Mercedes

The history of the New World is littered with Spanish shipwrecks.

The very first on record happened at the first hours of Christmas Day, 1492—the Santa Maria de la Inmaculada Concepción, flagship of Columbus, ran aground on the island of Hispaniola. In my latest book Clear Eyes, I describe it in detail.

The ship was steady, the cabin boy proud of his mission. Punta Santa was one league west-north-west of the flagship’s present position. The grumete held the tiller firm, remembering the instructions of the helmsman. Around him the sea was like glass. The current gently turned the ship and imperceptibly took it toward the shore and the sandbank drew nearer—the boy should have heard the surf and understood what it meant because you could hear the waves roar from one league away and the ship was much closer now but he was still dreaming of glory when the helm suddenly tilted as the hundred tonner slowly made itself fast on the ground. Then all around him were shouts as the sailor slapped him and knocked him flying, and Columbus emerged from his cabin bleary-eyed, his smock flapping and his white hair in disarray.

The Santa Maria was run aground by human error, and Columbus then used the timber to build a fort—he called it La Navidad, or Christmas. After he left for Castile, the Taino people killed the garrison and burned the fort, eliminating any trace of the ship.

The Spanish went on to lose six hundred eighty more vessels over the next centuries. For those who dream of colonialists decorated with mustache and goatee strutting the deck before bravely fighting  Bluebeard, the stats disappoint.

Of all the ships lost, only a handful succumbed to pirates—most were caught in hurricanes, storms, or other weather events, which explains why little is known about their disappearance.

The Spanish ministry of culture recently sponsored a study of the lost galleons, including ships that sailed under Cortez, Pizarro, and Nuñez de Balboa—the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. The study focuses on the Caribbean, drawing on the copious records that exist in the archives of Seville, and reports sinkings in Panama, Cuba, Bahamas, and the US Atlantic seaboard.

The aim of the work is not to identify the wrecks, which would encourage bounty hunters, but to safeguard the galleons, and protect them from accidental damage—this is a noble intent, but I suspect information on locations will leak quicker than the sinking galleons.

The research group is headed by marine archeologist Carlos Leon, who explains that over ninety percent of the wrecks foundered due to bad weather. In Cuban waters alone, 249 ships sank, and off the coast of Texas, Florida, and Mississippi, another one hundred fifty-three.

The Portuguese ‘naus’ that did the ‘Carreira da India’, or India Road, headed in the opposite direction, but suffered a similar fate. The maritime route to the real Indies did not include hurricanes—these typically form off West Africa and move across the Atlantic, blossoming as they feed on the warm waters of the North Equatorial Current.

Instead, the fleets of Lusitania were smitten by the waters of the Cape of Good Hope, more often than not living up to its original name—’Cabo das Tormentas’, or Cape of Storms. The long return journey up the West African coast, following the Benguela current, and then the ‘torna viagem’, the route out to sea up to the Azores, were also deathtraps for the heavily laden vessels.

As the Portuguese explorers ventured further east in the XVIth century, they too came across tai fung—Chinese for ‘great wind’. Just as the hurricanes laid low the Spanish galleons, so the typhoons of China and the Philippines wreaked havoc on the Portuguese ships.

In 1735-1736, a Portuguese author, Bernardo Brito, also published a study of the maritime losses of his nation—he called it ‘História Trágico-Marítima’, or a history of maritime tragedies. Only two volumes were published, although there is evidence the author prepared five—perhaps it was just too much tragedy, and I suspect the massive earthquake that destroyed downtown Lisbon in 1755 obliterated the missing manuscripts for ever.

The Spanish galleons were often laden with gold and silver, where the Portuguese ships would bring home cargoes of spices, exotic woods, and other Eastern wonders.

Through the XVIth and XVIIth centuries, the galleons increased greatly in size. Where the the entire crew of the first expedition of Columbus consisted of eighty-six men, distributed over the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, two hundred years later, the huge ships that sailed the Spanish Main had between five hundred and one thousand people aboard—when one sank, it was a huge human tragedy.

The same scaling applied to the Portuguese vessels—in 1495, Vasco da Gama took four ships to India, with a crew of 180, two vessels limped back—the death toll was appalling. As the potential of the East increased with the measure of the Portuguese Empire, so the ships became increasingly larger.

The Spanish research holds the promise of a digital version of the study, with interactive links to databases—it’s the sort of project that cries out for a cellphone app aimed at kids and adults.

The more we teach our children about the past, the less we’ll have to worry about the tinpot dictator wannabees that stain the present.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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