Spain logs hundreds of shipwrecks that tell story of maritime past

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Weather rather than pirates caused majority of sinkings, says culture ministry team

Columbus’s ship the Santa María runs aground off what is now Haiti on Christmas Day 1492. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty

The treacherous waters of the Americas had their first taste of Spanish timber on Christmas Day 1492, when Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa María, sank off the coast of what is now Haiti.

Over the following four centuries, as Spain’s maritime empire swelled, peaked and collapsed, the waves on which it was built devoured hundreds of ships and thousands of people, swallowing gold, silver and emeralds and scattering spices, mercury and cochineal to the currents.

Today, three researchers working for the Spanish culture ministry have finished the initial phase of a project to catalogue the wrecks of the ships that forged and maintained the empire.

Led by an archaeologist, Carlos León, the team has logged 681 shipwrecks off Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Bermuda, the Bahamas and the US Atlantic coast.

Its inventory runs from the sinking of the Santa María to July 1898, when the Spanish destroyer Plutón was hit by a US boat off Cuba, heralding the end of the Spanish-American war and the twilight of Spain’s imperial age.

After spending five years scouring archives in Seville and Madrid, León, his fellow archaeologist Beatriz Domingo and the naval historian Genoveva Enríquez have put together a list aimed at safeguarding the future and shedding light on the past.

“We had two fundamental objectives,” says León. “One was to come up with a tool that can be used for identifying and protecting wreck sites – especially in areas where there’s a high concentration of sunken ships.

Archaeologists have located the remains of fewer than a quarter of the 681 vessels on the inventory to date.

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