Researchers are on the hunt for Cortés’ lost fleet
In July of 1519, in a brazen act that would upend history, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés ordered his men to sink all but one of the 11 ships they sailed from Cuba to Mexico on a supposed exploratory mission.
Nearly five hundred years later, the fleet’s final resting place remains undiscovered. But an international collaboration of underwater archaeologists is conducting the first modern-day search for the scuttled vessels, as well as 16 others that Cortés sank a year later. Their method: combining modern science and technology with local community knowledge to survey the seafloor for the remains of Cortés’ fleet.
The Lost Ships of Cortés Project is funded by a grant from the National Geographic Society awarded to Christopher Horrell, research fellow with The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. With additional resources and personnel from the underwater archaeology unit at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), this international team of researchers spent six weeks in the summer of 2018 surveying a 30-squaremile area offshore of the first Spanish town in North America, Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. Cortés established the town in 1519, 50 miles north of the modernday port city of Veracruz.
“Understanding the scuttling event is essential as it provides a window into the mindset and urgency Hernán Cortés likely felt as he prepared his company of men to march to Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital” Horrell said.
“Cortés had a mutiny he had to quell from men who wanted to return to Cuba, so scuttling those ships was his way of sealing their fate and forcing their allegiance,” said Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann, director of underwater archaeology at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and Fellow of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State. “So we know why, but how and where would he do it? Would he just float them offshore and say, ‘Oh the ships are gone?’ Or would he make an object lesson of it, and do it in plain sight?”
Hanselmann, a co-director of the Lost Ships of Cortes Project along with fellow co-directors Roberto Junco Sanchez, director of underwater archaeology for INAH, and Melanie Damour, an independent researcher lean toward the latter scenario.
And that’s where they made a tantalizing, albeit inconclusive discovery.
Their initial survey, in which they systematically towed a magnetometer behind a small boat to detect anomalies on the seafloor, led them to discover a historic anchor with a wellpreserved wooden stock.
“It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that anchors were consistently manufactured with iron stocks, so having a wooden stock indicates that it’s older,” Hanselmann said. “Uncovering it was pretty exciting, but we have to remain skeptical. As scientists, you have to remain objective and not jump to any conclusions until you do the analysis.”
Horrell added that the “stock’s preservation suggests that other wooden artifacts, including the ship’s remains, would likely be well preserved.”
A wood sample from the stock has been analyzed using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry and Carbon-14 dating techniques at the Physics Laboratory (LEMA) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) as well as Beta Analytic of Miami, Florida. Two date ranges have come back: AMS dating suggests that the wood was cut between 1417 and 1490 whereas Carbon-14 dating suggests a date range of 1450 to 1530. The Archeobotanical Laboratory at INAH determined that the wood species is a type of Red Oak that may be indigenous to Northern Spain; though additional analyses are ongoing. Interestingly, this area of Northern Spain includes the Basque Country where the manufacture of iron tools, fasteners, and anchors was common during the 15th through 19th centuries. These dates and wood species identification suggest that the anchor may be from the time that Cortés scuttled his vessels. Not far from where the anchor was discovered are a number of other anomalies that the archaeologists intend to investigate during future fieldwork.
“The number of targets is promising and requires systematic diver evaluation, excavation and documentation to either eliminate the anomaly from the list of potential targets or discover a shipwreck associated with the 1519 scuttling event,” Horrell said.
For now, the anchor remains where it was found. Without the means to analyze and preserve the artifact, the archaeologists followed protocol and reburied the anchor where it lay. Once the team acquires more funding, they plan to recover and conserve the anchor, and explore dozens of other anomalies recorded by the magnetometer.
The most interesting anomalies, which signal various degrees of ferrous, or iron, material hidden below, are clustered together, which could indicate multiple components of a shipwreck site.
“But it could also be a sunken marine buoy, a lobster trap, fishing tackle or other marine debris,” Hanselmann said. “You never know ’til you go and look.”
The volcanic geology of the area, which presents challenges by influencing the local magnetic field, could actually benefit the researchers in the long run.
“One working hypothesis is that Cortés’ vessels were stripped of their usable components, then loaded with local rocks to help ensure they sank,” Damour said. “The magnetic signature of volcanic rocks, clustered in the bottoms of the wooden hulls, may help lead to the fleet’s discovery. Even more importantly, the ballast would likely have helped to preserve the wooden hull beneath them.”
In all, the archaeologists are searching for the remains of two fleets of Spanish ships, sunk a year apart. The first: 10 of the 11 original vessels from Cortés’ fleet. The second: 16 of the 18 ships Cuban Governor Diego Velázquez dispatched to Mexico a year later with Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez and 800 soldiers aboard.
They had come to arrest Cortés, but after a short skirmish that left Narváez outmaneuvered and his soldiers eyeing the gold and silver Cortés took from the Aztecs, most of the newcomers willingly joined Cortés’ rogue mission. Not long after, with his small renegade army and a contingent of thousands of warriors from alliances with indigenous Aztec enemies, Cortés seized Tenochtitlán and conquered Mexico.
“The conquest was a very traumatic episode in our history that sparks the imagination of most Mexicans,” said Junco, of Mexico’s INAH. “We think of ourselves as heirs to a great prehistoric past that ended with foreign Spaniards. We hope to change the idea that our Spanish roots are foreign, and by looking at the technology of the first ships to sail our waters.”
In 1891, Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, a prominent Mexican historian and archaeologist, made the first known attempt to locate Cortés’ fleet — without, of course, the modern-day technology his successors have today.
“Utilizing hard helmet divers, he started underwater archaeology in Mexico and was one of the pioneers in this field of scientific research,” said Junco.
Believed to have been either lateen or a combination of lateen and squaresail-rigged caravels, little else is known about the vessels. Given that they weren’t laden with gold or other riches, they haven’t attracted treasure hunters who scour the seas for Spanish shipwrecks.
But to Horrell, Hanselmann, Junco and Damour, Cortés’ lost fleet offers a glimpse into the beginning of the conquest that ushered in a new era of globalization, connecting and reshaping different cultures, peoples, and nations across time.
“The conquest of Mexico was a seminal event in human history and these shipwrecks, if we can find them, are symbols of the collision of cultures that led to what most of the Western Hemisphere is today, geopolitically and socially,” Hanselmann said. “They are tangible connections to the story of our shared past.”
“Archaeology is all about discovering patterns of human behavior through the material remains people left behind,” Horrell said. “In this case, the shipwrecks and associated artifacts are the tangible remains that can recast the story of the conquest, providing a greater understanding of how our world has changed through time.”
Additional expedition support was provided by Marine Magnetics, YETI Coolers, Hypack, Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) and The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.
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