Chagres River (Panama): Mysterious Shipwreck Identified

Rossella Lorenzi

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Fritz Hanselmann maps a section of the wreck. Credit: The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment

Underwater archaeologists have solved the mystery of a shipwreck filled with sword blades, scissors and mule shoes more than three years after finding it in the waters off the Caribbean coast of Panama.

The vessel has been identified as the Nuestra Señora de Encarnación, a colonial Spanish ship known as a nao, or merchant ship, that sank in 1681 during a storm at the mouth of Panama’s Chagres River.

“This truly is an exciting and intriguing shipwreck,” said project director Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann, the project director and underwater archaeologist at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

Very few Spanish merchant naos have ever been found, and even fewer have been unearthed in theEncarnacións’s amazing condition.

Resting at a depth of just 40 feet, the 334-year-old wreck is buried in up to 3 feet of muddy sand and silt that preserved the entire lower portion of the ship’s hull.

“The cargo includes a wide variety of artifacts, in particular over 100 wooden boxes containing sword blades, scissors, mule shoes, nails and ceramics,” Hanselmann said.

Originally constructed in Veracruz, Mexico, Encarnación sailed as part of the Tierra Firme fleet, en route to Portobelo, Panama from Cartagena, Colombia.

One of Spain’s great treasure convoys, the Tierra Firme left Spain for the New World every year carrying supplies for the colonists and returning with precious metals, emeralds and pearls. The trade was the backbone of Spain’s colonial economy.

Hanselmann and colleagues stumbled upon the vessel in 2011, during their ongoing search for five ships the 17th century pirate Captain Henry Morgan lost en route to sacking Panama City in 1671. A year before, the team recovered guns that were lost overboard when Morgan’s ships ran aground.

The researchers have no doubt the wreck is the Encarnación.

“The location of the ship is consistent with the story of the wrecking event. The only other vessel that went down immediately after that storm in that location was a small salvage barge. This is no barge,” Hanselmann told Discovery News.

He noted that three other vessels were lost during that storm, but closer to Portobelo.

“Other than the loss of Morgan’s ships in this area 10 years prior, there are no other contemporaneous accounts of Spanish merchant vessel losses off the Chagres,” he said.

According to maritime archaeologist and assistant project director Melanie Damour, the vessel’s construction matches the information currently available on Encarnación.

“We have a substantial amount of preserved hull structure and our measurements are fairly consistent with the construction details we have found so far. In addition, we know that Encarnación was constructed of mahogany and oak, both of which we documented,” Damour said.

Moreover, Encarnación’s cargo manifest matches what has been found in the archaeological record so far.

The ship sank with barrels and wooden boxes filled with swords, mule shoes, tacks, cloth roles, and lead bale seals with inscriptions. Apart from perishable organic material, the items are still in place.

“The contemporary salvage attempts after the wrecking event were mostly unsuccessful as the only thing they could recover was a few bales of cloths,” Chris Horrell, maritime archaeologist and assistant project director, told Discovery News.

Hanselmann noted a certain duality in most of the cargo. The objects themselves provide a snapshot of colonial Spanish life in late 17th century.

Sword blades, scissors and mule shoes were very common items that had multiple uses and were employed in everyday life,” he said.

“The sword blade could serve as a weapon of the Crown’s soldiers, but could also be utilized for everyday cutting needs. The scissors that could assist in treating wounds would also have other uses in other professions. The mule shoes were necessary not only for transporting silver and gold across the isthmus, but transporting goods and merchandise from one town to the next,” he added.

According to the researchers, the area where the Encarnación lies may and hold up to 30 shipwrecks.

“The waters surrounding the mouth of the Chagres River and further along the Caribbean coast of Panama hold more than 500 years of storied maritime history,” Hanselmann said.

“The search for Morgan’s lost ships will continue and who knows what else we will discover along the way,” he added.