keith noted the recovery effort's progress. "This is still in the early days of excavation," he noted, warning against the tendency to reach early sensational conclusions. As an example, he recalled a find in the early 1980s in the Bahamas, which was first thought to be the Pinta, one of the ships from Columbus's first voyage, but then turned out not be be what it first seemed. "No matter what it turns out to be," Keith said, "it's an important site. It's early, and it's well preserved.

Though he warned that it's rare when one single object can identify a ship, Keith said that once the anchors have been raised, preserved and cleaned, their examination may go a long way toward making a positive identification. Generally, he said, the process of dating an old shipwreck is done by creating a chart of every object recovered and the dates when such objects came into and went out of use. A seventeenth century cannon aboard will, for example, rule out a theory that the wreck dates back to the sixteenth century.

Keith also noted the importance of the ballast stones and the ship's timbers for archaeologists. The right studies by the right experts can pinpoint the origins of the stones and the wood, which then can say a lot about where a ship was built.

The archaeologist said that the rigging chains recovered from off Playa Dama indicate that the ship was square rigged, as it is know that the Vizcaina was. He added that the stone mortar balls and bronze cannon servidor were munitions not made after the early 16th century, but in use until at least the mid-1500s. He said that ceramic debris, something that's generally useless to treasure hunters, can say a lot about a vessel's age, provenance and itinerary. On this site one ceramic amphora has been recovered with its seal and contents intact, while other broken storage jars still have their cork stoppers in place. "Would Christopher Columbus have left provisions behind?," Dr. Keith asked. Moreover, if he did so, why and under what circumstances? The archaeologist said that these questions would also apply to the unusually large number of cannons aboard for a caravel of its time.

Keith urged patience: "In any project of this sort, you can expect to spend years" learning everything that an old ship has to tell. "Over time, you will need three distinctly different types of people --- the people who go out to find things; the ones who analyze, clean and conserve objects; and the person who will protect the artifacts and keep them together."

"Right now is the time to come up with a master plan," Keith advised. He warned against working day-to-day without a plan, and against starting projects without the resources to finish them. He panned the project as a business proposition: "I don't think that a profit motive will carry this work through to completion." He urged those assembled, and Panamanians in general, to "put the shipwreck first" in their considerations about what to do.

The next person to address the press conference was Dara Padwo-Audick, a writer, producer and director for the Viginia-based Creative Strategies independent film making company. She and her company have done work for National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, and this is the sort of documentary that she expects them to buy. Padwo-Audick told of negative experiences in other countries, where greed, ignorance or excessive rivalries have prompted people to rush recovery efforts, use unsound techniques and ultimately "squander their treasures." Here, she said, there is "an opportunity to document how a shipwreck of this importance is recovered in the proper way."

Creative Strategies' executive producer Michael Hughes was also upbeat about the possibilities. He called the site off Playa Dama "one of the most important archaeological finds in quite some time," even if it turns out not to be the Vizcaina. "By itself, the site may not be so important, but its treatment can be the most important factor in marine archaeology in the Western Hemisphere," he said. Hughes advised Panamanians to "take control, and save this for everybody."

INAC's Carlos Fitzgerald then came to the podium to explain and defend the institute's actions and decisions. "The Republic of Panama confronts a challenge," he said, "a challenge to our own identity on the eve of our centennial." He explained that, because of concerns raised when the age and value of the site became apparent, INAC listed the shipwreck as an underwater archaeological site, which implies a number of legal protections. "The objects at this site are not subject to commercial exploitation --- they are public property," he noted first. Himself one of Panama's few trained archaeologists, Fitzgerald added that unscientific recovery methods won't be permitted, and that except in the case where it's necessary to temporarily send things to foreign labs that perform services unavailable in Panama, none of the objects that are recovered will be sent abroad.

Fitzgerald expressed special interest in the wood of the approximately 40 percent of the hull that survives. He said that apart from any connection with Columbus, the ship off Playa Dama can teach scientists and historians a lot about old shipbuilding techniques and the European economy of the early 16th century. The species of wood, for example, may identify its country of origin, which would in turn say something about international trade of the ship's times.

"We're facing millions in costs for this project," Fitzgerald explained, adding that INAC has had the "support of IMDI" in doing recovery and restoration work that the government institute did not have the budget to perform.

The archaeologist said that whether or not the ship is the Vizcaina, it's a discovery of "transcendental importance," a "very old ship" that's "part of our origins as a nation." He suggested something that a lot of Nombre de Dios residents want to hear, the building of a museum in that town as a showcase for the ship and its artifact.

Warren White ended the press conference by thanking everybody "for giving me the privilege of finding this ship for Panama," praising Nilda Vásquez for her interest in what he had found, and expressing "hope that I am here to see the end of this project."

At a smaller gathering after the press conference, Dr. Keith spoke in English, with Dr. Fitzgerald translating. Keith recalled a job he did two decades ago, when an old shipwreck was found off the Turk and Caicos Islands. The tiny British colony off the northeast coast of Cuba didn't have much in the way of resources, but the scientific world was mobilized and now that ship is the pride of the country's national museum.

"The good news is that you have a terrific, world-class shipwreck," Keith said. "The bad news is the responsibility that goes with it. The whole world is watching you."

Keith advised the people from INAC and IMDI to make a chart of different things that must happen, from the site's discovery to the final products like museum displays and documentary films. He urged everybody to read up and learn from other people's experiences.

Stressing the importance of record keeping, Keith said that a more precise map of the site and the locations of all objects on and around it is a necessity. He also advised the creation of a chart that shows the date ranges of each artifact recovered as one method to date the wreck, and publication of findings in respected scientific journals. He warned that in the world of serious archaeology, "if you didn't write it down, it didn't happen."

Keith warned against premature or amateur attempts to clean and restore artifacts that are recovered. "Conservation of objects taken from the sea is a very specialized field of study --- when the time comes, you will need help with it."

The Texas-based archaeologist concluded with his expert summary: "You have a great project. In many ways, I am envious."

© 2002 by The Panama News
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