Archaeologists have just found a shipwreck in the Caribbean just off the coast of Panama. The shipwreck could possibly reveal information about merchant ship traffic and trading in the areas around the Caribbean and the east coast of South America. Named the Encarnacíon, the ship is an extraordinary find for scientists and those who hunt for old pirate ships and other sunken vessels. Though, why should a shipwreck that occurred over 300 years ago be important today?
The Encarnacíon Spanish merchant ship sank in 1681 during a brutal storm on the Caribbean side of Panama. The ship was a Mexican-built cargo vessel that was a part of the Tierra Firme fleet, which was an the economic powerhouse ship on the trading route. Although it was found only in 40 feet of water, it seems to have avoided any looting from pirates. The shipwreck is also very well-preserved, which allows archaeologists better insight into the world 334 years ago.
Filipe Castro, a nautical archaeologist at Texas A&M University, believes that the Encarnacíon shipwreck offers an outstanding look into the major shifts in colonial world economic patterns. He explained that not much is know about the rise of capitalism across the southern Atlantic. Some of what was found in the shipwreck showed evidence of a rising middle class in the colonial settlements. This is due to the fact that around time, overseas colonies were beginning to flourish from increased material stockpiles to send back to Europe.
In the late 17th century, gold and silver mines in Mexico and in Peru in the western south American continent were the top contributor to the Spanish colony’s exports. Considering the shipwreck was found of the eastern side of South America, it would mean that travel routes exist from the mines to the coast. This may have caused an economic start up in areas that would be bases of trading and microcommerce.
The shipbuilding industry also began to see a major increase in production. To protect the transported riches from Caribbean pirates, armed merchants ships needed to be built. Spain had two primary merchant fleets, the New Spain and the Tierra Firme, the fleet in which the Encarnacíon sailed. The ships in the fleets transported raw materials from Central and South America and Mexico to Europe to be manufactured. Fritz Hanselman, leader of the research team at Texas A&M, stated that both ships were the, “backbone of the Spanish economy.”
This shipwreck is also an exciting find because it is very well-preserved. Jennifer McKinnon, a maritime archaeologist, stated that this ship is one of nearly 16 that have been found that are in good condition. “Ships that were built hundreds of years ago didn’t come with blueprints,” Hanselmann said. Since the shipwreck is loaded with 300-year-old cargo and a hull that is fully intact, the discovery could provide years of research for the team on how the ships were constructed and what kind of raw materials that were being sent back to Europe for processing.
Initially, Hanselmann and his team did not to set out to find the shipwreck in the Caribbean. The team was looking for other shipwrecks from the fleet of the infamous pirate Captain Henry Morgan. His fleet consisted of nearly 36 ships, five of which went down near the location in which the Encarnacíon was located at the mouth of the Chagres River just outside of Panama City after a brutal storm in 1670. Hanselmann says that by finding pirate shipwrecks near the Spanish merchant ships and recording the location in which they were found, archaeologists can track where the trade routes were.
By Alex Lemieux
Photo by Rhino Neal – Creativecommons Flickr License