What Columbus left behind

By Juan Zamorano

Associated Press

NOMBRE DE DIOS, Panama – Cannons, swords and pottery shards recovered from a 16th-century ship just off Panama’s coast suggest the vessel may have been used by Christopher Columbus or one of the earliest Spanish conquistadors.

There’s apparently no treasure aboard. But American shipwreck hunter Warren White, who first detected the remains of the vessel while catching lobsters here in 1998, believes he found a Columbus ship, and experts say there’s some evidence to support that theory.

Excitement grew late last week as small bronze cannons were hauled to the surface and more of the ship’s wooden structure was surveyed. But definitive evidence – a bell or anchor that might carry the vessel’s name – remained elusive.

“Our first hypothesis is that this is Columbus’ ship, the Vizcaina,” said Rafael Ruiloba, director of the National Culture Institute at the site near the port of Nombre de Dios, 75 miles east of Panama City.

“On the other hand, it could be one of the ships of (conquistador Francisco) Pizarro,” Ruiloba said as he oversaw work at the site, about 30 yards off the coast. “One thing is sure, and that is that we are looking at one of the earliest ships of the conquest.”

Some evidence has surfaced that would support the idea that the 60- to 70-foot vessel is indeed the Vizcaina, one of the larger boats Columbus used on his fourth and final voyage to America. Historical records indicate Columbus’ crew scuttled the Vizcaina in 1503 after it sprang leaks near Portobelo, about 18 miles away from Nombre de Dios.

The wreck off Nombre de Dios was made with wooden pegs rather than iron nails – an indication that it is a very old vessel. Additionally, the ship’s bottom is not covered with sheets of lead, a practice the Spaniards began in 1508 to combat marine worms that ate wooden hulls.

The three 5-foot cannons recovered so far, complete with stone projectiles the size of soccer balls, match the kind of lombard cannons the earliest explorers and conquerers would have used.

As divers worked in about 20 feet of water just off the shore, they spotted a half-decayed wooden chest containing what were apparently swords. After raising the chest, researchers quickly lowered it into the sea again, fearing that contact with the air might damage it.

The discoveries raised a question: If the ship was intentionally scuttled, why were valuable cannons and arms left aboard?

White suggests Columbus – as an explorer, not a conquerer – had little use for cannons. Instead, White said, there is evidence that a more vital item was removed: all the ship’s sails and rigging.

The wreckage lies on a route that also would have been used by Pizarro, who conquered Peru for the Spaniards in 1532-1533. But White remains steadfast in his belief that the ship was part of Columbus’ fleet.

“The fact that the captain apparently ordered the ship sunk, and there isn’t any lead on the bottom, and that it carries the same kind of weaponry, leads us to believe this is the Vizcaina,” he said.

Though White first brought the wreck to Panamanian authorities’ attention in 1998, excavations did not begin until this week. White, a Florida native, is helping with the project as a volunteer government consultant aboard a ship loaned to the project by a private firm.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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