Treasures From a Legendary 17th-Century Shipwreck

2022-08-04

From August to December 1654, the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas (Our Lady of Wonders) waited in Cartagena, Colombia, for a cargo of silver that would never arrive. Unbeknownst to the ship's crew,its supply vessel, the Jesus Maria de la Limpia Concepción, had sunk on a reef off Ecuador that October.

Only after the Concepción's silver was salvaged and stowed on the Maravillas, alongside the galleon's own fresh load of silver coins and bars, did the Lady of Wonders embark on its journey home to Spain. At the time, ships sailing between Europe and the Americas had to pass through the Bahama Channel, a shortcut between Florida and the Bahamas' then-unmapped reefs. There, on January 4, 1656, the galleon lost its bearings.

Sailing as the vice-flagship of the Tierra Firme (Mainland) fleet, the Maravillas was rammed by its flagship and violently collided with a reef. The vessel sank like a stone, weighed down by its double cargo-the wreck of a wreck.

Today, the 891-ton Maravillas is the sunken crown jewel of the Bahamas, an island nation abounding in shipwrecks. Long exploited by treasure hunters, the 17th-century galleon is now being surveyed scientifically for the first time-an endeavor showcased in the Bahamas Maritime Museum, a privately owned institution slated to open in Freeport, Grand Bahama, on August 8.

Over 40 miles off the Little Bahama Bank, a group of scientists headed by philanthropist and explorer Carl Allen tows magnetometers (navigational devices that measure magnetic fields) across miles of seabed. Every find is plotted, from a shard of pottery to a cannon; currents are modeled, and seabed geology is assessed. Up in the air, an Icon A5 aircraft searches for scattered wreckage. Beneath the waves, a Triton submarine plummets down to 650 feet, eyes peeled for sections of the Maravillas that may have slipped into the abyss. Even with all hands on deck, the work is slow and painstaking. 

Throughout history, the waters surrounding the Bahamas have been an infamous playground for treasure hunters. Founded by Allen in 2016, Allen Exploration (also known as AllenX) is the first team to study the Maravillas with scientific rigor. Allen, a multimillionaire who made his money through a plastics business, also owns a fleet of yachts and the Bahamian island of Walker's Cay.

 In 2019, the Bahamian government granted AllenX a license to explore the wreck, ending a moratorium on shipwreck salvage expeditions that had been in place since 1999. The company owns and operates the soon-to-open museum, which features finds from the Maravillas, as well as displays on local history and culture.

The wreck's rare treasures

Held annually since 1566, the Tierra Firme's yearly sojourns to the New World had one main goal: to fill the fleet's ships with riches from Latin America's gold, silver and emerald mines, as well as copper, tobacco and Venezuelan pearls. Mined first by Indigenous peoples and then by enslaved Africans, these precious metals and gems helped fund the Franco-Spanish War, which began in 1635 and ended in 1659.

A remarkable find made by the AllenX team is an almost 2-pound, 6-foot-long gold filigree chain crafted from circular flat and tubular links and decorated with rosettes. A similar chain appears in a portrait of Philip IV of Spain, who was on the throne when the Maravillas sank. The jewelry's ornate appearance hints that it was commissioned by an elite client-perhaps even a royal one.

Uncut emeralds and amethysts, neither of which are listed on the Maravillas' Spain-bound cargo, are especially common. Spanish galleons returning from the Americas often carried contraband at least 20 percent above what was declared, and sometimes as much as 200 percent over. Smuggling was a national sport.

In addition to smuggled loot, the ship carried personal items and rare objects ready to be sold to wealthy Europeans. Among these privately owned treasures was a golden pendant shaped like a scallop shell and adorned with the cross of Santiago, or Saint James. The pendant is backed with an Indian bezoar stone, famous in Europe for its healing properties. 

Artifacts recovered from the Maravillas by AllenX form the bulk of the Bahamas Maritime Museum's collection. Carl and his wife,Gigi Allen, have also donated materials salvaged by other teams in Bahamian waters between the 1970s and 1990s and acquired for the museum.

Next to the shipwrecked wonders are displays on a range of topics, including the Indigenous Lucayan peoples, the Bahamas' little-known role in the transatlantic slave trade, and the island of New Providence's infamous role in the golden age of piracy. The museum worked closely with the Bahamian government to plan these exhibits.

Under the Antiquities, Monuments and Museum Act (amended in 2011), all wreckage in Bahamian waters is the property of the Bahamian government. AllenX is keeping all of its Maravillas finds together, conserved for display or storage in the museum. None of the artifacts recovered will be sold.

The museum's goal is to share the Bahamas' maritime legacy with Bahamians and the wider world. Visitors can watch artifacts from the wreck of the Maravillas being conserved through a glass window in an on-site lab; a museum education program teaches children about traditional boat building and archaeological techniques.

Since 2019, AllenX has discovered a total of 18 wrecks in the Bahamas. The company's archaeologists are still searching for the Maravillas' sterncastle (a raised section of the ship), which probably broke off and drifted away before the galleon sank, and they plan to continue their work long after the museum opens its doors.

www.smithsonianmag.com

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