In September of 2010, a team of US archaeologists lead by Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann, Chief Underwater Archaeologist and Research Faculty with the River Systems Institute and the Center for Archaeological Studies at Texas State University, found six iron cannons off the coast of Panama belonging to infamous privateer (and rum icon), Captain Henry Morgan.
Fort San Lorenzo, on the left, guarded the entrance to the Chagres River. Captain Morgan sailed into the Chagres on his way to take Panama City, and lost 5 ships on the Lajas Reef seen in the foreground with waves breaking over it. (Photos: Jonathan Kingston/Captain Morgan)
Last summer the team discovered a 17th century wooden shipwreck believed to be one of the five ships Morgan lost in 1671 – including his flagship “Satisfaction” – on the shallow Lajas Reef at the mouth of the Chagres River.
This summer, with the help of the Captain Morgan rum brand, Fritz and the team headed back to Panama to excavate more historic artifacts from the wreck, hoping to confirm its origin as one of Morgan’s lost fleet. And I was invited to join them.
The bow of the ship contains dozens of wooden crates. The contents of the crates is being painstakingly documented and recovered
I asked Fritz why this particular find was so important, and he told me, “Morgan was one of the most infamous privateers of all time, so for me, this is a chance to use archaeological research to bridge the gap between science and pop culture. Most people associate Captain Morgan with spiced rum, but he was also an iconic historical figure who accomplished incredible feats throughout the Caribbean.
Locating his lost ships and being able to properly preserve and share them with the public is our ultimate goal with this project. We’re really close – and at the end of the day, his ships are down there and we’re going to find them.”
A quick primer on the real Captain Henry Morgan: While many consider him a pirate, Morgan was actually a “privateer.” Given a Letter of Marque by the British crown, he was sent to the Caribbean to take crucial parts of the Spanish Main from Spain. From 1664 to 1671 he led daring raids all through the Main, and amassed the largest fleet in the history of the Caribbean.
In 1670, he set his sights on Panama City, and while sailing into the mouth of the Chagres River, he ran his flagship and four others aground on the Lajas Reef. (He did still manage to secure the “impenetrable” Fort San Lorenzo, sail up the Chagres, march through the rainforest, and take Panama City.)
Although the wreck is fairly in tact, there are debris fields around the site
Members of the dive team map the wreck in grids before removing any artifacts
The tough part for Fritz and his team is not bringing the artifacts to the surface, but tracking the origin of those artifacts in order to authenticate this as one of Morgan’s ships. Since Morgan was a privateer who looted captured ships and plundered cities for supplies and arms, finding a Spanish sword or French gun on his boat would be just as likely as finding a British cannon, and wouldn’t likely rule it out as—or prove it is—one of Morgan’s ships.
The top photo is a photomosaic of the wreck site, and the bottom shows the graph created by the dive team to chart the location of artifacts
Working along the grid, divers map the artifacts found in the wreck before recovering them
Working on the ocean floor, especially during Panama's rainy season, can be difficult when disturbed sand decreases visibility
Sucking the sand out of the way can help expose an artifact to be removed
While we were at the dive site, Fritz and his team were able to recover a 17th century sword, covered in concretion (sand, rock, shells and other material that adheres to anything in the water over time), and missing its hilt. The size and shape of the sword, and the blood groove visible through the missing chunk of concretion, lead Fritz to believe it’s Spanish.
I asked Fritz how he can possibly recognize something like this, so completely covered in concretion as an artifact, and not just part of a reef, and he said, “We look for straight lines. Nature doesn’t create things with perfectly straight lines. When we see one we assume it’s something man made.”
A 17th century Spanish sword is brought up from the wreck. Because there is no archaeology supply store, the team has to get creative when recovering delicate artifacts. Here the sword is kept safe in a CD tower bought at a local mall, with a cut up yoga mat providing the cushioning
Fritz carefully takes the sword out of the water where it's been for almost 350 years, and on to the recovery boat. (Photo: Eric Rogell)
Fritz holding the sword after removing it from its protective cage (Photo: Eric Rogell)
A close-up of the sword's blood groove. (Photo: Eric Rogell)
Also brought up from the wreck were several small lead seals that were used to secure cargo. Crates would be wrapped in cloth and sealed with lead embossed with the owner’s mark. These could end up extremely helpful in tracing the origin of the ship.
Lead seals from wooden crates on the ship. Cloth was wrapped around the crates then sealed with lead and the owner's mark to prove they had remained sealed the entire journey. The cloth has long been disintegrated.
One of the lead seals after being cleaned and processed at Patronato Panama Viejo
Not a “privateer” or a treasure hunter himself, all the artifacts Fritz and his team finds are currently housed at Patronato Panamá Viejo (Old Panama Trust) in Panama City. There, they will undergo the extensive preservation process that includes the painstaking removal of concretion and extraction of salt from the metal, before being studied further and verified by London-based experts in English artillery.
Until then, the team will continue to explore the current shipwreck and search for the rest of Morgan’s lost fleet, hoping what they find can shine some more light on this legendary “Privateer” of the Caribbean.
One of the cannons recovered rests in a tank preparing for restoration
A recovered cannon after the removal of its concretion and salts
A close up of the marking on the cannon that will help artillery experts identify its origin
A cannonball sits in solution... for a long, long time. (Photo: Eric Rogell)
Four restored cannonballs await their move to the archive and museum (Photo: Eric Rogell)
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