Spanish shipwreck discovery leads to new insight, questions

News Reporter

Texas State alumni are among a group of archaeologists who identified a wrecked Spanish merchant ship, dating from the early 1680s, in the Chagres River off the coast of Panama. 

A team of archaeologists discovered the Spanish merchant ship named Nuestra Señora de Encarnación in 2008 while looking for remains of Captain Henry Morgan’s fleet.  The colonial merchant ship, or nao, is a rare archeological find and only a handful have been found.

“The entire wreck and its contents are significant,” said Frederick Hanselmann, research faculty and chief underwater archaeologist with The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. “Not only does it give us a snapshot of colonial Spanish life in late 17th century, but it allows us to gain insight into the world systems and networks of a budding globalization, which eventually leads to where we all are now.”

The ship’s remains highlight Spain’s “financial woes” during their time, Hanselmann said. Spain was in debt at the time of the ship’s demise and relied on the resources extracted from New World colonies.

Items found in the shipwreck include sword blades, mule shoes, lead cargo seals, a wooden chest with scissors and unidentified tubular objects and a wooden barrel, the contents of which are still unknown, Hanselmann said. 

“There’s not much talk about Spanish-America from the late 17th century,” said Luis Vieira Filipe de Castro, archaeologist and member of the expedition. “So to have an artifact as complicated as a ship from the 1680s is an amazing opportunity to study what was happening then.”  

Throughout history, the Chagres River has served as a road of travel for countless explorers, including Christopher Columbus on his last voyage, Hanselmann said. The river has been, and continues to be, a major source of life-blood for maritime trade and economy.

“Ships and shipwrecks are very important because they carry people, cargo and ideas,” de Castro said. 

There are approximately 30 historic ships known to have sunk in the Chagres River over the course of time, Hanselmann said. 

Chris Horrell, assistant project director and Texas State alumnus, said the archaeologists were able to pinpoint the exact location of the shipwreck using a magnetometer, a large metal detector that identifies changes in the Earth’s magnetic fields. 

“Panama is a very important piece of land in the history of the new world,” said de Castro.

Fishermen and treasure hunters claimed to have taken treasures from the ship, but de Castro believes nothing was stolen after examining the wreckage. 

Hanselmann found a series of guns on Lajas Reef during the first year of the exploration, that were “almost certainly lost” when five of Henry Morgan’s ships vanished in 1671 near the reef.

The team focused on searching for Morgan’s shipwreck in 2011 after recovering the guns, Hanselmann said. 

The Encarnación was discovered during an overall study of the maritime cultural landscape of the Chagres River in Panama, Hanselmann said. Morgan was a member of the Welsh Royal Navy, which played a key role in the “sacking” of Panama during the later part of the 17th century.

Horrell said the Encarnación had wrecked 10 years prior to the sinking of Morgan’s fleet and is unrelated to those ships.

Hanselmann said no evidence of Morgan or his privateers has been uncovered, despite the archaeological ruins of his ship found off the coast of Panama City. 

“The ship tells a story,” de Castro said. “It tells a story of a very interesting period. There are a lot of unanswered questions.”