Thursday, January 31, 2008

more on Antigua and Barbuda Shipwrecks

From my web tracker I can see that I am getting quite a few hits from people searching for wrecks around Antigua and Barbuda. My last shipwreck blog attempted to explain how a particular wreck at Cades has ended up. I said that I would speak more about wrecks so here goes.
For me the history of the Caribbean has always been a very interesting topic especially as it relates to maritime issues. Back in the early parts of the fifteenth century, sailing vessels couldn't sail close to the wind. In fact, most sailing was done by going with the winds (reaching or running) rather than sailing into it (beating). What made the European "discovery" of the West Indies possible was what we now call the "trade winds" which essentially make it possible for mariners to leave Europe and pass through the West Indies and the East Coast of the USA before returning back to Europe without ever having to beat into the winds. Had the circular Atlantic trade trades been different History would have been shaped defiantly as well. The Caribbean would still probably be populated by the indigenous people who have mostly long been forgotten. It’s an interesting thing to ponder, but not quite the way this blog is supposed to be going. SHIPWRECKS! Oh ya....
Ok so we know that from the start of Trans Atlantic crossings people have been sailing, from West to East in the lower half of the Northern Atlantic and from East to West in the Northern Atlantic. What’s my point...? Ok well I am trying to explain what type of ships would end up wrecking here and what type of cargo generally would have been lost in wrecks here in the Eastern Caribbean. People are always so excited when they imagine ship wrecks. I know that as a kid I saw that great film, The Deep, and never lost that excitement when it came to wrecks. The lure of treasure, history and the unknown is what shipwrecks were all about to me. Many people just think and imagine the treasure. Remember the story of all that Inca gold. This fantastic website gives you some fascinating history of how Spain managed to steal huge quantities of gold and sail it back to Europe. Those poor Inca. I remember having to study all about this back in high school. It made me so mad back then. Pizarro plundered all the gold and took it back to Spain leaving disease and colonization behind to wreck an entire advanced civilization all just in a blink of an eye. The gold would never have passed through the eastern Caribbean. In fact of all the gold found in "The New World", none would have passed anywhere near Antigua or Barbuda as we are right upwind and up current of where they would have loaded all these treasures. One of the reasons that the Spanish didn't colonize these islands was that there was no gold or silver here. There are no metals precious or other at any of the Amerindian archaeological sites here in the Eastern Caribbean. Sailing ships would have sailed with their treasures, reaching through the Gulf of Mexico, passing the Florida Keys, going along the Gulf Stream north before sailing east back to Spain. The most famous treasure ship of all time was the Nuestra SeƱora de Atocha which sank along with a few other ships during a hurricane back on September 5th 1622. It was full to the gills with gold, silver and stones all taken from Peru. It had just left Havana and was on its way back to Spain using the Gulf Stream to get as far north as she needed to before sailing due east back home. That was the plan anyway. Instead 260 of the 265 passengers and crew perished never to be seen again. The wreck was quickly found sitting in 55 feet of water and salvage crews tried to get the treasure without any luck until another massive hurricane disrupted efforts. The ship was lost until 1985 when the infamous Mel Fisher and his crew found her after a deadly 16 year search. A fantastic History of the Atocha is here. Anyway, there were countless treasure wrecks which went to the bottom during the Spanish conquests and many were found and salvaged. Many are still out there to be found some day in the future. Mel and his gang were lucky to find it in such shallow water. Not too far away it could have been several thousand feet deep and the search would have been much harder. Anyway, the point of this story is to show the passage that would have been taken by ships leaving the New World filled with treasures. The only chance we have of finding treasures in our waters here in the Eastern Caribbean I think is if a ship carrying currency back from Europe to the New World sank. This would have been a possibility. I have snorkeled on many wrecks from the Colonial period where we have found cargo destined for these islands. None that precious, but interesting all the same. Will write more another day on what those wrecks contained and looked like and more on why ships would have sunk here in the area. Barbuda has more wrecks than most places in the Caribbean.