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Haiti shipwreck is not Columbus’s Santa Maria, says Unesco

Painting of the Santa Maria, part of the fleet of Christopher Columbus
Painting of the Santa Maria, part of the fleet of Christopher Columbus. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

Claims that a wreck found off Haiti was Christopher Columbus’s flagship from his first voyage to the Americas have been scuttled after experts determined it was that of a ship from a later period.

The marine archaeologist Barry Clifford announced in May that he believed he had identified the wreck of the Santa Maria (video), one of three ships Columbus led on his first crossing of the Atlantic, which sank in 1492 off the northern coast of Haiti.

The UN cultural body Unesco dispatched a team of experts to the wreck, located off the town of Cap-Haitien, to examine the remains, which were found in the area where Columbus said the ship ran aground.

“There is now indisputable proof that the wreck is that of a ship from a much later period,” Unesco said on Monday.

“Although the site is located in the general area where one would expect to find the Santa Maria based on contemporary accounts of Columbus’s first voyage, it is further away from shore than one should expect,” experts said in a final report.

“Furthermore, and even more conclusively, the fasteners found on the site indicate a technique of ship construction that dates the ship to the late 17th or 18th century rather than the 15th or 16th century.”

They said an artefact recovered on site could be the remains of protective copper sheathing, and if it was, then “the ship could even not be dated to a time before the late 18th century”.

Columbus set sail on 3 August 1492 from Palos de la Frontera in southern Spain, with the Santa Maria, La Niña and La Pinta, searching for a shortcut to Asia. On 12 October of that year, he is believed to have landed in Guanahani, which historians have identified as an island in the Bahamas, in what is popularly called the “Discovery of the Americas”.

Columbus stopped in Cuba, and then Hispaniola – home to modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic – before the Santa Maria hit a reef and went down on 25 December 1492. The Spaniards built a fort near where the ship went down and then Columbus headed back to Spain to report to Queen Isabella on his trip. By the time he returned the next year, the fort had been burned down, and the crew left behind had died or disappeared.

The Unesco report said it was possible that, due to heavy sedimentation along the coast from rivers, the wreck had been buried over the past centuries. “The ship may also, however, have been slowly worn down by the waves, potentially leaving remains on a reef or sandbank in the bay,” it said, adding that Clifford had probably announced his discovery based on this second theory.

Unesco called for more exploration in the area, which was subject to heavy shipping traffic for centuries, to try to find the Santa Maria and draw up an inventory of other major wrecks there. It also called on Haiti – one of the world’s poorest countries – to enhance protection of its underwater heritage, which has been hit by looting.

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