Wreck discovered in Panama identified as Spanish ship from 1681 treasure fleet
It is not every day that a team of divers and investigators stumbles upon the wreck of a 17 th century Spanish merchant ship. The Encarnación (‘ Incarnation’) was part of a fleet of Merchant Ships that crossed between the New World and Spain along the various trade routes which fuelled the Spanish economy during a time of exuberance and wealth. Built in Veracruz, Mexico, for the Spanish empire, the Encanación was assigned to the Tierra Firme (meaning firm land) treasure fleet. In late 1681, the ship was caught by a terrible storm just off the coast of Panama, close to the entrance into the Chagres River. Tragically the vessel sank to its watery grave, coming to rest in less than 40 feet of water. There it sat for more than three centuries until its recent rediscovery.
The National Geographic reports that the wreck of the Encarnación was first discovered in 2011, but it has taken until now to positively identify the ship itself and thus come to know of its origin, route, and cargo. The remains of the vessel are in a surprisingly well preserved state; the Encarnación still has the bottom half of its hull intact, including wooden crates containing cargo – the merchant ship served a double purpose, it would take goods from Latin America to Europe and then return with European products to be sold at ports along this route.
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The Nao Victoria, a modern replica of a 16th century Spanish carrack. Photo from (staugustine.com)
On that fateful day in November 1681, the Tierra Firme fleet set out on its route from Cartagena, Colombia to Porto Bello, Panama. Not far along the journey they encountered a hurricane, and visibility became so poor that the fleet missed their destination entirely and instead sailed all the way on to the Naranjo’s Islands. Unfortunately, by the time the lead ship realized the mistake, the flotilla of vessels had already ended up among dangerous reefs.
It was the night of the 29th November, when the disaster began to unfold. Despite continuous gale force winds, several of the vessels successfully weighed anchor and so saved themselves from potential disaster. But not all were so lucky. During the storm, the Boticaria came aground on the reefs, with the hull holed she eventually went down after a full three days of struggles. The fate of the Boticaria would later be seen as somewhat fortunate compared to its sister ship, the El Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, which had been destroyed during a head on collision with rocks, killing the owner and many of his crew.
Although we do not have the exact date upon which the Encarnación went down, it now seems likely that this occurred on the 3 rd of December when disaster struck the fleet yet again. This time, as they neared the mouth of the Chagres River, a location also known as Punta de Brujas (‘The Witch’s Point’). Historical records record that two further ships were lost to the churning sea near to this point – the Chaperon and the Tartana. It would now appear that the Encarnación went down with them.
The remaining parts of the Encarnación were discovered by a team of researchers searching for the shipwrecks of Captain Henry Morgan´s fleet of five vessels, wrecked on route to a planned sacking of Panama City, in 1670. The team from the Meadows Centre for Water and Environment of the Texas State University made this surprising discovery when their metal sensitive sensor equipment made them aware of an undersea anomaly.
Stunning photograph taken by Jonathan King with a full image of the Encarnación, off the Panama Coast. National Geographic Creative (news.nationalgeographic.com)
"These ships were the backbone of the Spanish colonies," archaeologist Fritz Hanselmann told the National Geographic. It is quite possible that without them, the Spanish Economy would never have been what it once was. These Merchant Ships made it possible for the Spanish Court to sustain itself during the time of fierce colonization and greed for wealth and power.
Charles II, King of Spain, who ruled during the time of the Encarnación. Portrait by Juan Carreño de Miranda, 1685. (Wikimedia Commons)
Hanselmann also commented that apart from being in a very good condition, it contained a number of items which had been identified in its cargo including wooden barrels, wooden boxes, sword blades, scissors, mule shoes, nails, ceramics and more. The ship’s hull had been coated in a specific material called Granel. This substance, which is a permanent ballast, was used by the ship builders of the past to keep a vessel steady in the water. It now seems that it also inadvertently helped to keep the wreck in a good condition.
"In addition to what we can learn from the artifacts, the hull remains will inform us about Old World ship construction techniques using New World materials," project archaeologist Melanie Damour said in a statement.
Map from the Panamanian Center for Research and Social Action. (panamahistorybits.com)
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The Encarnación has finally allowed naval historians to fill in many of the blanks regarding 17 th century Spanish ships of the New World. During the time of heavy European capitalization, these ships were keeping Europe’s economy going. Spain was forever looking to expand its reign over new territories and in doing so, the new demand for increased trade made the ships take longer and more dangerous routes, sailing for greater periods and bringing with it more risk of falling victim to piracy or being shipwrecked by storms.
The Encarnación has lain in a long silent sleep off the Panama coastline, the truth about what really happened in its final moments will perhaps never be known, the only story it can tell will come from what is found in its hull amongst the cargo. We can only assume it was a terrible moment for the crew and any passengers on board as they realized all was lost.
Featured Image: A diver inspects wooden crates on a 17th-century Spanish shipwreck discovered off Panama. May 2015. Photo by Jonathan Kingston. National Geographic Creative (news.nationalgeographic.com)